Sunday, November 8, 2009

Veterans Bridge expansion aims to alleviate lengthy crossings for commercial traffic

Veterans Bridge expansion aims to alleviate lengthy crossings for commercial traffic
November 02, 2009 11:33 AM
By STEVE CLARK, The Brownsville Herald

Even with fewer border crossings taking place in Brownsville these days, traffic still jams up at Veterans International Bridge at Los Tomates.

To address the problem, Cameron County is planning to add a new four-lane span for commercial trucks entering the United States. The county, which estimates the cost of the project at $11 million, is in the process of securing a necessary amendment to the bridge’s original Presidential Permit — required for any structure connecting the United States with a foreign neighbor.

Cameron County administrator Peter Sepulveda says construction should begin in April 2010 and take 12 months to complete. The federal Coordinated Border Infrastructure Program will pay 80 percent of the project via the Texas Department of Transportation.

Cameron County and the city of Brownsville will put up the remaining 20 percent. Sepulveda says the problem with Veterans Bridge is that commercial trucks have a hard time just getting to primary inspection lanes — even if the lanes are empty — because of passenger car traffic.

A U.S. Department of the Interior memo on the project notes the bridge is "at capacity," which translates into long wait times for commercial vehicles — 30 minutes during week days and up to two hours on weekends and holidays. The memo, generated by the U.S. Department of the Interior, forecasts traffic volumes at the bridge to double by 2028, even though volume for both commercial and non-commercial traffic has fallen recently.

Sepulveda says new passport requirements that took effect June 1 have taken their toll on non-commercial traffic, while the recession’s impact on maquiladoras that serve the U.S. auto industry has severely impacted commercial traffic. In 2009 the county will collect about $3.5 million in commercial traffic tolls at Veterans Bridge, down 15 percent from previous years. Sepulveda believes traffic volume will rebound with the economy, however.

"Our commercial and other traffic has been going down because of different issues we’re faced with, but eventually that’s going to come back up," he says. "We need to be prepared when traffic does improve.

Eventually the economy will get better. People will get used to having to get their passport cards. Things will get better. It’s just hard to tell whether it’s going to be in 12 months or 36 months."

The original environmental assessment for Veterans Bridge was put together in 1981. The bridge complex was built in 1999 at a cost of $25 million. Today the facility is crammed with "idling lines of cars and diesel trucks sitting for hours at a time," according to the Interior Department memo. This congestion, which the report notes "contributes to poor air quality at the U.S./Mexico border," would be alleviated by the new span and additional lanes, says the government.

Until the recent drop in volume, truck traffic volume had climbed rapidly at the border, spurred by NAFTA, which went into effect Jan. 1, 1994. The value of U.S. trade to and from Mexico by truck through Texas ports rose from $57.3 billion in 1995 to more than $106 billion in 1999, according to the government. From 1990 to 1999, truck crossings at Texas ports increased from 726,000 to 2.3 million.

Sepulveda says the bridge project has been in planning for about two years and has nothing to do with the city of Laredo’s plan to add seven commercial lanes to its trade bridge.

"They have a different market than we do," he says. "Our competition is the (Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge). That’s our nearest competition."

The Pharr bridge is congested, too, Sepulveda notes, thus improving the flow of trucks through Veterans Bridge could lure some commercial traffic away from Hidalgo County.

"That’s the idea," he says. "That’s a possibility."

Levee reconstruction project coming in Cameron and Hidalgo Counties

Levee reconstruction project coming

RIO GRANDE VALLEY — A $20.9 million levee reconstruction project along 48 miles of the North Floodway and Arroyo Colorado in Cameron and Hidalgo counties will create a more secure flood barrier and could reduce flood insurance rates for local residents, officials said.

Construction will benefit cities between and including La Feria and Weslaco.

“Hopefully it will decrease our risk of flooding,” La Feria Assistant City Manager Darla Jones said.

The project, awarded to Ballenger Construction of Harlingen, is expected to begin within the next few weeks and is projected to be finished by September 2010, Sally Spener, U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission spokeswoman, said.

“We intend to certify the levees to (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and that will help people out on flood insurance rates down the road,” she said.

Spener did not have an exact date when construction would begin. Ballenger Construction would not comment on the project.

The levee’s height will vary and will depend on how low it lies in relation to FEMA water level projections for a 100-year flood, which is defined as a flood so severe that it has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year, Spener said.

The new construction will create a barrier that is FEMA accredited, a certification that city officials say could reduce flood insurance rates.

The levee must rise 3 feet above the estimated 100-year flood level to earn the accreditation, Spener said.

“That is something that all the … residents will benefit from: not seeing their insurance premiums going up so dramatically,” Mercedes City Manager Richard Garcia said.

“All of this will take place to ensure that they will be able to discharge water into the floodway system and that there is not going to be a break on one of the banks,” Garcia said. “All of this is going to work out to ensure the safety of the residents.”

Jones, the La Feria city official, said the project could not have come at a better time.

“The timing of this project is perfect because our flood insurance rate maps are currently being revised by FEMA,” Jones said. “As it stands now our levees are not accredited so they are not providing any benefit for flood insurance purposes.”