PHARR — The city of Pharr, the Texas Department of Transportation and Dragados-Pulice Joint Venture broke ground Tuesday morning on the long-awaited Interstate 2 interchange expansion.

J. Bruce Bugg Jr., Chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, speaks during a I-2/I-69C Interchange ground breaking on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, and state Reps. Terry Canales and Sergio Muñoz along with Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez were all on-hand to share details about the $303 million project.

Hernandez said safety was one of the main reasons behind the new interstate project.

“We’ve had many fatalities on this interchange. Fatalities,” Hernandez reiterated. “We’ve had semis, automobiles, buses be involved, and we no longer in 2015 would accept that as normal. That is not normal. For safety purposes, for commercial purposes, for commerce, just to get to your work, we should have safe routes, safe arteries to move about.”

The project will see lanes expanding from three to four lanes both ways, spanning about 8 miles; 3 miles west to Second Street in McAllen, 3 miles east to FM 2557, and 2 miles north to Nolana Loop. Officials anticipate the project being completed by Fall 2023.

Pedro Alvarez, an engineer with the Texas Department of Transportation, said the project was a much-needed improvement to alleviate the flow of traffic in the area which has grown significantly since the original interchange was first built 30 years ago, from 25,000 average daily traffic to 125,000.

“Initially this project was just going to be the four direct connectors — the four bridges. However we looked at an opportunity to improve the safety and traffic operation improvements,” Alvarez said at the beginning of the ceremony. “That’s why the project’s goal was expanded.”

Bugg announced that he and Gov. Greg Abbott increased funding in the area from $595 million in 2015 to $2.2 billion, an increase of 270% in the Unified Transportation Program.

Construction workers listen to speeches during a I-2/I-69C Interchange ground breaking on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

He said he and the governor understand the important role that the Rio Grande Valley plays in the state’s economy, which they took into consideration when deciding to increase funding in the area, as well as the population growing by over 9% since 2010.

“This is becoming an economic powerhouse,” Bugg said. “With the RGV coming together, I recommended and the governor also recommended that you all merge each of the separate MPOs (Metropolitan Planning Organizations) and try to think regionally.”

The Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization, which consists of the Hidalgo County MPO, Harlingen-San Benito MPO, the Brownsville MPO, and will soon include Starr County — came to fruition in 2019. It is this merger of a united MPO in the Valley that has helped draw more funding to the region, particularly the $2.2 billion in funding for the Pharr TxDOT district.

Members of the Pharr Fire Rescue Honor guard practice their moves before start of the I-2/I-69C Interchange ground breaking on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Bugg praised Hinojosa and Canales’ work in merging the MPOs, as well as the work that Hernandez has put in as chairman.

“The result is that the funding has increased 270% from 2015 to now 2022,” Bugg said. “That’s a historic amount of funding for this area. Never in the history of the state of Texas has so much funding come to the Rio Grande Valley.”

Hernandez said Tuesday the project was a result of the Valley putting its “Friday night mentality” away and working together as one region.

“As mayor of Pharr and chairman of the RGV MPO, it’s an exciting time for us,” Hernandez said. “We wanted to highlight to all our residents in the Rio Grande Valley and the state of Texas, ‘Look, we’re working together. We’re turning dirt. We’re making a difference.’ Now there’s over $2 billion in infrastructure money coming in. We’re all going to benefit. It’s not going to be just Pharr, McAllen, Brownsville. It’s all of us, and the state of Texas can see the return in its investment. We’re seeing more commerce, more job opportunities, more economic growth. It’s a win for everybody.”