Travel center isn’t just for tourists

HARLINGEN — Viola Vasquez has a big goal for a building many long time residents just cruise by in their cars without a second thought.

She is the supervisor of the Texas Travel Information Center-Rio Grande Valley, and her own career highway has looped right back to where she started.

The Lyford native went from TxDOT’s Harlingen travel center to run the Laredo center in 2013 and has recently returned home.

“I was managing both of the centers until last week,” she said. “Last week they hired a new manager. I am so excited.”

Now she’s trying to bring that knowledge back to the Valley and make the Harlingen travel center as busy as Laredo’s.

“In Laredo we would see an average of anywhere between 400 to 500 people a day,” Vasquez said. “In the Valley we have about 100 people a day.”

Vasquez, who has been with TxDOT for 14 years conceded summer isn’t the center’s busiest season.

So, now she’s using this time to develop strategies to attract both tourists and locals into the center at 2021 W. Harrison Ave., between Harrison and Tyler under the overpasses.

“First of all, everything we have here is complimentary — it’s free,” she said. “And we have the best customer service of anybody in the Valley, I can vouch for that. And we also have the cleanest restrooms and they’re available for the public. People can just stop by and use the restrooms and carry on their business and go to the rest of the Valley.”

The busy location of the center, where I-2 and I-69E come together to form a bowl of concrete linguini, sometimes is overlooked by people more concerned about maneuvering through the heavy traffic on West Harrison or West Tyler.

It’s a pity, too, given the travel center’s extensive collection of maps and brochures, and its lovely butterfly garden and fountains.

“We have been working with the community, with all the cities in the Valley, trying to I guess you would say educate the public and let them know we are here for their needs,” Vasquez said.

Yet the center isn’t just for the Valley, it’s about all seven regions of Texas.

“Everything is organized and the staff can tell you where everything is at,” she said of the travel center.

Vasquez is already working to create a bigger footprint for the travel center, offering it up as a meeting spot for community events or even school outings.

“What we’re doing this year is we are offering school trips to the schools Valley-wide,” she said.

She came up with the outreach idea while in Laredo.

“We bring in the fire department, we bring in Texas Parks and Wildlife, we bring the convention and visitors bureaus in and the zoo will come in,” Vasquez said. “We’ve done two of them and the teachers have gone back really, really happy.”

The zoo brought snakes over for the kids, the fire department brought a truck to show off and they explained how they do their jobs.

“Texas Parks and Wildlife brought some tents over and they had kids set up the tents,” she said. “The kids had never been inside a tent, so they were amazed at that.

“We also have Fishing 101 where they bring some fishing rods over and they show them how to fish,” Vasquez said.

Local residents need to use the travel center before they take their next vacation, she added.

“You need to come here” to talk to the staff, she said. “The first thing they’re going to ask you is, what do you like to do? You have people who like to go camping, people who like to go fishing, people who have children and they want to go to some of the theme parks.

“Anything they need to know about the state of Texas, anywhere they’re traveling to, we are here to help them out,” she said.

“And it’s all free.”