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Story by the Rio Grande Guardian, www.riograndeguardian.com
McALLEN, Dec. 30 - Cities, school districts, hospitals, economic development corporations and other large employers are being asked to be stakeholders as Hidalgo County continues to study the feasibility of commuter rail.
Over the next six weeks, these stakeholders are to meet privately with a consortium that is conducting the feasibility study. The consortium includes Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN) and The Warren Group Architects. The study has been made possible by a federal grant.
“The response so far has been quite positive, even before the formal meetings start,” said Laura Nassri Warren, principal of The Warren Group Architects, Inc.
“We are having to do some sales work, we are having to enlighten some people. There are some who ask, what is commuter rail? It is okay not to know because we have not been exposed to it in the Valley before. But, once we start explaining it they ask, why have we not had this before? What can we do to help? We are getting good responses.”
Warren provided a list of the stakeholders who have signed up to meet with the consortium. The list includes the cities of McAllen, Mission, Edinburg, Pharr, Alamo, Donna, Weslaco, and Mercedes. The list also includes Sharyland ISD, South Texas College, the University of Texas-Pan American, and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. It also includes the economic development corporations for McAllen and Mission.
Warren said other cities, school districts, hospitals and economic development corporations are being encouraged to participate.
“It is very important that we work with the community, that we deliver the right message to each and every one of the stakeholders. Without this support this project will not be feasible,” Warren said.
Buy-in from the stakeholders is crucial because they may be asked to provide land, right of way, buildings for the stations and to request matching grants, Warren said. “The towns do need to support this. They have to believe in this and how it is going to benefit them. They need to be ready to step up to the plate in case the county decides to solidify this project,” she said.
LAN was hired after Hidalgo County was awarded half a million dollars by the U.S, Department of Energy to conduct a feasibility study into the possibility of commuter rail. LAN began its work in late summer. The Warren Group Architects came on board soon afterwards.
Warren said that when Hidalgo County learned it had won a grant to study commuter rail, it did not want the study to be completed and then gather dust. Hence the decision to set up a Commuter Rail District committee and hence the decision to hire LAN, she said.
“We have an amazing team. LAN has been very successful nationwide in doing highly rated rail projects,” Warren said. “The architects, engineers, and project managers from our team (LAN and TWG) will be involved in this project.”
Warren pointed out that 25 cities across the United States have commuter rail and 50 more, including the Valley, El Paso, San Antonio, and Austin, are in the planning stages.
Warren acknowledged that at first glance the idea of promoting commuter rail might be a tough sell in the Valley because many locals may not familiar with it. However, she said there are a lot of people that have relocated to the Valley and have first hand experience of public transportation and like it.
“We are not a pedestrian-oriented community in the Valley, unfortunately, but it is because the resources are not there. We cannot install green thinking if we do not have the infrastructure. It is a good step in the right direction,” she said.
“When McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez had his State of City address and asked those who were not from the Valley to stand up, 75 percent stood up. This opened my eyes. I think this is why this is going to be possible to achieve commuter rail. People move here with that mentality.”
Warren then ran through a list of reasons commuter rail would be good for Hidalgo County and the Valley generally, if Cameron County, Starr County and Willacy County were to buy into the concept.
She said companies looking to locate here want to be assured that there is a ready pool of potential employees and those employees can get to work in a safe and speedy fashion. Colleges and universities want a safe and reliable transportation system so that students and staff can get to their campuses with ease.
Commuter rail is less costly to maintain than highways, Warren said, and is friendlier to the environment. There is also great potential for economic development around the rail stations, she said.
“We could attract big events and more businesses into our community with commuter rail, and it would help to bring us high speed rail. That would be next. Can you imagine going to San Antonio from here by rail. It can turn into high speed,” Warren said.
Warren said that with a commuter rail service, the Valley would no longer be thought of as a largely rural area. “We will be recognized as a metropolis, which we are. It will tell people more about who we really are: an international community,” she said.
So, what are the chances that the feasibility study will be positive and Hidalgo County will proceed with commuter rail, Warren was asked. She said she was very optimistic.
“With the new leadership we have in Hidalgo County, people like Alonzo Cantu and David Guerra, we can do it. They see the benefits. They see how this will work for us,” Warren said.
How long before Hidalgo County residents are taking the train to work and shop, Warren was asked. “Hopefully, within the next five years,” she answered. She then explained her optimism.
“Look, I worked with the Ray Hunt on the Sharyland Master Panned Development, the 6,000 acre site and the 17,000 acre site. I remember we were planting palm trees every 40 feet along Military Highway and people were laughing at us,” Warren recalled.
“Now, we have first class industrial plants. Look at it now, we built three phases in ten years, we have proven ourselves. I have full faith in our leadership, we continue to break records. Maybe my assessment is too positive but I have witnessed a lot of records here, I do have a lot of faith in this area. If this proves to be feasible I have no doubt it will get done.”
As well as community outreach with the stakeholders, Warren’s company is involved in the design of the stations.
“Right now the idea is to use existing infrastructure for the stations. This makes sense. We are trying to identify some historic buildings we can use and create a local identity. This area is so rich in culture. We just have to bring it to light,” she said.
Warren acknowledged that the commuter rail project would be even better if Cameron County participated. She hopes the county’s leaders get involved.
“It would be wonderful because the need is there. UTB/TSC is amazing college. A lot of students do not get to go because they do not have the transportation. The leadership needs to be there, the leadership from Cameron County and Starr County needs to get together. They have to say, we want to tie in,” Warren said.
“We need to break through territorialism. We have to start seeing each other as a larger community, rather than the City of McAllen, the City of Harlingen, or the City of Brownsville. I hope this is a step in the right direction.”
Warren moved to the Valley in the mid-1990s from the Juarez-El Paso area. She said the growth she has witnessed in the region gives her optimism the commuter rail project will happen.
“For someone who is bi-national like me, I can see it is coming. I do not see a way back. We have lost a lot of programs here because we have not had the infrastructure that unites everything. No infrastructure between the towns, those are the qualifiers. I think we will have a bigger voice once we show them we are a united area; that we are a true metropolis. I think the Valley is ready,” Warren added.
Here are the questions LAN and The Warren Group Architects are asking potential stakeholders:
• What transit services does your city need?• Where do your employees and visitors largely reside and do any take transit now?• What are the major stated issues/complaints about transportation?• What would be good/bad locations for stations and why?• Potential station areas are mostly zoned commercial/industrial. What’s the feasibility of directing more jobs there rather than in outlying areas?• Who might participate with implementation and ongoing costs of the rail system?
For Schools (ISDs, colleges and universities)
• Where do your employees largely reside? Do any take transit now?• What are the major stated issues/complaints about transportation?• What do your enrollment and staffing level projections look like?• Are there plans for new/expanded campuses?• Are there heavily attended events that might benefit from being near a passenger rail service? If so, what events and roughly how many people attend/work at them?
• How many employees and visitors do you experience on an average day?• What do your patient, visitor and staffing level projections look like?• Are there plans for new/expanded facilities?• Where do your employees largely reside? Do any take transit now?• Where do your patients and visitors come from?
For Economic Development directors
• What is the real estate potential for higher density developments around stations?• Potential station areas are mostly zoned commercial/industrial. What’s the feasibility of directing more jobs there?• What types of trips should be served?• Are there areas of increasing congestion in the region where worsening conditions pose a risk to further development?• What potential is there for public-private partnerships for station-area development?• Who might participate with implementation costs of the rail system?