FEATURED: The Pharr International Bridge serves as one of the most important ports of entry for the U.S.-Mexico border. It handles both commercial and passenger-operated vehicles and crosses about one hundred seventy-five thousand vehicles a month.
Photograph Courtesy CITY OF PHARR
Legislative “Hail Mary Pass” from Sen. Hinojosa to Rep. Canales generates remarkable victory for the City of Pharr and its Pharr International Bridge
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
As time was running out for state lawmakers in May 2021, a legislative “Hail Mary Pass” from Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, to Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, generated a remarkable victory for the City of Pharr and one of its prized economic engines, the Pharr International Bridge.
A “Hail Mary Pass” is a very long forward pass in American football, typically made in desperation, with great difficulty of achieving a completion. Due to the small chance of success, it makes reference to the Catholic Hail Mary prayer for help.
With only weeks left in the 140-day regular session of the 87th Texas Legislature, Pharr city leaders – led by Mayor Dr. Ambrosio Hernández – wanted to make sure existing state law would not delay plans to increase the safe and faster importation of valuable amounts of Mexican produce through the bridge for transportation to major markets throughout the U.S.
The key was to eliminate the threat of state bureaucratic roadblocks to those plans.
But to do that, the legislation – Senate Bill 2243 authored by Hinojosa and sponsored by Canales – was not able to be filed until Monday, May 3, 2021 – which is very late in the legislative process.
In order to realign the permitting process in both the state and federal levels, Pharr had to act quickly in getting the measure to the Valley state legislative delegation, but praised Hinojosa, a member of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Canales, Chair, House Committee on Transportation, and Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, Chair, Senate Committee on Transportation, among others,for their vital help.
Fortunately for Pharr officials, Senate Bill 2243 was assigned to the Senate Committee on Transportation, of which Hinojosa is a member, and eventually go through Canales’ House Committee on Transportation – “friendly committees” whose respective members almost most certainly would support their colleagues on those two legislative panels.
A committee is a group of legislators appointed by the Speaker of the House or the Lt. Governor in the Senate to which proposed legislation is referred or a specific task is assigned.
A Chair is a legislator appointed to preside over a legislative committee.
According to the bill analysis of Senate Bill 2243, prepared by the Senate Research Center, which provides quality, specialized, objective research and information to the Texas Senate and Office of the Lieutenant Governor:
• In 1968, the federal government began requiring new international bridges to obtain presidential permits.
(Under Executive Order 11423, as amended, August 16, 1968 (33 Fed. Reg. 11741), the Secretary of State has the authority to receive applications for and to issue Presidential permits for land border crossing facilities and states, in part, that “. . . the proper conduct of the foreign relations of the United States requires that executive permission be obtained for the construction and maintenance at the borders of the United States of facilities connecting the United States with a foreign country.” This authority applies to all new border crossings and to all substantial modifications of existing crossings at the international border.)
• In 1995, the State of Texas established a similar requirement for political subdivisions and private entities to obtain approval from the Texas Transportation Commission before constructing or financing the construction of a bridge over the Rio Grande.
• While the current statute requires a political subdivision to obtain this approval for the construction of a new bridge, there is no exemption from this requirement for the reconstruction or improvement of bridges that have already received the permit. Senate Bill 2243 seeks to address this issue by providing an exemption from commission approval for the reconstruction or improvement of an existing bridge.
But because of the risky timing in asking for and filing Senate Bill 2243, the stage was set for what would become a Valley version of its own “Hail Mary Pass”.
“The Texas Legislature’s approval of Senate Bill 2243during the final hours of the 140-day regular session took a team effort from so many people to make this happen, both here at the Capitol and in the Valley because we were asked to file the legislation so late in the session,” said Canales. “Just look at how many hundreds of other worthy and important bills ran out of time and died. But not ours.”
As the sponsor of Senate Bill 2243, Canales is the legislator who guided the bill through the legislative process in the House of Representatives after the bill had passed the Senate.
Legislation is proposed or enacted law or group of laws.
“Filed” is used to refer to a measure that has been introduced into the legislative process and given a number.
A bill is a type of legislative measure that requires passage by the House of Representatives and the Senate, and action by the governor in order to become effective. A bill is the primary means used to create and change the laws of the state.
A session is a period during which the Texas Legislature meets.
As the author of Senate Bill 2243, Hinojosa is the legislator who filed the bill in the Senate and guided it through the legislative process (also called the primary author).
Senate Bill 2243 “is important because we have a backlog of trucks taking hours and hours and hours to come across bringing fresh produce, vegetables and fruits, and many times they spoil,” Hinojosa explained.
The Pharr International Bridge – known in Mexico as the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge (Puente Internacional Reynosa-Pharr or Puente Nuevo Amanecer) – serves as one of the most important ports of entry for the U.S.-Mexico border. It handles both commercial and passenger-operated vehicles and crosses about a hundred and seventy-five thousand vehicles a month.
“Our ports of entry are gateways to the Texas economy and supporting our international bridges has been one of my priorities this session. I authored Senate Bill 2243 to provide relief to the City of Pharr from having to obtain both a federal and state permit, thus eliminating duplication, saving taxpayer funds, and expediting construction of the expansion of the Pharr bridge,” Hinojosa added.
Canales said the change to existing state law will free a political subdivision in Texas, such as the City of Pharr, from unnecessary duplication of efforts, “such as the feasibility, location, economic effect, and environmental impact, and any other required information of the bridge over the Rio Grande River” if
the project meets the following criteria: the project is for the reconstruction, improvement, expansion, or maintenance of an existing bridge; and the project has received approval from the United States under federal law authorizing the project.
