Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Looping Brownsville

Brownsville is about to see a new decade filled with ever expanding retail, hotels, restaurants, medical facilities such as expanding hospitals and clinics, international trade, growing port and air port, schools, explosive growth of UTB/TSC and the ever so elusive renaming of HW 77/83 to I-69. But most of these growths and expansions will not happen without a complete, or at the very least partially complete loop around Brownsville to help keep traffic moving and developing land that at this time remains empty. The loops that will help launch Brownsville into the stratosphere are called the West Loop and East Loop.

These two loops have already come before the public prior to construction. Both have been proposed as tolled, limited access highways such as the Expressway 77/83. Though I, for one, have opposed the tolled part of the projects at public meetings and in writing to CCRMA (Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority), who is responsible for the two loop projects, there is no doubt that these loops are needed in order for Brownsville to grow in a positive manner. Just look at the economic benefits that the HW 77/83 has provided for Brownsville. There is no question that without the expressway, as it is commonly referred to, has had an irreversible positive effect on the city of Brownsville. Without the expressway, there would not have been a Sunrise Mall or all of its numerous shopping centers, The Valley Regional Medical Center and the Doctor’s Hospital would not have been built, all the hotels along the expressway would be vacant lots, and absolutely everything that is there now would more than likely not have been there. Where would Brownsville be without the expressway? It would be a little town that had no major connection to the rest of the valley much less connected to the rest of the state and nation. The old Highway 77 was a pothole filled, two-lane highway that would never have been able to handle the traffic that exists today. Even the expressway had to be recently expanded to three lanes just to accommodate the traffic we have today and will likely have to be expanded again in the next 20 years (it took forty years before it was expanded due to the explosive growth here) if current projects shows Brownsville at over 350,000+ by 2030. Let’s look now at each of the loops being considered for construction in the near future and what they will do for the area that it will be built on.

East Loop

As currently envisioned, East Loop will stretch from the intersection of International Blvd and Elizabeth St. to the expressway (this segment has been built but as a four-lane boulevard named University Blvd) from the expressway to the airport via the outer most part of Southmost along the levee of the Rio Grande River and loop into the airport, from the airport to the Port of Brownsville and from the port to back to the expressway north of Brownsville along the existing FM 511 (this portion is under construction as the frontage roads are being built until the highway funding can be found).

What does this new loop mean for Brownsville? Everything. Trucks would have faster routes around the city and easy access to the airport, the Port of Brownsville, the Veteran’s Int’l Bridge and UTB/TSC and the Gateway Int’l Bridge. It would be, in effect, a semi-loop on the east side of Brownsville from the intersection of FM 511 and the Expressway 77/83 to the Veteran’s International Bridge on the south side of the city. Trucks and large rigs would be able to use this portion of the highway and reduce burden on the expressway within the center part of the city. This means safer travel for everyone else using the expressway. Just think how easy it would be to get to the airport without leaving the expressway? This is one of the many benefits of East Loop. Also, this new connection would help Southmost as a new highway that winds around this area would bring new businesses that would otherwise overlook due to poor access to this side of the community. Land around the port and FM 511 to the expressway would also enjoy new construction of residential and businesses.

West Loop

This is another project that the City of Brownsville and Cameron County have been dreaming about since the announcement of the removal of the rail line that starts at the B&M Int’l Bridge and goes to north Brownsville. A new international rail bridge will be built in the near future (5 to 15 years from now) and the tracks that will be left behind will revert to the city of Brownsville. The city will have 100 feet of right-away on each side of the track and the length of the loop will be about eight miles long.

This loop, as I envision, will help downtown Brownsville due to its proximity. The downtown business center would only be a few blocks away rather than about ten blocks from the current expressway. For a downtown to survive, it needs immediate access to a major highway. Otherwise, most people will avoid going to downtown if access is not immediate. In today’s world, people want to get to place ASAP and not deal with the hassle of driving long distances.
Also, since the West Loop will connect with the B&M Int’l Bridge, Brownsville will have two direct accesses to two international bridges. The West Loop will travel parallel to the existing highway and will provide needed relief on the current expressway. A whole new avenue of opportunity waits with the construction of West Loop and its exciting future for downtown.
Another reason for the construction of the West Loop is the attraction for developers in building the greatest project to come to downtown ever. This is the proposed project called Brownsville Crossings. This project envisions a shopping center nearly the size of the Sunrise Mall and includes a river walk between the Gateway Int’l Bridge and the B&M Int’l Bridge. Along the river walk will be retail and restaurants similar to the San Antonio River Walk. Of course, all this is pending not just on the West Loop but also on DHS’s planned border wall. If an agreement can be reached between the city, the developers, and DHS on the planned river walk and the border wall, then bringing the West Loop in would also have a positive spin being that the proposed shopping center would be a mere ¾ mile from West Loop via 12th Street (Sam Pearl Blvd). With a direct access to a major highway, this project would be a hit for tourists and locals alike.

The Future of Brownsville

Brownsville is in a midst of an ever growing population and size and it only stands to reason that with added growth come added strains and stresses of everyday life such as driving from one side of the city to the other. The more congested our streets get, the more difficult and longer it takes to get from point A to point B. Not only will it take longer to travel within Brownsville but pollution will also be a major concern in the near future. With more cars on our streets idling at traffic lights, the more probable that Brownsville will begin to see smog forming over our city and blanketing the sky for long periods of time.

Currently, the expressway is the only means of traveling in the city unencumbered and with the recent expansion of the expressway to three lanes, it will only take twenty years before the highway will have to add a fourth lane just to keep up with congested and keep the highway from coming to a halt on peak hours. Then, it would only take ten more years to have to add a fifth lane and so on. If Brownsville doesn’t any other means by which traffic can move unimpeded, then Brownsville will hit a wall and growth will slow down and congestion will be a daily complaint. What’s needed is a way to keep Brownsville moving not just today but tomorrow as well. Our city has one of the youngest populations in the nation and each and every one of these people will need cars as our city grows. How will the population of the future deal with congestion? By adding a loop around Brownsville and connecting different areas of our city that today is not easily done.

Looping Brownsville is the answer to our city’s growth and its ability to continue growing without screeching to a halt. Both the West Loop and East Loop proposes to do this and our future depend on it. Forty years from now, we will see the fruits of this labor, which could take decades to fully complete, and wonder how Brownsville could have survived without this loop. Just think about that when you are travelling on Highway 77/83 next time.