AUSTIN — The future of economic development in the Lower Rio Grande Valley took a huge step forward Thursday with about 111 miles of freeway here officially added to the Interstate 69 System, officials said.
The Texas Transportation Commission gave approval to naming completed interstate-standard segments of U.S. 77 and U.S. 281 as I-69.
In addition, a segment of U.S. 83 has been designated as an I-69 “connector” interstate highway.
The designations are being touted as a lifeline to growth for the Valley.
“It’s like anything you do that is worth doing, it takes time,” said David Allex, chairman of the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority.
“We needed the private sector to give us the political clout to get things done.
“The signs that said ‘Future Route of I-69’ are coming down and the real shields are going up,” Allex said proudly of the long-sought interstate highway designation.
To be able to promote the Valley to business and industry as being served by interstate highways is the key to the future, Allex said.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said of the move to name completed segments of I-69.
Willacy County Judge John F. Gonzales Jr. also said the superhighway will be the lifeline to growth.
“What this means to Willacy County is that it literally puts us on the map as having an interstate,” Gonzales said.
“It will open up Willacy County to have all sorts of economic development,” he said.
“It takes an interstate to get traffic that’s going to the United States to come into an area, just like in San Antonio, Dallas and Houston,” he said.
Three Valley highways are now interstates, said Jennifer Shepard, Alliance for I-69 Texas executive director.
U.S. 77 through Cameron and Willacy counties will be signed as Interstate 69 East. That includes 52 miles of existing freeway starting at the Rio Grande in Brownsville and running north past Raymondville, Shepard said.
The 13 miles of U.S. 281 freeway in Pharr and Edinburg will be signed as Interstate 69 Central, a designation that will eventually extend northward all the way to George West, she said.
The east-west U.S. 83 freeway that connects more than a dozen Valley cities has been designated as Interstate 2, Shepard said in a statement.
“It extends approximately 46 miles from Harlingen to west of Mission,” she said. “U.S. 83 was not designated by Congress as part of I-69 but the Alliance for I-69 Texas and community leaders have insisted over the years that it should be considered an interstate highway connector between the legs of I-69.”
Shepard said that in Texas, I-69 is designated by Congress as a combination of U.S. 59, 77 and 281.
Four-lane Expressway 77 already connects Brownsville to Interstate 37 at Corpus Christi, passing through Raymondville, but interstate highway signs are vital, Gonzales said.
“It all has to do with the name,” Gonzales said. “They aren’t going to come down here unless it says interstate highway on it.”
Eventually, there will be four legs of Interstate 69 connecting to the Valley, but presently three have been designated, Shepard said.
The legs connecting Brownsville — including Harlingen and San Benito — and McAllen were designated Thursday by the Texas Transportation Commission, Shepard said.
Later, another leg to Laredo will be part of the I-69 system, she said.
Although I-69 has been completed from Indianapolis to the Canadian border for about 40 years, there are sections in areas such as Arkansas and southwestern Indiana that will be extremely costly and time-consuming to build, due to the need for many large bridges, so no exact date is set for completion for all of I-69, she said.
Also, a 5-mile section of U.S. 59 freeway on the southwest side of Texarkana will be designated as Interstate 369, Shepard said. The three digit I-69 spur designation will eventually be given to the entire 115-mile section of U.S. 59 from Texarkana to a point near Tenaha in Shelby County, she said.
“This is necessary because the planned national route for I-69 leaves Texas following U.S. 84 near Joaquin and heads northeast into Louisiana and southeast Arkansas,” she said.
Any segments of the future I-69 completed in South Texas will be quickly designated as part of the interstate system, she said.
Any additional segments of I-69 that are upgraded to interstate standards will get designation as quickly as possible, she said.
“It’s being developed incrementally as areas are at interstate standards,” she said of I-69. “That helps areas like the Valley because you have economic development experts tell you one of the greatest assets for an area is to have interstate highways.”
Allex said people who worked with him on the I-69 project for decades include the late Bill Summers, of the Valley Partnership; the late Harlingen mayor Bill Card; Alan Johnson, a Harlingen banker, county judges and commissioners in all Valley counties and many others.