The Pharr–Reynosa International Bridge crosses the the Rio Grande and U.S.-Mexico border. It connects the city of Pharr in Texas with the city of Reynosa and Mexican Federal Highway 2 in Tamaulipas state, Mexico.
The bridge connects to U.S. Route 281 via Texas State Highway Spur 600.
The bridge handles commercial vehicles as well as passenger vehicles. It serves as an important port of entry into the U.S. Since 1996, all trucks have been diverted here from the McAllen–Hidalgo–Reynosa International Bridge on the west?upriver.
With a 5 km (3 miles) length, it is one of the longest international bridges connecting two countries in the world. Øresund-bridge between Denmark and Sweden is 7 845 meters(4.87 miles).
“The bridge is 3 miles in length from Point A (Pharr Port of Entry) to Point B (Reynosa Aduana). It is this long because it runs over protected wildlife habitat,” explained Luis Bazán, Bridge Director, Pharr International Bridge. “The bridge crosses above the Rio Grande River, which is 180 feet wide.”
Among its other highlights, of the Pharr International Bridge, Bazán said, “We are the number one produce bridge in the United States, crossing more than 65 percent of all produce from Mexico through Texas land ports of entry. This averages out at about 30-35 percent month-to-month.”
In produce imports alone, the latest annual figures on the value of vegetable and fruit imports coming across the Pharr International Bridge are impressive:
No. 1 imports: Avocados, Dates, Figs, and Pineapples valued at almost $1.5 billion;
No. 2 imports: Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries and other berry types valued at $954,706,657;
No. 3 imports: Tomatoes (fresh/chilled) valued at $592,719,245;
No. 4 imports: Peppers, Asparagus and Squash valued at $428,019,176; and
No. 5 imports: Lemons/Limes and other citrus valued at $355,104,490
Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, also played key roles, serving as coauthors of Senate Bill 2243.
As coauthors, Lucio and Zaffirini were legislators authorized by Hinojosa to join in the authorship of the measure.
“By allowing an exemption for existing bridges, who have the permit and have already undergone the process, this will expedite the rate at which we can work on improvements, reconstruction, or construction at our current bridges,” said Lucio. “Overall, this will help us address infrastructure needs at our international bridges, so that we may keep up with the supply and demand of trade and continue to be a key leader in the movement of goods between the U.S. and Mexico.”
During the Wednesday, May 5, 2021 public hearing of the bill before the Senate Committee on Transportation, it was Nichols, the leader of the committee, who expressed deep concern about the chances of Senate Bill 2243 overcoming the many legislative hurdles it faced.
“Chair lays out Senate bill 22…” Nichols began the introduction of the public hearing for the Hinojosa/Canales measure, before pausing to worry about the bill’s fate. “It is kind of late in the session for Senate bills.”
Hinojosa replied with an obvious understatement: “This is what you call a ‘Hail Mary Pass’ at this point.”
Knowing the measure was pressed for time, Hinojosa provided the following testimony about Senate Bill 2243:
• The bill is intended to address an issue between the City of Pharr and the Texas Department of Transportation regarding the Pharr International Bridge. Since 1997, Texas law requires approval by the Texas Transportation Commission of bridges over the Rio Grande River and from the United States through a presidential permit. The Pharr International Bridge received its original presidential permit in 1978, decades before our existing state statute.
• Due to significant growth in trade with Mexico, the City of Pharr decided to expand the existing bridge by adding four lanes and submitted an application for a presidential permit amendment to the U.S. Department of State on September 30, 2020. The White House issued the presidential permit on December 31, 2020.
• The process to obtain the most recent presidential permit cost between $1 million and $2 million.
• The currently-required Texas Department of Transportation permit would cost the City of Pharr at least half a million dollars and take an additional six to 10 months for approval.
“Senate Bill 2243 amends the Transportation Code to align the state process with the new federal permitting process, and clarifies that the Texas Department of Transportation permit is required only for new bridges over the Rio Grande River,” Hinojosa said. “The reason that is important is that we have a backlog of trucks taking hours and hours and hours to come across bringing fresh produce, vegetables and fruits, and many times they spoil. This is already a bridge in place, this is not building a new bridge, it is just expanding on a bridge that is already in place.”
Appearing in support of Senate Bill 2243 before the Senate Committee on Transportation during its public hearing on Wednesday, May 5, 2021 was Cynthia Garza Reyes, Director of External Relations, City of Pharr/Pharr International Bridge, along with Michael Vargas, Public Affairs Liaison, Pharr International Bridge.
“Like all international port of entry projects, time is money,” Reyes stated in her written testimony. “The bridge continues to cross over $36 billion in trade and is the number one crosser of produce in the U.S. along with top rankings in other commodities.”
The Senate Committee on Transportation approved the bill later in the meeting, putting it on a fast track as possible, and in less than a week, the Senate on Tuesday, May 11, 2021, approved it, leaving it up to Canales to get the measure out of the House of Representatives with less than three weeks to go.
Two days later – on Thursday, May 13, 2021, Canales had Senate Bill 2243 presented to his House Committee on Transportation, which supported it, and by Wednesday, May 26, 2021, the House of Representatives gave its blessing.
“The bill would not have been possible without the support and advancement through the Texas House and the Transportation Committee without the hard work and dedication of Chairman Terry Canales,” Hernández emphasized.
By Monday, May 31, 2021 – the final day of the 87th Texas Legislature – Senate Bill 2243 had completed its surprising sprint through the legislative process.
On Friday, June 18, 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 2243 into law, and it became effective immediately.
The achievement was clearly recognized by the Pharr mayor.
“This is a true testament to our elected officials working together cohesively to get the job done in record time,” said Hernández. “With their drive and determination for this bill, the South Texas legislative delegation came in strong for the additional support needed to cross the fast-approaching finish line.”
For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).