Ports-to-Plains Alliance Doubles Down on Designating an Interstate from Lubbock to Laredo

 

DEL RIO, TX — Driving to Del Rio from Sonora on U.S. 277, one can appreciate the harshness of the terrain there. The roadway is cut into the sides of small mesas as it winds down the Devils River bed to Lake Amistad just north of Del Rio. The most dangerous portion of the route is the downward, winding roadway onto the Buffalo Creek Bridge, 22 miles north of the intersection with U.S. 377. And that intersection was nicknamed “Satan” in the early days of U.S. Air Force flying training operations at Laughlin Air Force Base probably because it was near or associated with the Devils River bed.

The Devils River traces the divide between the Texas Hill Country and the Chihuahuan desert of the Trans-Pecos region. Bedded in limestone rock and small hills and mesas, it is the land of cactus that will stick you and poisonous snakes that will bite you.

It was down this stretch of highway that many members of the Ports-to-Plains Alliance traveled to meet at their 21st annual conference held in Del Rio this week.

Tuesday, the Alliance held their annual board meeting and dramatically changed the focus of the 21-year-old organization.

Their previous focus was a generalized effort to lobby for phased improvements along the route of the member municipalities and economic development entities from inside Mexico to the Canadian border. Lobbying for a four-lane highway to be built from San Angelo to Big Spring, for example, would be in their wheelhouse before.

As of today, the Ports-to-Plains Alliance is advocating for interstate designation of I-27, the stretch of interstate between Lubbock and Amarillo, to extend from Lubbock, through San Angelo, to Del Rio, Eagle Pass, and terminating in Laredo. That means eventually building a four-lane, divided highway along the treacherous U.S. 277 route from Sonora to Del Rio.

John Osborne, the Chairman of the P2P Alliance, is unfazed at the task, or cost.

“It will cost more money to add an additional lane to I-35 through Austin’s 33 miles that it will cost to build the entire I-27 from Lubbock to Laredo,” he said. The lack of land, or very expensive land, next to I-35 is a showstopper for providing relief to the I-35 corridor by adding more lanes. Its cost is a strong argument for building an additional north-south interstate highway system like an I-27. I-35 is infamous for its congestion, and much of that congestion is caused by truck traffic originating and terminating at the land port of Laredo and its sister city Nuevo Laredo across the Texas-Mexico border. Cross-border trade is booming.

I-27 will provide an alternate and additional route from Mexico to markets to the northwest, relieving I-35 of truck traffic headed for, say, Denver, or Washington State.

State of Texas Transportation Commissioner Alvin New, who is from San Angelo, opened the discussion of the possibility of obtaining an I-27 designation at the conference on Wednesday. The overriding concern for Texas Department of Transportation planners is a high-growth scenario estimate that by 2050, Texas will be the home for 54 million people; nearly double the 28.3 million living in the state today.

“Austin is the safest place to drive because it’s damned hard to get killed traveling at 10 mph,” New quipped, referencing the overcrowded I-35.

But TxDOT officials look for low hanging fruit to decide where to devote their resources, and money, New said. For example, if widening a 12-mile stretch of highway to four lanes will result in a contiguous stretch of four-lane highway for many miles in each direction, that project will receive priority, he said.

U.S. 277 is getting some attention, with $20.7 million in planned “Super-2” highway improvements from Sonora to the Val Verde County line where Del Rio is. But it’s not competitive as “low hanging fruit” yet, New said.

A “Super-2” is a stretch of several miles where there are two lanes for passing on one side and a single lane on the incoming traffic side of the highway.

New said TxDOT looks at relieving highly congested areas, such as many locations in what he labeled “the triangle,” or the roads connecting Houston to the DFW Metroplex to San Antonio. That is where most of the population in Texas is. “Eighty-seven percent of the population of Texas is east of I-35,” New said. However, New said, TxDOT also looks at how to best connect Texas with markets, like the Permian Basin and its oil.

