Expansion of US 77-I69E making progress

Are we there yet?

It really is happening, it’s just not happening really fast, but that’s road building for you.

The massive project to turn U.S. 77 into interstate all the way from I-37 to Brownsville has made significant progress in recent years, though it won’t be completely finished for maybe another decade, according to Pete Alvarez, Pharr District engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation.

Big road projects take a long time, he said, noting that interstate-grade expressways between Brownsville and Palmview, Pharr and Edinburg, and Harlingen and Raymondville took around 10 years to complete, from 1997 to 2007, and cost $1 billion.

“It sounds like a long time, but in transportation time it’s relatively fast,” Alvarez said. “It takes a long time to develop projects of this magnitude.”

Still, until it’s officially I-69E all the way up to I-37 west of Corpus Christi, the Rio Grande Valley will continue to be the largest metropolitan region in the United States not connected via interstate to the rest of the country. That means motorists traveling to and from the Rio Grande Valley will have to deal with traffic lights in Driscoll and Riviera and reduced speed limits there and elsewhere for a while yet.

The work in Cameron County is done, however, and in 2013 the head of the Federal Highway Administration announced the agency’s authorization of the I-69E designation for the roughly 50-mile stretch of U.S. 77 between Brownsville and Raymondville.

Alvarez said two I-69E-related projects are currently underway, one just north of Raymondville in northern Willacy County and another one in southern Kenedy County, both involving construction of overpasses and main lanes. That work should wrap up by fall 2020 and bring I-69E construction in Willacy County to a close, he said.

Another 45 miles of new main lanes and overpasses are slated for Kenedy County on existing U.S. 77 right-of-way, Alvarez said. This will involve five different projects, all of them currently in design and totaling about $320 million, he said.

Two out of the five projects have been partially funded to the tune of $145 million, while the rest are authorized for development, though all the money will eventually come through, Alvarez said.

“We are in the process of developing the plans, and our goal is to have shovel-ready projects by 2022 for the entire thing,” he said. “We would not go into design if we were going to just put them on the shelf.”

Plans call for bypasses around Riviera and Driscoll in Kleberg and Nueces County respectively, under the jurisdiction of TxDOT’s Corpus Christi District. According to TxDOT’s Project Tracker, groundbreaking on the Riviera bypass project is still years off, though $104 million was earmarked in March 2017 for the Driscoll bypass and commencement of that project is imminent, according to TxDOT.

In addition to moving toward completion of I-69E, TxDOT also plans to continue developing I-69C along the U.S. 281 right-of-way north of Edinburg to Falfurrias, Alvarez said. That project will involve building 44 miles of new lanes and overpasses at an estimated cost of $750 million, and should be finished about the same time as I-69E, he said.

The projects are vital for the movement of people and goods in the Valley, with a population today of 1.5 million that’s expected to double by 2040, Alvarez said.

“Freight and trade play a key role in the decision-making going forward,” he said.

Alvarez asked that motorists obey warning signs and slow down in construction zones while road work is underway.

Pete Sepulveda, executive director of the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, said traffic on U.S. 77 becomes more of an issue each year, especially during the holidays, thus construction on I-69E is “very timely.”

The fact that the Valley is only now making real progress toward interstate connectivity is due to multiple factors, including a relatively low population historically and the fact that it’s hard to compete with other parts of the state for federal funds through TxDOT, he said.

“It’s difficult to compete for funding on a statewide level,” Sepulveda said. “It’s difficult because it’s not a congestion project. A lot of the funding goes for congested areas. While it may be a safety project, it’s still hard to compete statewide for safety dollars.”