TxDOT launches border master plan

PHARR — As President Donald Trump threatened to close the southern border this past week, the Texas Department of Transportation launched a 25-year border master plan aimed at improving the facilitation of trade and travel between Mexico and Texas.

Its first binational meeting in South Texas was held this week with what the department is calling the Rio Grande Valley-Tamaulipas steering committee, one of three regional working groups along the Texas-Mexico border for this project that will meet several times a year.

The initial year-and-a-half of this plan involves diagnosing transportation issues along the border using meetings with local officials and stakeholders from both sides of the Rio Grande. The meetings will determine data points that will drive the master plan.

This week, at the Pharr Event Center, officials from TxDOT convened a multi-hour meeting of dozens of municipal leaders and transportation-related stakeholders from across the Valley and Tamaulipas. TxDOT will do the same in the two other border regions it has identified: The Laredo-Nuevo Laredo region and the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region.

“We’re taking a more holistic view of the border,” one TxDOT official told the room at the Pharr Event Center this week, as the department hopes to employ a broad approach to improving infrastructure along the border.

The department said it will study all 28 international ports of entry on the border, but it is interested in going beyond that.

“We want to make this an effort that looks at corridors,” using ports of entry as a link,” said TxDOT’s Tim Juarez. “Corridors that move goods or people.”

The studies over the next 18 months will involve U.S. Customs and Border Protection — the federal authorities who patrol ports of entry — and the General Services Administration, and their counterparts in Mexico, all of whom were on hand at this week’s meeting.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez expressed practical concerns.

“I don’t want to plan for anything I don’t have money for,” Cortez said during a funding portion of the meeting. TxDOT officials assured that Cortez’s concern was valid but were prepared for that.

TxDOT will create “technical working groups” within each border region, to focus on specific infrastructure needs. An emphasis, however, will still be on ensuring that all 28 border ports of entry will run smoothly and efficiently.

“If there’s a federal or state policy that helps people or goods move across the border, we want to study it to make sure it’s being equally applied at all 28 ports of entry,” Juarez said, citing CBP’s new unified cargo inspection program that has been applied only to certain international bridges as pilot programs.

Juarez said they want to analyze programs like that, “and apply it to other ports of entry.”

The timeframe TxDOT wants to abide by is leveled in three stages — short, medium and longterm. The department wants to tackle quick projects in a short 1 to 5 year period; devote resources to medium 6 to 10 year increments; and ambitiously attack long term projects of more than 11 years.

“Very conceptual,” Juarez said of the long-term projects.

He could’ve been talking about the entire master plan, too.