“I have private conversations with TxDOT officials about what needs to be done to get an I-27 designation [as proposed from Lubbock to Laredo],” New said. “The answer I get is that TxDOT views I-27 as competition with I-69 and I-14.”

I-69 is a relief route currently designated that travels from the Rio Grande Valley, through Houston, East Texas, and northeastward into Louisiana between Shreveport and Monroe. The route travels through some of the most rapidly growing urban areas of Texas.

I-14 is an east-west proposed interstate that traces U.S. 190 from Louisiana to Killeen/Fort Hood. I-14, already designated and marked with signs through Killeen, is proposed to be designated west of there, through Brady and San Angelo to Midland. Despite Congressman Mike Conaway’s efforts to attach interstate designation for I-14 to roadways through West Texas, the measure has not been signed into law.

Nonetheless, New said, TxDOT understands that a major part of the Texas economy is taking place in West Texas.

Jack Schenendorf, Federal Consultant, Covington & Burling LLP, told the P2P Alliance that gaining I-27 designation is solely a federal task. It will need to be accomplished as an attachment to a major highway-spending bill. The next congress, the 116th, will be looking at several multi-year federal highway funding bills next year, including President Trump’s proposed $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill.

Schenendorf believes the Democrats will control the U.S. House next session, and how the new congress sends legislation to the Senate will depend on if the Democrats will allow Trump to have a legislative victory of an infrastructure bill prior to the 2020 presidential elections. He was cautiously optimistic.

Receiving I-27 designation along the route does not necessarily include the funding to build a four-lane divided highway immediately, as the cases of I-69 and I-14 indicate. It does, however, provide a roadmap for future funding, even if in small buckets at a time, though federal funding delivered via TxDOT.

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Above: John Edward Bariou Jr., board member of the City of San Angelo Development Corporation, or COSA-DC, sports an I-27 lapel pin. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)

The proposed I-27 corridor’s routing will open up more economic growth opportunities in Eagle Pass and Del Rio, the two maquiladora concentrations along the P2P corridor still without an interstate highway connecting them with U.S. and Canadian markets.

A maquiladora is a factory on the Mexico side that usually has a warehousing component on the U.S. side. P2P conference attendees toured Mexico plants for Howmet Aerospace, a German Automotive company called Gentherm, and Caterpillar in Acuña.

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Above: About 200 leaders of municipalities, county governments, and economic development professionals attended the 21st Annual Conference of the Ports-to-Plains Alliance in Del Rio, Oct. 30-Nov. 1, 2018. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)

With interstate transportation capabilities from these two burgeoning cross-border trade areas, more industry will be attracted to Del Rio. Frank Larson, a Del Rio entrepreneur and civic leader who oversaw the establishment of the Del Rio Industrial Park years ago, was bullish on Del Rio’s prospects.

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Above: State of Texas Transportation Commissioner Alvin New of San Angelo addressed the conference. Sid Cauthorn, Chairman of The Bank and Trust and a P2P Alliance board member looks on. Cauthorn was the emcee of the conference. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)

“Even if NAFTA went away, we were poised to continue growing, albeit with what my associates said would be a slightly higher cost,” Larson said. He said the cost would have increased maybe 10 percent. But now with the Trump Administration's proposed replacement of NAFTA of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, everything should be back to normal now, he said.

Officials are racing to get the USMCA signed before the end of the term of Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto this month.

The P2P Conference was title sponsored by the chambers of commerce for both Del Rio and its Mexico sister city of Ciudad Acuña, the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association (in South Dakota and Montana, the northern third of the Ports-to-Plains Alliance), The Bank and Trust, and Ryan, a consulting firm.

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Although I applaud the committee's efforts, all that is being seen is another year and dinner gone by. I annually travel North from San Angelo, and the connection from here to Lubbock would be a welcome addition. Too bad it's become theory instead of reality.

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