Officials plan to break ground on East Loop project

BY NADIA TAMEZ-ROBLEDO/ The Brownsville Herald

Article published January 14, 2018

After more than three decades of incremental progress, Cameron County and Brownsville officials anticipate the first phase of a road construction project to divert commercial vehicle traffic away from International Boulevard will break ground this year.

Pete Sepulveda Jr., executive director of the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, said his office is working with the Port of Brownsville on a wetland mitigation plan for a two-mile stretch of road that will connect State Highway 4 to docks on Ostos Road.

Once approved by state and federal agencies, he said, construction of the road will take about one year and $10 million.

The port connector is the first phase of the larger State Highway 32 construction project, also called the East Loop, which will route commercial trucks traveling between Veterans Bridge and the Port of Brownsville around the city’s southeast side. That phase will cost about $60 million, Sepulveda said.

Leadership of the complex project changed hands half a dozen times before it was put under the mobility authority’s stewardship, he said. The Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority works in tandem with the Brownsville and county governments, and approval by state and federal agencies must be sought at each stage.

Mark Lund, director of the Brownsville Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the East Loop has been discussed since he moved to the city in 1985. The mobility authority will put about $5.3 million toward the port connector, he said, and the MPO will, in turn, allocate a matching amount of its federally granted funds on future East Loop construction.

“The first two miles is unlikely to change traffic flows, but it’s more significant (because) this is a turning point in getting this project moving ahead,” Lund said. “We’re pleased to see progress on this project.”

Safety is among the chief concerns that will be addressed by the East Loop project. Lund said about 1,000 commercial vehicles travel between Veterans Bridge and the Port of Brownsville each day, passing schools, businesses and residential areas along the way. An environmental assessment brief by Lund stated that because of congestion along the corridor, “the last several years, there have been multiple fatalities along the route.”

“It’s a high priority for us,” Sepulveda said. “It’s not safe to have those vehicles driving down a residential boulevard.”

Commercial vehicles enteredorlefttheport147,802 times last year, according to Port of Brownsville data. Theportalsoissued32,131 permits for overweight truck loads, which are up to 120,000 pounds, Port of Brownsville Communications Director Patty Gonzales said. That represents a more than 29 percent increase in permits since 2013.

The East Loop will cut down significantly on the travel times of commercial vehicles, Lund said.

“When you’re dealing with international trade especially, it always helps in terms of competition if you can move the goods faster,” he said. “As more traffic moves to State Highway

32, eventually that could become congested, but right now that (time savings) would be dramatic.”

Eduardo Campirano, director and CEO of the Port of Brownsville, said direct access to the port created by the East Loop would impact any cargo shipped between the port and Veterans Bridge.

“It’s part of the logistics that help fuel the local economy,” he said.

Campirano said the port will work with the mobility authority to mitigate about 14 acres of wetlands that will be disturbed by the port connector’s construction. They could create an equivalent amount of wetlands near the site or elsewhere, he said.

Sepulveda said talks over wetland mitigation started before the holidays, and he expects to meet with port officials about the issue this week.

“(When) we look at the area and get a better feel for it, we’ll know how to address it,” he said.

Sepulveda said environmental studies for the East Loop also are well underway.

“We believe that if we work it aggressively, we can get environmental clearance this year,” he said, opening the door for right of way acquisition and design.