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Lower Rio Grande Valley Residents Voice Opinions About New Interstate

Sat February 23, 2008 - West Edition
Christopher Sherman - ASSOCIATED PRESS

McALLEN, Texas (AP) In other parts of the state, transportation officials try to allay property owners’ fears that a superhighway from Laredo north to Texarkana will result in a massive land grab. But in the lower Rio Grande Valley, the state’s road builders spend more time assuring local leaders that they have a shot at being included.

People in the fast-growing border area between Brownsville and McAllen have developed something of an inferiority complex about being the state’s largest metropolitan area without an interstate highway.

One after another, Valley leaders stepped to a microphone at public meetings and made their case to be part of I-69 — also known as the Trans Texas Corridor — to officials from the Texas Department of Transportation.

More than a million people live on the U.S. side of the Valley, they said. Hidalgo County is one of the fastest growing in the country. Valley counties are some of the nation’s poorest, who could benefit from the estimated 40,000 jobs the highway construction could bring.

“The only way the rest of Texas is going to thrive is if they invest money in infrastructure in South Texas,” said J.D. Salinas, the top executive in Hidalgo County, a border county that includes McAllen.

Salinas and other local leaders did not beg as local dignitaries are prone to do when the state comes to town. There was an edge to their comments that came with a sense of entitlement and injustice, so much so that they asked for not one but two interstate spurs.

“We don’t want to be treated like second-class Texans,” McAllen City Manager Mike Perez said at a public hearing Feb. 6.

“It’s really a tragedy that we’ve spent the last 52 years trying to catch up to the interstate system,” former Mission Mayor Ricardo Perez said a week earlier at a town hall meeting in Weslaco, referring to the federal interstate system’s founding in 1956.

Hope Andrade, interim chairwoman of the Texas Transportation Commission tried to soothe their concerns.

“I think this project is more of a reality than it has ever been,” she said in Weslaco.

Interstate 69 has been in the works since 1991.

In 2002, Gov. Rick Perry unveiled his Trans Texas Corridor plan that would incorporate the already imagined I-69. Passenger lanes would be supplemented with truck-only lanes, rail lines and utilities in a corridor that could be a quarter-mile wide in places as it stretched 650 mi. north to south across the state.

In a December 2005 speech, much quoted by Valley leaders such as Cameron County Commissioner David Garza, Perry called for an interstate to link the lower Rio Grande Valley with the rest of the state.

Perry said the corridor would improve commerce, create jobs and help the state deal with a projected population surge. McAllen, for example, has experienced 19 percent population growth since 2000, now with 126,000 people.

How to pay for a project estimated to cost as much as $200 billion has become one of the prime points of contention raising hackles from the tax averse and stirring chauvinistic fervor.

The state is partnering with the private sector, which will front the money and likely recoup it through tolls. One of the companies competing for the business is Spain-based Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA.

Many of the dozens of people at the hearings were in favor of the Trans Texas Corridor, but a few people echoed the concerns of their northern neighbors.

The issue of foreign involvement and the toll road’s effect on the poor drew some of the strongest criticism from a group donned in T-shirts supporting Texas Congressman and GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul.

Keren Gomez of Mission was nearly moved to tears listing the ills the Trans Texas Corridor would inflict on Texas. She said the toll road would only serve the rich and limit the poor’s ability to travel.

State officials have said toll-free lanes will continue even if parallel toll lanes are built.

Kevin Ramsey of McAllen, another Paul supporter, cited tolls, air pollution from increased traffic and the amount of private property that would be condemned in arguing against the corridor.

“I wish this was a bigger issue for people in the Valley,” he said, bemoaning the relatively small attendance.

Perhaps the crowds were thin because it is such an old, painful issue in the Valley or maybe because it is still a long way off.

The state is gathering public input on a plan that narrows the potential corridors and recommends them for a second study if the federal government approves. That second is when the state will take a close look at including U.S. 77 and U.S. 281 in the lower Valley. If that wins federal approval, sections will be built based on transportation need.

Mario Jorge, the department’s district engineer in Pharr, said they believe there would be enough room in the existing rights of way to expand either or both of those highways. That’s critical because it would be difficult to win federal approval for more road space through the historic King Ranch to the north, he said.

Jorge said the I-69 plan does receive a different reception in the Valley.

Repeating the chorus about it being the largest metro area without an interstate, he said, “the growth is so tremendous here, they see the need.”

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