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South Texas Town Holds Out Hope Bridge Will Pay Off

Fri October 05, 2012 - West Edition

DONNA, Texas (AP) With room for eight lanes to carry traffic to and from Mexico, the Donna International Bridge could easily handle thousands of cars and heavy trucks daily, pouring toll money into city coffers.

But instead of the bustle and congestion of a typical South Texas border crossing, an orderly calm prevails here. At times, the afternoon traffic is so light that the single, bored toll collector has time to chat between arriving cars.

With its second anniversary approaching, the bridge is still losing thousands of dollars a day, and the multifaceted $900 million development complex planned for 1,000 acres on the U.S. side exists only in colorful, two-dimensional depictions.

This wasn’t what folks had in mind when they borrowed $30 million to build a bridge across the Rio Grande. Instead of growth and money, so far it’s only brought Donna the highest tax rate in Hidalgo County.

“It’s like having a kid in college, in his freshman year. We’re still paying for the books and all the expenses,” said City Manager Oscar Ramirez, who said city taxpayers are underwriting about $7,400 in bridge debt and operating costs each day.

“We have been working with factors beyond our control, but we are being responsible parents,” added Ramirez, who believes that, like a college graduate, the bridge will become an economic driver and revenue producer.

Set amid cane fields about 10 miles east of the prosperous Pharr International Bridge, the Donna Bridge provides an example of the risks, political complexities and financial uncertainties of tackling such an ambitious project.

For starters, no one anticipated that drug cartel violence would turn northern Mexico into a no-man’s land about the time the bridge was completed, dramatically reducing crossings.

For Donna, a working-class community of only 16,500, there was little room for error.

“We’re a small community, less than 10 square miles,” said Mayor David Simmons. “Our largest employer is the school district. The second largest is the city. So that tells you what we have right there.”

The mayor, who inherited the project, said car traffic has slowly increased since the bridge opened in December 2010 and jumps each time operating hours are extended.

At most Valley bridges, southbound trucks pay $20 and cars $3 to cross. But since the Donna Bridge does not carry trucks, the only revenue comes from the 1,200 cars that cross daily. City officials say 500 southbound trucks a day would put the bridge in the black.

“The city will recover after a while. We’re really fighting to get that empty truck traffic. Eventually we want the full truck traffic. That’s where the money is to be made, commercial traffic,” the mayor said

The city is even willing to pay for an inspection station so federal agents can process empty trucks, he said. “But will the federal government man this facility? We don’t know.”

The Donna Bridge is the newest of 11 spans that cross the Rio Grande between Brownsville and Roma. Together they record about 120,000 truck crossings and 1.8 million car crossings each month, and in some places compete with each other.

For example, operators of both the Donna Bridge and Anzalduas Bridge, which opened in 2009 near Mission, are eager to carry heavy truck traffic, something that hinges on federal approval.

The operators of the Pharr Bridge, 10 mi. upstream, which has a monopoly on commercial traffic in this part of the Valley, are in no rush to share their bonanza of 40,000 paying trucks a month.

“We’re far from being at capacity,” said Jesse Medina, director of the Pharr Bridge, who doesn’t expect competition for at least five years. And by the time that happens, he said, Pharr will be fine, in part because of anticipated increases in shipping of Mexican produce.

“We can lose half our traffic and still do very well financially. And we’re not just sitting on our seats. We’re marketing the area for the perishables that can be exported to the United States on a fast-track basis,” he said.

Late last month, the Valley’s bridge operators met for two days in Brownsville with state and federal transportation officials, as well as their Mexican counterparts, to work on a Border Master Plan.

The bi-national effort is intended to coordinate and prioritize border infrastructure development. Each bridge operator came with specific wants and needs, most of them dependent on federal money and staffing.

The master plan for the Rio Grande Valley, including a ranking of projects, will be published sometime late next spring, and will serve as a guide to federal agencies responsible for manning the international bridges and other ports of entry.

“The idea is to bring federal, state and local agencies together and come up with a list of prioritized projects, so scarce federal resources can be assigned appropriately,” said Jolanda Prozzi, an analyst with Texas Transportation Institute who is working on the plan.

While Donna has heard plenty of sharp criticism and second-guessing since its bridge opened, to some extent, it is a victim of unforeseeable circumstances.

When the project was being planned a few years ago, no one predicted that the violence in Mexico would cut private vehicle crossings on some Valley bridges in half, with Rio Bravo, the city just across the Rio Grande from Donna, becoming the scene of shootouts, kidnappings and assassinations.

Also unforeseen was the current scarcity of federal money needed for staff and inspection stations.

As the mayor and others have noted, the traffic and revenue forecasts made by Donna’s various bridge consultants proved to be optimistic, as did the expectation that Donna would quickly handle heavy trucks.

“The Donna Bridge is not a bad idea. It’s a great idea. The problem is they opened when people were not going to Mexico. The bottom had fallen out,” said Medina, director of the Pharr Bridge.

“And, they were expecting commercial traffic and I think they were taken advantage of there. They paid a lot of money for bad information, for pie in the sky,” he said.

Competition among the bridge interests in the McAllen area is polite but intense, with each group having its own lobbyists and own agendas. And none are above mildly disparaging the others to an inquiring reporter.

McAllen City Manager Michael Perez, whose city owns about half the Anzalduas Bridge, said it’s the obvious choice for increased commercial traffic because it sits between a large maquiladora complex in Reynosa and a foreign trade zone on the U.S. side.

“Hopefully, you’ll let market forces dictate what happens. And if you were on the west side of Reynosa, what would cause you to drive to Donna or Pharr to cross?” he asked.

“It makes a lot of business sense, but we can’t seem to convince the people in Washington on the political side,” he said.

In Donna, city leaders are sticking with their plan to steadily expand bridge services, and say someday the city will have truck traffic and reap the financial rewards. Until then, the bridge will have to be subsidized.

“We’re not looking for vindication. We’re professionals. We have a vision, and we’re trying to make the wisest decisions to get ourselves there,” said Ramirez, the city manager.

“If we didn’t have the bridge, we’d still be a sleepy town trying to bring in big business. A port of entry gives us an advantage other cities don’t have.”

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