Wait time

Lack of federal funds delays bridge project

BY STEVE CLARK

STAFF WRITER

Federal money for a long overdue, major renovation of Brownsville’s Gateway International Bridge is proving hard to come by, not because the government doesn’t recognize the importance of the project but because so many other U.S. ports-of-entry are in the same boat.

That’s according to U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, citing a $4.5 billion backlog in needed improvements to the nation’s ports-of-entry.

“That $4.5 billion would update every port-of-entry from Brownsville to San Diego and Seattle to Maine, and specific to Brownsville would include the improvements that we’ve been talking about at Gateway Bridge,” he said. “It’s important for people to understand how difficult it is for us to try to get this funding.”

The cost to upgrade the bridge, crossed by 1 million pedestrians a year and “totally outdated for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic” is somewhere between $150 million and $250 million, Vela said. Roughly 25 to 35 ports-of-entry are similarly obsolete, though only $200 million was appropriated through the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act of 2019 to fix them, he said.

Money for border infrastructure comes from the General Services Administration as opposed to the Department of Homeland Security, which means “every government agency is competing for that money,” Vela said.

“I think that GSA and (Customs and Border Protection) feel real strongly about the need for improving Gateway,” he said. “The only problem is there’s a lot of other ports they feel the same about.”

The more than $4 billion Congress has appropriated for border wall funding in the last three years, all of which Vela voted against, could have upgraded every international bridge DHS identifies as deficient, he said.

“It just make no sense to me that we can’t do the same for border infrastructure,” he said.

Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr., said “we’re basically in a holding pattern” due to the lack of funding for the bridge, though engineers are also having to revisit a feature of the redesign that turned out to be unfeasible.

“The traffic study included a roundabout,” he said. “At first that sounded great, but we realized that it was going to create additional traffic control issues … that hadn’t been considered in that area. Traffic right now flows well, even with delays on the bridge. We don’t want to make it worse. So it’s something we’ve brought to the attention of CBP and they’re supposed to be talking to GSA about it.”

Treviño said the county, which owns Gateway Bridge, wants to address the problem now so the project is ready to break ground when money does come through, though nothing is budgeted for the next fiscal year. Funding is the primary concern, he said, crediting Vela and other elected officials for continuing to lobby on the county’s behalf.

“We understand we’re high on the list,” Treviño said. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated into appropriations.”

Vela said the county-owned Free Trade International Bridge at Los Indios has issues of its own and is likewise a focus of his efforts.

“We have a coalition of (congressional) members who represent districts where all these bridges are, that are all essentially delivering the same message,” he said. “These are projects that affect both the southern and northern border, and nobody appears to disagree with how important it is to get these done. It’s just always a challenge to find the funding.”

At the same time, Vela said he thinks the Gateway Bridge project will get funded eventually.

“It’s a matter of time, because it is clearly a priority for the Department of Homeland Security. The problem is they have a lot of priorities and Congress is just not giving them enough money to complete those. We’re working hard to get people focused on that pot of money.”