Loop funding: Truck rerouting finally to become reality

Funding for Cameron County’s S.H. 32 East Loop Project is officially part of the $85 billion, 10-year statewide Transportation Program announced by the Texas Department of Transportation on Wednesday.

The UTP is a planning document used to authorize highway projects for development and construction. The East Loop will connect the Port of Brownsville with Veterans Bridge at Los Tomates via the recently opened South Port Connector at S.H. 4 and what is now East University Boulevard at I-69E just north of Veterans Bridge. The total cost of the project is about $113.4 million, according to County Administrator Peter Sepulveda Jr.

The project, which has been on the county’s wish list for decades, is important because it will get overweight commercial trucks out of the densely populated portion of Brownsville from the bridge to the port, he said.

“Today the overweight corridor is on (S.H.) 48, where the accident rate is 10 times the state average, only because of the number of commercial vehicles that are carrying an overweight, up to 120,000 pounds,” Sepulveda said. “We’re making the new overweight corridor a lot safer, through a lot less congested rural area.”

An aerial view of the Port of Brownsville Port Connector Road that will be part of the East Loop Project which will create the East Loop Corridor for trucks traveling form Mexico and the Veterans International Bridge at Los Tomates to the Port of Brownsville and will reduce congestion on I-69 East and State Highway 48. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

The East Loop project was included in the draft UTP released in July, though that didn’t guarantee it would make the final cut, he said.

“Obviously things can change from a draft to the final, but it’s really, really good news that it remained in the final document,” Sepulveda said. “That will really set us up for next year. Hopefully this time next year we can have the project environmentally clear and move on from there.”

The project has enough of the total funding to get it through design phase, which will happen in about a year, he said. Next comes acquisition of right-of-way and then the construction phase, at which point the balance of necessary funds will be delivered, Sepulveda said. The money will come from a combination of federal and state sources, plus some percentage of local match yet to be determined, he said, adding that it’s reasonable to anticipate a 2024 groundbreaking.

A number of other projects are contained in the 2023 UTP for the TxDOT’s Pharr District, made up of Brooks, Jim Hogg, Kenedy, Starr, Willacy and Zapata counties in addition to Cameron and Hidalgo Counties.

“There are some projects along U.S. 77 that got funded, and so that will get us closer to getting the seamless interstate from Corpus (Christi) down to Brownsville.”

An aerial view of East University Boulevard and I-69 East (U.S. 77/83) that will be part of the East Loop Project that will travel between State Highway 4 along with the Port Connector Road to Veterans International Bridge at Los Tomates. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

The UTP includes $138.1 million for U.S. 77 upgrades in Kenedy County, and $146.4 million for upgrades to U.S. 281 in Hidalgo County.

For Cameron County’s part, “we fared very well and we’re continuing developing the projects, making progress, so that next year we can start closing the funding gaps on different projects,” Sepulveda said.

TxDOT said in its announcement the 2023 UTP contains an “unprecedented level of projected transportation funding dedicated to improving transportation safety, addressing congestion and rural connectivity, and preserving roadways for Texas drivers.”

The $25.6 million, two-mile South Port Connector, the first phase of the East Loop project, was completed and became operational late last year.