BROWNSVILLE — After declining for seven years in a row, crossings at Cameron County’s international bridges have increased for the second straight fiscal year.
According to a May bond-rating report from Fitch Ratings, total crossings at the county’s three bridges — Gateway International Bridge, Veterans International Bridge and the Free Trade Bridge at Los Indios — grew by 4.3 percent to 5.3 million crossings in fiscal year 2015, which ended Sept. 30.
In fiscal year 2014, crossings grew 1.8 percent from the previous year to 5.1 million.
The increase was due to passenger and pedestrian traffic, which grew 3.1 percent and 6.4 percent, respectively, though commercial crossings decreased almost 2 percent.
Fitch affirmed the county bridge system’s “A” bond rating on roughly $3.66 million in revenue bonds and retained the system’s “stable” outlook. The rating is based on the system’s “uneven historical operational performance” balanced against traffic and revenue growth, the system’s importance to its service area and solid financial metrics, Fitch said.
While the system faces moderate competition from neighboring bridge facilities, and traffic and revenue are susceptible to economic conditions on both sides of the border and political and economic conditions in Mexico, the system’s ability to generate revenue allows for a “robust and stable operating profile” and comfortable debt-service coverage, said the bond rating agency.
That situation is projected to only improve as the system pays down its debt through 2031, said the report.
The system has plenty of financial cushion to weather sudden declines in traffic and competition from competing bridges, according to Fitch, which noted that passenger cars make up 56 percent of the county’s bridge crossings. The system has the legal flexibility to raise bridge tolls when necessary to offset traffic declines, and has done so without significant political pushback, said the agency.
Fitch noted that fiscal 2016 tolls were raised an average of 4.5 percent at county bridges, which is in line with tolls at competing bridges. Total revenue increased 1.9 percent in fiscal 2015, from $15.6 million from $15.9 million, according to the report.
The county expects commercial traffic — representing 23 percent of toll revenue — to grow due to transportation network improvements in Mexico and commercial storage and warehouse developments in Cameron County, Fitch said, while cautioning that “commercial traffic remains susceptible to the health of the maquiladora industry, which can be volatile.”