AUSTIN, May 27 - State Sen. Juan Hinojosa believes U.S. 281 will be upgraded to interstate standards within the next several years.
“We are a lot closer than we were. Within the next several years, we will be there. U.S. 281 will be up to interstate standards,” the McAllen Democrat predicted.
Hinojosa, a member of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, made his comkments on the same day the Texas Transportation Commission voted to award $9.2 million in pass through funding to relieve a bottleneck at the interchange of 281 and FM 755 at Encino.
“We are making continued strides to bring 281 up to interstate standards, as anyone who travels through Falfurrias and Ben Bolt knows,” Hinojosa said. “We have environmental studies underway at Premont and we are working on improvements at George West.”
When all of these projects are complete, Hinojosa said, there will be a free flow of traffic along U.S. 281 from U.S. 83 in Hidalgo County and U.S. 37 in Live Oak County.
“We are shipping the nation’s merchandise through South Texas, to Mexico and Central America. This fuels the Texas economy, meaning additional jobs. So, we need 281 upgraded to interstate standards,” said Hinojosa, who oversaw the sunset committee’s recommendations for overhauling TxDOT.
“But it is not only a matter of commerce. It is also a public safety issue. When we get a hurricane, 281 is the official evacuation route for the Valley. We need for people to evacuate as quickly as possible without any bottlenecks,” Hinojosa said.
Hinojosa paid tribute to Deirdre Delisi, chair of the Texas Transportation Commission.
“Madam Chair Deirdre Delisi has been extraordinary. Since she has taken over she has provided the leadership that is very much needed at TxDOT. She works well with the legislature, she is very transparent and responsive of the needs, not only of South Texas but the entire state,” Hinojosa said.
In total, the TTC approved 17 projects worth $173 million at its meeting in Austin on Thursday, including $25.5 million for U.S. 77 in Cameron County. Cameron County RMA Chair David Allex and Hidalgo County RMA Chair Dennis Burleson were present to witness the announcements.
Amadeo Saenz, the outgoing executive director of TxDOT and a native of Hebbronville, said pass-through financing is a tool the state created to stretch limited transportation funds. It allows local or private entities to pay for projects. They are then reimbursed over a period of time by the state, once the project becomes operational.
“This program plays an important role in transportation infrastructure development,” Saenz said. “It provides a finance alternative for projects that local communities have decided they are ready to see developed.”
In Cameron County, the pass through funds will allow toll road contractors to continue their work from U.S. 77 to S.H. 550.
“Today, not having a direct connection from U.S. 77 onto SH 550 affects the movement of goods and services and the new connectors will improve connectivity leading to the Port of Brownsville,” said CCRMA Chair Allex.
“The project will also improve access to the airport in Brownsville and the foreign trade zone providing economic development opportunities in the areas immediately adjacent to the Port of Brownsville and Foreign Trade Zones. We need to continue to find ways to be more efficient in improving our trade routes to Mexico and this project helps do just that.”
Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos agreed. “This project has been in the planning stages for several years and shortly we will start turning dirt on this critical transportation project that is a win-win for all of the citizens of Brownsville and the region,” he said.
With the TTC announcement, Cascos said, the CCRMA has, over the last five years, secured and leveraged close to $200 million dollars from federal, state and local sources for construction of critical infrastructure improvements in Cameron County as well as improvements along U.S 77 in Willacy County.
CCRMA Vice Chair John Wood and Cameron County Commissioner Sofia C. Benavides joined Allex in Austin for the TTC announcement.
“The importance of the transportation network in the Rio Grande Valley and how the CCRMA development program strategically ties into major corridors, our Port of Brownsville and our International Bridges will continue to be a priority,” Wood said.