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The I-69E project for a boost with TxDOT committing $364 million toward improvements for U.S. 77 in Kenedy County. (Courtesy: TxDOT)

A massive project to turn U.S. 77 into interstate I-69E all the way between Brownsville and Corpus Christi just took a major step forward with the Texas Department of Transportation pledging $364 million for interstate upgrades in Kenedy County.

TxDOT said $191 million of the funds are for building main lanes and overpasses along U.S. 77 from 1.46 miles north of Norias Road to 1.34 miles north of the Kenedy-Willacy county line, and that construction is set to start in late spring or early summer. TxDOT said another $173 million will be awarded this fall for similar improvements to U.S. 77 from 9.6 miles north to 1.46 miles north of Norias Road.

Meanwhile, the Rio Grande Valley’s metro areas are still the largest in the nation not connected to the rest of the contiguous United States by interstate.

Pete Alvarez, TxDOT Pharr District engineer, said the Kenedy County project will entail building overpasses “every five miles or so” for emergency vehicle turnarounds and to provide access to the area’s big ranches.

“Both of these projects have two lanes in each direction with shoulders, and in the future they will have two-lane main lanes in each direction,” he said. “We’re adding overpasses and we’re adding frontage roads at the major ranch entrances.”

Pete Sepulveda Jr., executive director of the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, described TxDOT’s latest investment in the I-69E project as a very big deal.

“That gets us closer to having a seamless interstate from Corpus to Brownsville,” he said. “We’re not done yet. I think we’re lacking about another $200 million, but we’re hoping that with the next (Unified Transportation Program) we’ll get that funding and we’ll be able to complete that interstate corridor.

“That’s huge news for the area, especially with all the ongoing activity with SpaceX and the LNGs. That just absolutely complements everything that’s going on in Cameron County.”

The I-69E project for a boost with TxDOT committing $364 million toward improvements for U.S. 77 in Kenedy County. (Courtesy: TxDOT)

TxDOT’s Unified Transportation Program is a 10-year plan that guides the development of transportation projects around the state. UTP 2025 is being worked on right now and will be approved this August, Sepulveda said. The very earliest planning efforts to convert U.S. 77 to interstate began probably three decades ago, and major construction activity about 15 years ago, he said. The Kenedy County projects will add approximately 16 lane miles to I-69E.

The I-69E bypass around Driscoll in Nueces County is complete, allowing motorists to save about 15 minutes of driving time and avoid a notorious speed trap.

“Riviera is coming,” Sepulveda said. “My understanding is that the right-of-way has been acquired. I think the letting for that project is in (2025), so that is just around the corner. The entire I-69E project could be in complete in as little as three years if funding comes through in time, he said, noting that pending U.S. 77 projects have been environmentally cleared, with rights-of-way secured and engineering underway.

The I-69E project for a boost with TxDOT committing $364 million toward improvements for U.S. 77 in Kenedy County. (Courtesy: TxDOT)

“So that’s exciting,” Sepulveda said. “We’ve got to keep in mind that we need U.S. 281 as well converted to interstate. They’re lacking some segments as well, but they’re working on them. Those are going to be important to be able to keep up with the growth in population and the growth in land development that’s going to occur as a result of all the industry that’s coming into the whole Rio Grande Valley.”

The total cost of upgrading U.S. 77 to interstate may come in at around $1 billion, he said. And while such ambitious road projects inevitably take many years to complete, especially when state and federal funds are involved, “we’ve got the momentum,” Sepulveda said.

“We’ve got a commissioner (Alex Meade) on the (Texas Transportation) Commission from the Rio Grande Valley that’s fighting for us, and we look forward to working with him and the chairman and the other commissioners and all the TxDOT staff to ensure that we’ll have a seamless interstate corridor coming into the Rio Grande Valley,” he said. “It’s really amazing what’s going to transpire the next couple of years here.”