Judge Saenz wants to make sure area benefits

Mauricio Julian Cuellar Jr., nJim Wells County Correspondent

With talk of the U.S. Highway 281 expansion, and desire on the part of TxDOT to see the I69/TransTexas Corridor come to fruition, county judges from Jim Wells, Live Oak, Brooks and Hidalgo counties met at University of Texas - Pan American as part of the 281 Coalition.

The meeting, led by TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz was a first of its kind in the region, where county officials were able to voice some of their opinions and have their questions answered concerning the proposed corridor.

County Judge L. Arnoldo Saenz, along with Commissioners Javier Garcia and Oswald Alanis, attended the meeting. As part of the 281 Coalition, Saenz said the meeting was an opportunity to make sure that whatever the local counties get from the project is fair and the best possible route is made.

"We're working to make sure that 281 is part of the I69 system, to continue with the expansion and maintenance of our highway for the next 30 to 40 years," Saenz said. "It's always a competition for funding, and we want to make sure we stay in the loop and have a voice in the decisions concerning I69."

The stakes are high on the project. Members of the 281 Coalition took a tour of factories along Reynosa, McAllen and Edinburg, creating products such as surgical tools, plasma TVs, Caterpillars and other technology.

"The amount of jobs available and the money and products flowing into the area will benefit not only the Valley, but also those along the route of I69," Garcia said. "Everything we're in the market for, they have there.

"We're talking over 200 factories along the Valley and border region, with products and business coming up 281," Garcia said. "According to the logistics at the meeting, the population in nearby Nueces County will drop off as more and more people move into the Valley area, and we'll see increases in Premont, Alice, San Diego, Ben Bolt and Orange Grove."

Garcia said environmental studies are already complete for the Falfurrias area, which may see the benefits of toll road expansion. State and local officials are also looking into securing Federal Safety Program funding for the construction of an overpass in Ben Bolt, to ensure the safety of students and traffic in the area, which is already heavily traveled with current U.S. Highway 281 traffic. Saenz said the funding for that part of the project could be as much as $6 million.

Premont is also being looked at, although environmental studies and public meetings have yet to be completed, to see whether it will be feasible to expand U.S. Highway 281 running through the area or include a bypass, much like the U.S. Highway 281 relief route near Alice, Saenz said.

Garcia said TxDOT projections show anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of traffic coming up from the Valley will pass through U.S. Highway 281 and not Highway 77 in the future.