Second causeway project stalled


Staff Writer

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — After the Queen Isabella Causeway partially collapsed in 2001, Island residents had to ride a ferryboat to get to and from the mainland.

The city turned into a ghost town and it wreaked economic havoc in the county.

A barge had struck the bridge that led to the collapse of a 160-foot section to the only bridge that connects the Island to the mainland.

Eight people died after driving off the section of the bridge 80 feet above the Laguna Madre.

The tragedy underscored the need for a second causeway to serve as a backup for evacuation purposes.

Many people also wonder why there isn’t another access on and off the Island — especially during peak seasons when cars back up bumper to bumper before and after special events.

Many say the need will only grow as the Valley’s population is expected to double by 2040.

“The need for a second causeway is there and it will always be there,” said Pete Sepulveda, Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority executive director.

But while officials say the need is there, the project is at a standstill.

What is the drawback?

Sepulveda reported to Island leaders recently the project to build a second causeway is near the end of completing the environmental summary.

However, the environmental study cannot be completed until TxDOT lifts a ban on all Texas toll road projects.

“We are still waiting to get a phone call (from TxDOT) to complete the environmental phase,” Sepulveda said about the TxDOT freeze on toll road projects.

Sepulveda said the project is currently being developed as a toll road. But the intention is to request TxDOT to make it a non-toll road sometime during or after the development of the second causeway.

“There have been political maneuvers to stop toll roads in the state of Texas,” TxDOT Pharr district engineer Pete Alvarez said in an earlier interview.

“The TxDOT Commission has taken the stance to hold off on toll roads unless you were environmentally cleared by 2014 or before … Right now there is a stop, and we cannot proceed with toll roads.”

Officials originally hoped to have the final environmental clearance by the summer of 2016.

The financial plan

Sepulveda said it normally takes eight to 10 years to complete an environmental study. And the CCRMA has nearly reached that mark since taking on the project in 2008.

One of the crucial aspects of the environmental study is the financial plan of the project.

“The financial plan is the last phase of the environmental plan,” Sepulveda said.

But that cannot be completed by engineers until the ban on toll road projects is lifted.

According to Sepulveda, the financial plan would lay out the details made by the engineers on the cost projections for the causeway.

He said funds to pay for the project would be requested from the state and TxDOT.

The idea of a second access has been tossed around since as early as 1994. But it was not until the tragic collapse in 2001 that leaders finally moved forward on the need for a second access.

Price projections to build the second causeway started off as low as $120 million, since talks began after 2001.

But projections have risen as high as $750 million, and have dropped to the range of $500 million.

The Queen Isabella Causeway was built at a cost of $11 million in 1974. It had replaced the previous bridge built in 1954.

Sepulveda also reported to the Island leaders the Regional Mobility Authority had changed consultants and hired Figg Engineering because of their experience working on similar projects in Texas and Louisiana.

“I’m convinced from their end they already know how to finish the project and cut project costs even further,” Sepulveda said.

Alvarez, the TxDOT district engineer, agreed a second causeway would be good for the Island.

“A second causeway would provide another opportunity to get in and out of the Island should something happen with the current causeway,” Alvarez said.

He said it would be a safety improvement and provide better mobility for people getting into and out of the Island.

At this point, he said, the toll road ban is being evaluated by TxDOT administrators and commissioners.

“They are evaluating the toll road ban as we speak. But they have not made a final decision,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Regional Mobility Authority waits.

“The only phase that we cannot expedite is the environmental phase,” Sepulveda told Island leaders recently.

“Once we cross that line we can expedite the design and construction.”