Local Officials Testify on Infrastructure Disparities Before Congressional Committee
From the lack of interstate connectivity and how that impacts international commerce, to drainage infrastructure gaps, to expanding broadband access, officials here spoke of the Rio Grande Valley’s vast infrastructure needs as an underfunded but burgeoning metropolitan area.
Those officials — from Hidalgo and Cameron counties, as well as a former adviser to the Dallas Federal Reserve — got the chance to share their concerns as they testified before a bipartisan meeting of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Economic Disparity & Fairness in Growth on Friday.
The Select Committee made a two-day visit to the Valley, where they toured local colonias, as well as the Rio Grande, before capping off the visit with the field hearing at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council in Weslaco.
“We’re here primarily to listen,” Committee Chairman Jim Himes, D-Connecticut, said at the start of the hearing.
ROADS AND BRIDGES
The bulk of the testimony delivered by the witnesses revolved around the Valley’s road, drainage and broadband infrastructure needs.
Each witness had just five minutes to testify before the bipartisan delegation, which included representatives from as far away as California and Florida.
“In Cameron County alone, we have over $2 billion of projects planned; $180 million are shovel ready, $320 (million) are under design, and $1.6 (billion) are in the planning phase,” said Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr.
The bulk of those projects would have direct impacts on international trade, including the International Bridge Trade Corridor, and the East Loop project, which would connect Brownsville’s land ports of entry.
The county judge explained that Cameron County’s ports of entry accounted for more than 3.5 million international crossings in 2021, despite pandemic-era restrictions that hampered commercial traffic.
But the thus-far unfinished extension of I-69 into the Valley has hindered that commercial traffic, Treviño explained.
Cameron County Precinct 3 Commissioner David A. Garza expounded on that during his testimony.
“Texas is the gateway for U.S.-Mexico trade. In 2020, 65% of all the goods coming in from Mexico to the U.S. went through Texas,” Garza said.
“Interstate highways are at the top of the site selection factors to attract new industry to an area,” Garza said.
But as the Valley has grown — evolving from an agrarian economy to one that is increasingly urban and international — it has found itself stuck in a Catch-22.
Since it is still considered mostly rural, the Valley’s ability to compete for federal highway dollars often falls short to areas long considered urban, making it the largest metropolitan area in the country without an interstate, Garza explained.
“Many times, our projects don’t compete because the grant funding is measured on the same metrics as urban projects are. It’s hard to compete with areas that have had an interstate for the last 40 or 50 years,” he said.
DISPARITIES AFTER DISASTER
Funding disparities haven’t just affected the Valley’s ability to build roads, they’ve also affected how the region bounces back after a natural disaster.
As Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner Fuentes put it, the Valley hasn’t received its fair share of federal help.
“We have found that many of the federal funding opportunities available to Hidalgo County have inequitable rules and criteria that make it extremely difficult — if not impossible — for us to obtain federal funding for infrastructure,” Fuentes testified.
The starkest example of that came after Hurricane Harvey. Though the 2017 storm didn’t make landfall here, the Valley was nonetheless impacted by severe weather events that same year.
In response to the numerous disasters, Congress passed $4.2 billion in relief to be distributed via the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development.
But only $25 million trickled down to the Valley. The remaining $4.1 billion in relief dollars went to the Harris County area.
“Was that because they have 168 times more population, or received 168 times more rainwater? One hundred and sixty-eight times more funding than we received. That is a huge disparity,” Fuentes said.
Another striking example came in the wake of the Great June Flood of 2018 in the RGV.
After approximately 35 inches of rain fell over the Valley — and primarily in Fuentes’ precinct — FEMA explained that “a revised interpretation of their rules” meant the region would not receive funding.
All four counties, in fact, failed to qualify for FEMA’s public assistance despite the tens of millions in damage incurred by the two-day storm.
“We are requesting that the rules and criteria of new and existing federal funding programs be modified to create a more equitable distribution of federal funds,” Fuentes said.
THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
Finally, Jordana Barton-Garcia explained how the disappearance of “middle skill jobs” — those trade jobs that don’t require a college degree — combined with the rapid evolution of the digital economy is putting residents of colonias at risk of being left behind.
It is widening the digital divide, said Barton-Garcia, a product of the Benavides Colonia in western Hidalgo County who once served as a senior adviser to the Dallas Federal Reserve.
“This digital transformation that we’re all having to go through, we’re not preparing our population,” she said, saying the country has been thrust into the fourth industrial revolution and is threatening to lock people out of a path to the middle class.
That transformation was hastened by at least 10 years thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which, in turn, more sharply highlighted areas being underserved.
“Some of the most innovative things are happening here, it’s just they’re not getting the investment to take it to scale, to reach everybody,” she said.
The Select Committee heard from one final witness Friday. However, the testimony of Susan Kibbe, a Brooks County property rights advocate, was not about infrastructure, but rather border security.
“In the absence of real solutions from the federal government, we support the efforts of the state of Texas to protect its citizens and their property during the current border crisis,” Kibbe, executive director of the South Texas Property Rights Association, testified.
“If or when Title 42 comes to an end, or in the current climate, we could be facing hundreds more hardened criminals pouring into the country,” Kibbe said.
Kibbe’s talking points were echoed by every Republican member of the Select Committee as the members took turns asking follow-up questions.
While the committee’s Democratic members probed further on the testimony — asking about how colonias affect community health, or the larger repercussions of flooding — the Republican members repeatedly turned the discussions to border security.
Many tried to conflate the costs of “securing the border” with why infrastructure funding falls short.
“If we can secure the border, then the state of Texas is going to have plenty of more funding to be able to invest in infrastructure and water treatment facilities in your communities,” Rep. Stephanie I. Bice, R-Oklahoma, said.
Bice was referring to an earlier conversation she had had with Fuentes regarding the $500 million estimated cost of flood mitigation and how that money could be freed up were it not for the billions Texas has spent financing Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security initiative, Operation Lone Star, since its implementation last spring.
“But, without addressing your root cause, the money is going to other things,” Bice said.
In a statement issued after the committee hearing, Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Mission, said he was disappointed to see his colleagues stray so far off topic.
“I was appalled that my Republican colleagues used this unique opportunity to paint South Texas as a lawless and unsafe community,” Gonzalez said.
“It is ignorant and highly disrespectful for my Republican colleagues to continue to use the Rio Grande Valley as a political backdrop and use my constituents as political pawns,” he said.