Brownsville mulls West Parkway toll project

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Group mulls toll road project’s future

By STEVE CLARK/The Brownsville Herald
2011-12-07 21:55:13

The Brownsville Metropolitan Planning Organization is inviting the public to offer comments on the proposed West Parkway project at a meeting set for Dec. 14 on the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College campus.

Specifically, the meeting will address whether to remove the $176 million toll road project from the MPO’s long-range Metropolitan Transportation Plan. The West Parkway would run along what is now Union Pacific railroad right-of-way from the B&M International Bridge to U.S. Expressway 77/83 near the Union Pacific overpass. The route would also run through West Brownsville, a fact that stirred up opposition from many of the neighborhood’s residents soon after the city first revealed the plan in the mid-1990s.

The parkway would feature two lanes and overpasses and, as with all toll roads, limited access. The Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, which was created in 2004, has championed the project in recent years as necessary to handle higher traffic volume in coming decades and also as a source of funds — an estimated $400 million — for future, non-toll road projects.

The CCRMA proposed to pay for construction mostly through toll revenue bonds but also with private investment, since no money is available from the state or federal government for the project.

Despite the city’s initial enthusiasm and CCRMA’s later efforts to move the project forward, official support has waned. In 2009, the city commission passed a resolution opposing the parkway. More recently, Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez contacted MPO Director Mark Lund, suggesting that his organization look at dropping the project from the long-range plan all together.

“It was his suggestion,” Lund said. “He wrote me a letter saying let’s discuss that and put it up for a vote.”

Opponents of the West Parkway worry it would be a stake in the heart for West Brownsville revitalization.
“Nobody wants that toll road,” Martinez said. “We don’t want it. We don’t need it. I’m sure that (the CCRMA) is well intentioned. The problem is, some of these ideas of progress, they fail to see how it really affects the community. Quite frankly, West Brownsville needs to be restored. To me, it’s a travesty not to preserve it.”

With the Dec. 14 meeting requesting public input on the subject of “deletion of the project” from MPO plan, Martinez got what he asked for. Lund noted that the CCRMA lacks a Comprehensive Development Agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation for the project, which precludes revenue-sharing agreements with private investors — something the CCRMA had been interested in as a funding option to help build the parkway. CCRMA does have two Comprehensive Development Agreements, which are authorized by the Legislature, for two other projects: a second causeway to South Padre Island, and the Outer Parkway, which would connect the causeway with U.S. Expressway 77 north of Harlingen.

Cameron County deputy administrator and CCRMA assistant coordinator David Garcia said the lack of a development agreement on the West Parkway closes off one funding avenue but leaves several others open.

“We don’t have the revenue-sharing type arrangement for the West Parkway, but what we do have is what is called design-build finance agreements that can be executed for large projects like the West Parkway,” he said.

Meanwhile, the CCRMA is trying to get an environmental study done on the project, Garcia said.

“The most important thing is to try to get some sort of environmental document finished,” he said. “If you don’t do that you basically can’t do anything else.”

However, the project may not get to that stage if the MPO’s policy board decides to drop the parkway project from its long-range plan. Then the city will be stuck with the expense of redeveloping the corridor, Garcia said.

“If that happens, it will be very difficult to move the project forward,” he said. “The question that should be asked is, OK, what’s going to happen to that corridor? Is it going to remain a corridor that is not going to be properly maintained and properly developed?”

Aside from the parkway, different people have different ideas on what should be done with the right-of-way once the rails are eventually pulled out. The public will be asked to weigh in on these ideas as well at the Dec. 14 meeting.

Included on the meeting agenda are projects the MPO is proposing be added to the long-range plan. These include the West Loop, a different creature than the West Parkway in that it’s not a toll road but rather a two-lane, at-grade roadway with signals at major intersections and an estimated cost of $20 million to $24 million. Another proposal, for a three- or four-lane version of the West Loop, has a projected price tag of $24 million to $34 million. Yet another proposal, West Loop Trails, calls for hike-and-bike trails along the rail corridor as opposed to a new road. The estimate for the hike-and-bike project is $8 million to $12 million.

Lund said that for a project to be on the MPO’s long-range plan it has to meet a certain standard of financial feasibility, adding that he hadn’t yet seen CCRMA’s new design-build plan.

“Whatever they propose, the MPO’s plan is not like a wish list,” he said. “It can’t be pie in the sky. We act as a gatekeeper. In that sense we have a federal mandate that when we put together our plan we develop reasonable assumptions. We take that aspect seriously. You don’t get into our plan just because you hope something will happen.”

The Dec. 14 MPO public meeting will take place at 10 a.m. in the boardroom of Gorgas Hall on May Drive on the Fort Brown campus. The public may also submit comments to the MPO in writing, though all comments must be submitted no later than Dec. 27. The MPO policy board will hold a vote on the West Parkway and other agenda items in January. For more information call Mark Lund, MPO director, at 548-6150.