Texas members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee met Monday in Mission with leaders across the Rio Grande Valley to discuss the area’s needs as they prepare to look at the nation’s transportation needs.
Congressmen Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, and Roger Williams, R-Austin, attended as well as Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who isn’t on the transportation committee, but he is on the House Appropriation Committee. Cuellar said he’s working with Bill Shuster, R-Pennsylvania, chairman of the transportation committee on trade corridors.
“We need to put extra dollars toward trade; that’s one of the top priorities I’m looking at,” Cuellar said.
Texas, he said, gets about $3 billion annually from the transportation bill, and the bill expires at the end of September.
Discussions on a new bill are already complicated. The Highway Trust Fund, funded through gas and diesel taxes, is expected to run dry this year, which means lawmakers are looking at alternative ways to fund projects. President Barack Obama introduced a plan last month that was met with mixed reviews; the $302 billion plan spans four years and is funded through a corporate tax hike.
“The Highway Trust Fund is bankrupt as we speak,” Williams said. “It’s $65 million short. The federal government doesn’t have any money, so we’ve got to come up with a way to fund it and nobody wants to talk about raising taxes.”
Options include engaging the private sector and selling naming rights, Williams said. He also wants to look at organizations that get money through the trust fund, like museums and mass transit, but don’t pay into it.
Farenthold Monday said Texas has seen explosive growth, particularly because of the oil and gas boom in central Texas, and Williams said transportation is a bipartisan issue that the entire Texas delegation can push.
Pilar Rodriguez, director of the Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority, said the agency’s master plan includes a 120-mile network of roadways that will service five points of entry. The RMA expects to get environmental clearance on State Highway 365 by the end of the third quarter of the year. He expects to go out for bids on first part of the project in October of this year and the remainder will be bid out in late 2015.
Still, Rodriguez said, there are funding shortfalls in the project that the county must overcome.
Andrew Canon, with the Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organziation, said the county is growing exponentially and is always behind financially in keeping up with that growth. Plus, he said, the Mazatlan-Durango-Matamoros Highway is expected to dramatically increase traffic at the Pharr bridge.
Canon said he hopes to see a commuter rail district in the near future to relieve traffic congestion. The Insterstate 2/Interstate 69 interchange needs to be expanded, but there’s no funding for the work.
“We’re looking at limited capacity of Interstate 2 and Interstate 69,” Canon said. “We’re hoping to bring some people off the roadways.”
Also, the transit system in the area is underfunded, and there are several low-income communities that rely on it.
Sam Vale, on behalf of the Border Trade Alliance and South Texas Asset Consortium, asked the congressmen for support on the Section 560 Program, which allows private entities to reimburse Customs and Border Protection for additional manpower at five ports of entry. For example, in McAllen, the consortium was able to pay to double-staff the bridge during the holidays.
“We don’t see any other way to get business moving,” Vale said.
He also pointed out a weakness in the public-private partnership, in that the consortium cannot reimburse CBP for agriculture services.
Williams acknowledged Monday that funding will be an issue. Still, he said, it’s important that members of the committee meet with local communities and try to match up local needs with the big-picture view of the United States.
“When you look at the big picture, the partnership we’re trying to put together between Canada and the United States and Mexico, it immediately makes us the energy sector of the world,” Williams said. “When you look at Brownsville and you look at Mission and you look at McAllen, it’s all right there in the middle.”