Bridges of the Valley: A new link to the island and more links to Mexico

By NORMAN ROZEFF, Special to the Star

The new Queen Isabella Causeway connecting Port Isabel and South Padre Island was constructed in 1973 and opened in 1974. It is a steel cable-stayed structure 12,510 feet long or 2.37 mile length, making it the second longest bridge in Texas. It reaches a height of 85 feet above the Laguna Madre and cost $16 million to build. On September 15, 2001, it experienced an unthinkable disaster when, at night, four towed barges slammed into and knocked out three 80-foot sections of its piers. The resulting gap in the roadway led to the death of eight people as cars plunged into the Laguna Madre waters. Eventually the three sections along with two other adjacent damaged sections were replaced. The support columns were reinforced, and a $12 million optic fiber driver warning system was installed.

The causeway was reopened on November 21, 2001, and two years later the bridge was renamed the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge to honor the victims of the tragedy. Even with this modern connection, bridge traffic can be jammed, so consideration is being given to erecting a second bridge (It would be a toll one.) from Holly Beach on the mainland to a point further north on South Padre Island.

The Free Trade Bridge, also known as the Los Indios-Lucio Blanco Bridge, Puente Lucio Blanco-Los Indios, Puente Internacional Libre Commercial, and the Los Indios Free Trade Bridge. The bridge’s owners are Cameron County (50%), City of San Benito (25%), and the City of Harlingen (25%). The Mexican owner is the Government of Mexico. This four lane five spans reinforced concrete bridge reaching 503 feet was completed on November 2, 1992 at a cost to U. S. interests of $31.6 million ($40 million total).

It was designed in Mexico with erection beginning September 1, 1990. It is capable of supporting 77 tons of moving loads. Two pedestrian walkways flank it outer perimeter with fencing near the U. S. side to deter illegal entry. There is also a special interior bridge under the U. S. side for animal passage.

Toll revenues of the Free Trade Bridge for the 92/93 fiscal year are only $334,192 in its first year of operation. In November 2002 it is announced that Free Trade Bridge revenues, at $1,536,757, had reached a new high for the 01/02 year. Its private industrial park includes companies such as Delphi, Penske, Panasonic, and Universal Lighting. More than 300 jobs have been created.

In 1999 the bridge turned its first profit with revenue totals generating $1.37 million. Harlingen and San Benito share $55,000 each and Cameron County $110,000. Despite its 719,858 customers, this bridge had the least traffic of any bridge in the Valley. The next significant bridge to be constructed, in 1994, was the Pharr International Bridge. It connects U. S. Highway 281 south of Pharr with the city of Reynosa, Mexico, known for its industrial facilities. Its primary service is to commercial interests.

Since 1996, all trucks have been diverted here from the McAllen-Reynosa Bridge. With its 3.1 mile total length, it is the longest international bridge connecting two countries in the world. The bridge itself is of cast concrete resting on concrete t’s. The bridge has some impressive statistic associated with it. It has seen the passage of 828,000 passenger vehicles along with 540,000 commercial trucks. The bridge has seen $1.16 billion in petroleum gas exports along with $401 million in tv monitors, $391 million in motor vehicle parts, and $359 million in computer chips.

It is, in fact, with 60% the number 2 crossing in the country of fruits and vegetables produced in Mexico. It ranks as the seventh busiest port in the U. S. A. and by the end of 2018 had risen to become the fourth largest Port of Entry with Mexico. With somewhat boosting, its publicity states that it is known as “The Intelligent Bridge” in Mexico because of its state of the art technology. Mexico too has improved its crossing facilities having spent $90 million to double its capacity with the Aduana Project that resulted in a 50% increase in throughput.

On April 11, 2000, the state completes the construction of a new concrete beam bridge over the Arroyo Colorado near Port Harlingen. It has two lanes and is 46’ wide and 320’ long with its longest span being 80 feet. It replaces the rickety one lane wooden low-water bridge which has served Cemetery Road for many years. A reliable, fast alternative route between Harlingen and Rio Hondo now exists thanks to its owners, the County Highway Agency.

Not to be overtaken by the number of cities connecting on the border internationally with Mexico, the city of Donna, starting in April 2008, constructed the Donna International Bridge. The nearest large town south of the border is Rio Bravo, Mexico. Alternate names for this bridge are Donna/Rio Bravo International Bridge, Puente Rio Bravo/Donna, Puente Revolucion Internacional, and Alliance International Bridge. Its U. S. owner is the city of Donna which expended $30 million for land acquisition, access roads and infrastructure, and for the bridge itself.

The Donna-Mercedes Bridge Corporation was form- ed in October 2001 to construct and operate the bridge that opened on December 14, 2010 with Mexico President Felipe Calderón in attendance. The Mexico sponsor of the bridge is the State of Tamaulipas. The bridge is impressive in that it has four southbound lanes, four northbound ones together with a ped-estrian lane. It is about 1000 feet in length and, like other newer bridges across the Rio Grande, is cast concrete. Improvements were made on FM 493 leading south from Donna to the bridge.

The Congressman Ruben Hinojosa International Park and Ride was dedicated on September 2015 to welcome international travelers to Donna and the Rio Grande Valley. The 1,800 square foot building and 200 parking spaces were constructed on 2.8 acres with a public partnership amongst the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, Valley Metro, Federal Transit Administration and the City of Donna.

The facility was created to act as a bus terminal to attract more shoppers to the Region. The Mexican shoppers can park their vehicles and ride a Valley Metro bus to popular shopping locations. The first Saturday of every month, a City of Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas tourist bus also picks up and drops off international travelers making it a binational facility as well.