BY STEVE CLARK
Despite the fact that 2020 is a year everyone would like to forget, it did bring welcome news in terms of future transportation funding for Brownsville and Cameron County.
In August the Texas Department of Transportation’s Unified Transportation Program 2021 project funding plan was announced. The 10-year UTP plan includes serious funding for major projects the county has been trying to get done for decades in some cases. Those include the $96.6 million East Loop Corridor Project to connect the Port of Brownsville with Veterans International Bridge at Los Tomates via overweight-grade roadway, $22.5 million to expand F.M. 1732 from two to four lanes from Military Highway to I-69E at Olmito, and $7.5 million to extend F.M. 509 to the Outer Parkway in Harlingen.
County Administrator Pete Sepulveda Jr. said earlier in the year that the F.M. 509 extension is a first step toward linking I-69E with the Los Indios Free Trade Bridge via the Outer Parkway and will pull heavy truck traffic out of densely populated areas. Widening heavily trafficked F.M. 1732 and adding a middle turning lane will improve safety on that road, he said.
The UTP plan also features money to advance the long sought after goal of connecting Brownsville to the rest of the United States by interstate highway. The transformation of the remaining non-interstate-grade stretches of U.S. 77 is underway, albeit slowly. The plan contains $540 million to upgrade U.S. 77 — the future I-69E — in Cameron, Kenedy, Kleberg and Willacy counties, including $115 million for the Riviera Relief Route, which was roughly halfway complete in August.
Sepulveda welcomed the UTP news back then, noting that the East Loop Corridor Project for instance had “probably been on the books for three decades and that “it’s great to finally see it in the plan.”
He and other officials attributed the county’s favorable showing in the UTP plan to the Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization, the product of the 2019 merger of the Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito, and Hidalgo County MPOs. MPOs are responsible for planning, programming and coordinating federal funding of highways and transit.
Despite its newcomer status, the RGV MPO in 2020 received the top award from the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations.
Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez made the nomination in the MPO Coordination and Partnership category, though AMPO’s panel of judges were impressed enough that they awarded the RGV MPO the organization’s highest honor: Outstanding Transportation Management Award. Mendez said in October that the merger, creating the fifth largest MPO in the state, was the right thing to do and that the AMPO award underscored the wisdom of a regional approach to transportation planning and funding.
“In retrospect it was huge,” he said. “The funding that we’ve been able to now have access to is significant.”