Harlingen breaks ground on $20 million air traffic control tower

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The FAA awarded Harlingen’s Valley International Airport a $4.5 million grant for a new control tower. These renderings show the airport’s concept for the planned tower. (Courtesy photo)

HARLINGEN — A $20 million project to build a new air traffic control tower marks Valley International Airport’s opening of a “pivotal” era, area and state leaders said Wednesday.

In a ceremony launching the project’s groundbreaking, Mayor Norma Sepulveda, airport board Chairman George McShan and U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez took to the podium along with State Sen. Morgan LaMantia and State Rep. Janie Lopez, with comments from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. John Cornyn’s office.

Amid growing air traffic, officials are planning construction of the 120-foot air control tower expected to open in about two years.

“Today marks a significant milestone in our community’s progress and future,” Sepulveda told the crowd under a canopy standing across the airport’s tarmac. “This new air traffic control tower is a landmark project, significant not just for its once-in-a-generation scale, but also for its impact. It enhances our operational capabilities and safety, ensuring Valley International can meet future demands.”

As officials launch the project, they’re completing the $35 million construction of the longest runway south of Austin, aiming to boost the airport’s cargo operations.

“This tower, alongside the runway extension project and new high-tech aircraft approaches set to become operational in the next 60 days, symbolizes our leap into a future where Harlingen becomes a central node for passenger air traffic in the Rio Grande Valley,” Sepulveda said. “These advancements are crucial not only for our airport but also for the city of Harlingen and the broader region. They will enable us to handle more traffic efficiently, improve safety and facilitate larger aircraft. Collectively, these improvements will fortify our position as a pivotal hub in South Texas, boosting connectivity and economic vitality.”

The new tower will replace the airport’s aging 65-foot tower built in 1971, George McShan, the airport board’s chairman, told the crowd.

“Today marks not just a milestone for the airport but also a pivotal moment for our community and the broader National Airspace System,” McShan told the audience.

“For decades, our current tower has served us well, but it was built in a different era, with limitations that we can no longer overlook,” he said. “It’s a facility that has become inadequate due to structural issues, technological constraints and critical operational inefficiencies. Today, we turn a new leaf. We are not just constructing a new building — we are enhancing our capacity to serve the millions who rely on us each year, ensuring their safety with a modern, efficient and resilient infrastructure.”

A view of the current Air Traffic Control Tower at Valley International Airport as leaders from federal and state representatives, city officials, airport board, and FAA officials attend a groundbreaking ceremony of Harlingen’s anticipated new tower at Valley International Airport on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

After years of planning, Marv Esterly, the airport’s aviation director, hailed the event as an “historic groundbreaking ceremony.”

“This project marks a significant milestone in our continuous effort to enhance and expand our facilities to better serve the citizens of the Rio Grande Valley,” he said.

“Over the past decade, Valley International has not only witnessed tremendous growth but also demonstrated a remarkable recovery from the impacts of the pandemic,” Esterly said. “Our resilience and ability to adapt quickly have ensured that we continue to serve as a vital link in the region’s economic fabric, even during the most challenging times.”

”Valley International Airport is undeniably a major asset for the Rio Grande Valley. With its enormous potential for further growth and expansion, it is poised to serve the diverse needs of our community for many years to come,” he said. “As we break ground on this state-of-the-art air traffic control tower, we reaffirm our commitment to safety, efficiency and innovation.”

“Today, as we embark on this new chapter with the construction of our advanced (air traffic control tower), we are also celebrating the near completion of our runway extension project and new special CAT II instrument landing systems,” Esterly said. “Together, these initiatives are set to significantly enhance our operational capabilities and ensure that Valley International remains the airport of choice in South Texas.”

For air traffic controllers, the new tower “will enhance safety, improving visibility and reducing blind spots while offering advanced technology integration for better monitoring and response capabilities,” Esterly said in document released before the ceremony. “The tower will increase the airport’s operational efficiency, allowing for more precise and quicker communication between controllers and aircraft, streamlining air traffic management to help reduce delays while optimizing flight schedules.”

On the ground, the tower will “enhance emergency response, better equipping the officials to handle emergencies with faster and more effective coordination while enhancing the airport’s capability to serve as a critical infrastructure component in regional emergency planning,” he said.

Across the Valley, the project will help spur economic growth, “supporting regional economic development through increased airport capacity and efficiency while attracting more airlines and routes, including international (flights), boosting local tourism and business,” Esterly said. “While expanding capacity, the tower will help the airport handle more air traffic without compromising safety or service quality, accommodating future growth in air travel demand and strengthening the airport’s role as a key hub in the national airspace system.”

The tower “will incorporate the latest in air traffic control technology, keeping the airport at the forefront of aviation industry standards while ensuring compatibility with national and international air safety and traffic protocols,” he said.

Within the environment, more “efficient air traffic routes will reduce fuel consumption and emissions, supporting the airport’s sustainability goals through better resource management,” Esterly said.

For the airport’s staff, the tower will offer “a modern, ergonomic workplace for air traffic controllers and officials, enhancing job satisfaction and reducing fatigue while boosting morale and productivity,” he said.