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LAWMAKERS TOUT BENEFITS OF LAREDO-LUBBOCK INTERSTATE LINK
More than fifty years after IH-35 was carved into the South Texas landscape, a new interstate highway has begun taking shape in the region that has seen a boom in cross-border traffic.
Representing a portion of South Texas most affected by the continued expansion of the Port of Laredo, US Congressman Henry Cuellar is joined by legislators across the political spectrum this month in pushing for realization of a plan that connects the border city with northwest Texas and may reach as far as the Canadian border.
For South Texas residents, the project means safer and swifter connectivity between border-area cities and a continuous highway reaching to the far northwest.
President Joe Biden signed legislation in March that solidifies the north-south path paralleling IH-35 as a trade corridor; subsequent legislation promoted by Cuellar and others designates the Ports-to-Plains Corridor following present state highways as the future route of IH-27.
The only existing stretch of IH-27 presently connects Lubbock to Amarillo and is contained entirely within the state of Texas, making it one of the shortest interstate highways in the country.
Plans call for the extended IH-27 to stretch from Lubbock to Laredo, connecting the Eagle Ford Shale and Permian Basin oil and gas exploration fields and giving agri-business a direct non-stop route to the Mexican border.
When complete, the new interstate link will follow US 83 out of Webb County through Carrizo Springs and Eagle Pass, then parallel the US-Mexico border as far as Del Rio, where it will turn north on the current US 277 towards Sonora, crossing IH-10 and continuing north to San Angelo.
At Sterling City in West Texas the interstate may take one or both paths towards Lubbock, traveling northwest either though Midland-Odessa or through Big Spring on US 87 before reaching Lamesa and angling directly north to join the existing IH-27 as far as Amarillo. Thereafter, it will follow US 87 to the Panhandle, reaching either to Raton, New Mexico, or to the Oklahoma border north of Stratford on Hwy 287.
Federal lawmakers expect the connection to reach north through Kansas, Nebraska, South and North Dakota, crossing interstates 40, 70, 76, 80, 90 and 94 en route, a distance of 2,300 miles.
Portions of the existing route between West Texas and the Panhandle will be the first to see completion as an interstate highway, according to spokespersons for the Ports-to-Plains Corridor.
The corridor itself had been granted legitimacy as early as 1998, when the US Congress designated it a high-priority route. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) created advisory committees composed of local representatives and regional lawmakers who met at cities along the Texas path of the proposed interstate during 2019 and 2020. Public meetings were also held, some of them by internet connection during the coronavirus pandemic.
Among the results of the TxDOT study, published in 2020, was data showing that the corridor connecting the state’s and nation’s strategic trade gateways of Laredo, Eagle Pass and Del Rio to destinations north, west and east had handled $262 billion in trade, 66 percent of the Texas-Mexico cross-border trade, and fifty percent of all US-Mexico cross-border trade the previous year. That information had been provided for the study by US Customs and Border Patrol in its Truck Volumes by Bridge report and the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics Transborder Freight Data.
“The Ports-to-Plains Corridor supports the largest agricultural production in the country,” TxDOT reported in its summary, adding that the corridor “supports the production and export of agricultural products generating approximately $11 billion a year in agricultural sales,” and that export “relies directly on highway networks for transport of products to national and global markets.”
In an outlook for the corridor, projecting growth based on development of an interstate over existing state roads, TxDOT showed that employment growth that had stood at 619,000 jobs along the route in 1990 had grown to 895,000 by 2020 and could reach 1.04 million by 2050.
Household income in regions affected by the development of an interstate through the trade corridor likewise grew in the TxDOT projection, with an average of $21,000 per year in 1990 more than doubling to over $50,000 by 2020 and expected to exceed $131,000 per year by 2050.
Freight traffic coming out of Laredo, Eagle Pass and Del Rio – nearly 80 percent of which is by truck – is expected to grow by 78 percent between 2018 and 2050, according to TxDOT.
The transportation department also estimated in 2020 that the cost of upgrading existing highways to a controlled-access interstate of up to four lanes in each direction (two lanes for most stretches) along Texas’ 963 miles of the Ports-to-Plains Corridor would be $23.5 billion.
Since a portion of the distance is already built as a four-lane interstate, the construction project would extend 811 miles of road that are presently “non-interstate,” TxDOT reported.
A projection of the return on investment, should the continuous interstate be developed, TxDOT reported, shows creation of at least 1,050 jobs in food and agriculture, over 2,500 jobs in warehousing and distribution, over 3,000 in the energy industry and nearly 11,000 in other industries directly related to the interstate and its traffic.
Federal appropriations legislation in 2022 served to add the newly designated Ports-to-Plains Corridor between Raton and Laredo to the Interstate Highway System.
That designation, according to Rep. Cuellar last week, gives South Texas grounds for hope that the border city and its environs will benefit economically from the link, both in the movement of goods to and from the nation’s busiest inland port and in employment opportunities.
Congressmen Cuellar and Jodey Arrington, Republican of Lubbock, first pushed for the legislation creating the interstate link in 2020.
The lawmakers’s efforts are supported by TxDOT data that indicated the IH-27 extension will help improve Texas’ overall traffic safety record, “decreasing the state’s annual crash rate by as much as 21 percent,” according to Rep. Arrington in a statement to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
For his part, Rep. Cuellar views the development as vital to economic development in South Texas.
“Interstate 27 will grow Texas’ gross domestic product by $17.2 billion and create 178,600 construction jobs,” the congressman from Laredo estimated. “It will also add 17,000 long-term employment opportunities.
“With this project, Laredo will also become the only port of entry with four interstate corridors: IH-35, IH-2, IH-69 and IH-27, a boon for our trade economy,” the congressman said.
Reps. Cuellar and Arrington introduced legislation Wednesday, March 29, in the IH-27 Numbering Act of 2023, naming the new interstate route.
“I secured the IH-27 highway expansion project to unlock funding for a four-lane highway from Laredo […] to New Mexico,” Rep. Cuellar said of his work with regard to the omnibus appropriations bill last year, adding that Laredo sees an estimated 17,000 freight truck trailers crossing the border daily. “We’re seeing that project come to fruition as the act christens the newly named interstate.”
Rep. Arrington said last week that he believes working across the political aisle with Rep. Cuellar has been vital for the economy.
“The Ports-to-Plains Corridor, which expands from Texas through the Heartland, serves as a critical tool for enhancing America’s agriculture and energy dominance,” Rep. Arrington said. “This legislation to number the Texas portion of the corridor as Interstate Route 27 is one step closer to ensuring the nation’s largest agricultural and energy production centers located in West Texas are more accessible to the rest of the country.”
Rep. Cuellar noted that the federal interstate highway system may represent “five percent of America’s roads but carries over 55 percent of vehicle miles traveled.”
The congressman added that he believes the IH-27 corridor will be a cost-effective way to reduce congestion on neighboring north-south highways, including IH-25 to the west and IH-35 to the east.
The US Senate has seen a similar push for the interstate designation, with Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn joined by Sen. Ray Lujan of New Mexico introducing a matching bill that formally designates the Ports-to-Plains Corridor as IH-27.
Sen. Cruz voted against the $1.5 trillion omnibus appropriations bill in 2022 that had laid out the expansion plan for IH-27 beyond its present Lubbock-Amarillo stretch.
Sen. Cornyn noted in a prepared statement that lawmakers’ efforts to designate the Ports-to-Plains Corridor as a future interstate “will expand opportunity for farmers, ranchers, and producers across Texas.”
“Formally naming the Texas and New Mexico segments Interstate 27 will close the loop on bringing this critical project to fruition,” Sen. Cornyn wrote.