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Readying a Rail Bridge Over the Rio Grande

It has been more than 100 years since Texas and Mexico saw a new railroad line that spans both countries. That streak is set to end this year with the expected completion of the Brownsville West Rail Bypass International Bridge.

Construction workers for the Mexican contracting company Coconao work on a segment of the new rail bridge that stands over the Rio Grande.

The last time the Texas-Mexico border witnessed a ribbon cutting for a railway bridge, the United States had yet to witness two world wars or Prohibition. And Mexico had not yet seen its own country in the throes of revolution.

That is set to change in December, when officials from both sides of the Rio Grande expect the completion of the Brownsville West Rail Bypass International Bridge, an eight-mile project that traverses a rural part of Cameron County in Texas and runs into Tamaulipas State in Mexico. The bridge, which has taken more than 10 years to plan and build, will be the first across the border since the 1900s.

Business experts and local officials say the project should make the growing trade between Texas and Mexico easier and allow the Laredo Customs District to remain the country’s No. 1 inland port.

The bridge was designed, in part, to help alleviate the congestion caused by the current rail line between cities on both sides of the border.

“One of the problems that we have with the existing rail bridge is that we do not have a window with sufficient time to cross into Mexico,” said Pete Sepulveda, the Cameron County administrator, referring to the time when rail traffic does not intrude on vehicular and pedestrian traffic in urban areas.

“When we take it from an urban area to a rural area, that gives us the ability to extend that window,” Sepulveda said. “From an administrative standpoint, that gives us a good marketing tool.”

Rail traffic hauls about 6 percent of the goods that pass across the United States’ southern border under the North American Free Trade Agreement, said Nelson Balido, the president of the Border Trade Alliance, a nonprofit consortium of economists and private sector interests that represents more than 4.2 million members.

The Mexican government “predicts that in the next five years, it will increase to 35 percent,” Balido said.

Despite a global economic downturn and a level of violence in Mexico that has not been seen since its revolution in the early 20th century, trade between the United States and Mexico has increased steadily over the last few years.

During the first seven months of this year, commerce between the two countries totaled about $287 billion, according to United States census data analyzed by WorldCity, which tracks global trade patterns. That represents an increase of almost 10 percent over the same period in 2011. About $133 billion of that has passed through the Laredo Customs District, which includes the Port of Brownsville. The county has spent about $3.5 million on the project. The remaining $34 million was picked up by the state and federal governments, Sepulveda said. The Brownsville bridge project began in 2000 and moved slowly, in part because of it had to come out of its general revenue.  

International vehicular and pedestrian bridges, which often charge tolls and are managed by city officials, are significant sources of money for local governments. The revenue is partly spent on infrastructure projects or improvements. Rail lines are privately owned, however, and Union Pacific will own and manage the new line.

Sepulveda said the county would benefit instead from the economic development attached to the project, including a revamp of the area around the existing line.

“There is going to be about an eight-mile stretch inside the city of Brownsville that we’re going to be able to redevelop,” he said.

He added that the violence in Mexico had not been a deterrent.

“We knew we were planning for the future. We were aware,” he said. “We’re cognizant of the issues going on in Mexico, but we feel that given time, those issues will be resolved.”

“And when they do,” he added, “we want to be in a position to maximize the benefits."

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