Saturday, July 07, 2007

Toll roads trump freeways in the Rio Grande Valley

Valley highway travel could take a toll

July 7, 2007

By ALLEN ESSEX, Valley Morning Star
The Brownsville Herald
Copyright 2007

PHARR — Toll roads being planned by the Texas Department of Transportation will provide quicker access to any point in the Rio Grande Valley without burdening taxpayers with more debt, state officials say.

TxDOT District Engineer Mario Jorge said to forget images of Valley motorists fumbling for change in long lines at tollbooths.

Instead, cars would have an emblem attached to the windshield that would be scanned in much the same way items are scanned at supermarket checkout counters.

The tolls would either be billed to credit cards or motorists would have to buy a certain number of credits in advance by paying cash.

“We haven’t figured it out yet,” Jorge said of the system.

Four toll road projects planned in Hidalgo County will form a loop about 100 miles long around the urban part of the county, Jorge said.

Two other toll roads planned in Hidalgo County will not be part of the loop, he said. One would run from the Starr County Line to Farm-to-Market Road 1427 and is projected to cost $138 million; the other would run from Expressway 83 to Spur 600 (Pharr Connector) and is projected to cost $100 million.

Only two of the toll roads proposed for the Valley will be in Cameron County, and both will loop around Brownsville, Jorge said.

The west loop will be built from Expressway 77/83 to the Brownsville & Matamoros Bridge near the former Amigoland Mall, he said.

“Cameron County is working on that,” Jorge said. The county will acquire the railroad right-of-way and do preliminary engineering work on the project.

“We’re looking at it as a potential toll road. It will be a direct connection from (the expressway) to the B&M Bridge, so it has very good potential.”

The toll road will pass right by the former Amigoland Mall, where a branch campus of the University of Texas-Brownsville is now located, he said.

“That will be very positive to have the west loop in place,” he said. The university branch campus and other offices being located at the former mall will have quick access to the expressway, he said.

The Brownsville east loop toll road will be a connection from the Veterans Memorial Bridge at Los Tomates Bend to the Port of Brownsville, Jorge said. “It will be about 12 miles.”

David Allex of Harlingen, chairman of the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, said the planned toll roads will not only give rapid connections to all points in the Valley, but also to the interstate highway system through the already upgraded portions of Expressway 77 and Highway 281, north of Harlingen, Brownsville and Greater McAllen.

Equally important is connecting the northern half of the Valley to the southern half, including Matamoros and Reynosa, Mexico, with their burgeoning maquiladora industrial areas and huge population growth, he said.

Allex, who headed the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce for more than 30 years, and brought in major businesses and industries such as Southwest Airlines, General Dynamics (which became Lockheed Martin) and Fruit of the Loom, said local leaders need to have the vision of a toll road looping around the entire area with a population of more than 1 million.

Now a private business and industry consultant, he spends as much time working in Mexico as in South Texas, Allex said.

“It’s an area 80 miles long and 60 miles wide,” he said of the Valley.

“The Rio Grande is just a street with water in it,” he said, noting the business, family and industry connections that exist between Mexico and Texas.

The Valley needs to become united and think of itself as an economic region that is competing with other regions and nations, instead of just cities and counties competing with each other as well as with Mexico, he said.

“We can’t sit around on our big, fat butts, or we’re going to be (in trouble),” he said.

All the projects in Cameron and Hidalgo Counties are being done in cooperation with the counties’ engineering departments, Jorge said.

Environmental studies are being done on each segment, he said. Counties are working on obtaining rights-of-way and doing preliminary engineering work, he said.

© 2007 The Brownsville Herald:

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