Local leaders gathered here Wednesday to celebrate the start of a $60 million expansion of the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge with an official groundbreaking ceremony.
Construction on the project to add commercial traffic lanes to the bridge got underway Sept. 16, with the city kicking off a press tour days later. Wednesday’s groundbreaking capped off a month of celebrating, with officials from the city, county, and representatives from both Congressmen Filemon Vela and Vicente Gonzalez’s office, along with Sen. John Cornyn’s office joining in the ceremony.
Local law enforcement were also on hand, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s a great day for the city of Donna,” said Donna City Manager Carlos Yerena after the group of dignitaries marked the occasion by turning earth with ceremonial golden shovels.
“To finally see this project realized is important and it’s very historic for our community. We’re excited about this project happening,” Yerena added a few moments later.
The expansion will occur in two phases, with the first being a seven-month-long project to build southbound lanes for empty tractor trailers. The project is expected to wrap up around next April, just in time for the second phase of construction to begin — the loaded northbound commercial lanes.
Yerena was particularly excited about how the expansion will make the Donna bridge a model port, incorporating various technologies found at other bridges to make this bridge state-of-the-art. “This particular project incorporates all the technology into one place. The technology that we have is top of the line,” Yerena said.
That technology includes dual inspection stations located on the U.S. side of the bridge, two X-ray machines, and nonintrusive inspection technology that will allow the processing of up to 100 commercial trucks per hour, the city manager said.
“This is awesome. This is an awesome day for Donna, an awesome day for the Mid-Valley,” Mayor Rick Morales said after the ceremony.
Morales said he has seen the international bridge project evolve since the early 2000s — before even the passenger lanes had been built, and back when there was little belief that the city could construct a bridge, despite having a permit to do so since 1979.
“I was there at the beginning. People told me I was crazy, that we would never get a bridge done. Now, here we are 15 years later,” Morales said.
The port’s passenger lanes opened in 2010; however, plans to have commercial lanes completed by 2012 stalled for years.
Meanwhile, the successful expansion of the commercial lanes also hinges on the completion of several peripheral improvement projects, including the widening and paving by TxDOT of the road leading to the port of entry, as well as a half a million dollar improvement project on the Mexican side of the border, Yerena explained during a bridge board meeting last month.
The expansion project is projected to cost $60 million. Of that, the city has obtained $25 million in grant funding from TxDOT and CBP. The remaining $35 million — more than half the cost of the project — will be funded through revenue bonds.
“Hopefully, in the next couple of months, we’re going to be moving forward to issue revenue bonds, which basically means that the bridge is going to be able to pay for itself,” Yerena said.
Revenue bonds will allow the city to borrow the funds necessary for construction and pay them off using revenues generated by the tolls commercial trucks pay to cross.
The city funded a large portion of the passenger lanes via a similar form of debt, certificates of obligation. Donna is still paying down that debt service, though it has been able to refinance three different series of COs for a cost savings of approximately $1.3 million, Yerena said.
Asked how wise it was to take on additional debt to fund the bridge, Yerena replied, “I think it’s very wise.”
“You’re already seeing some of the commercial development happening. That Fortune 500 company wouldn’t have come here if it wasn’t for this,” he said, speaking of an auto parts remanufacture facility that has agreed to locate near the port.
The mayor was even more optimistic, saying that though the port will need to process 400 trucks a day to break even, officials expect double that number to use the bridge.
Between the expected traffic, and the parallel commercial and industrial property development sparked by the port’s expansion, Morales expects the bridge will return hundreds of millions of dollars for the city’s $35 million investment.
“I’m telling you right now, we have about $2 billion worth of new construction that’s coming to Donna,” Morales said.