Gov. Abbott initiates bridge expansion project amid local objections to delays

PRESIDIO — Last Wednesday, State Senator César Blanco’s office put out a press release announcing that Governor Greg Abbott had given the construction project on the Presidio International Bridge his “final approval.” Later that day, an amended press release was circulated clarifying that the governor had merely “initiated” the process for approval, and that there were still several agencies to coordinate before construction could begin again. 

Blanco’s office was not alone in their misunderstanding of the process — local officials have found it difficult to find answers about the construction on the bridge. At a city council meeting held March 21, Councilmember Arian Velázquez-Ornelas put an item on the agenda to discuss the bridge construction after she discovered that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) had been holding regular meetings about the Presidio bridge without representation from the city.

“I just want to make everyone aware that they’ve been having these meetings since 2019, and the city has not been invited,” she said. 

According to Velázquez-Ornelas, work on the bridge was scheduled by TxDOT to shut down on April 11, 2020, pending “MOU with Mexico.” The MOU, or “memorandum of understanding,” is an agreement between all parties involved in the bridge construction. In this case, the MOU requires signatures from the Secretariat of Infrastructure, Communications and Transportation (SICT) and the Federal Toll Roads and Bridges and Related Services (CAPUFE) on the Mexican side and the state of Texas on the American side. 

The MOU had come up in an earlier city council meeting held February 28, when former City Attorney Rod Ponton, based on information from an internal TxDOT source, was under the impression that the agreement was “waiting on the governor’s desk.” Ponton and other city officials were not entirely certain how construction would proceed once the agreement was signed. 

Regardless of the process, representatives from both the city and the port of entry agreed that time was of the essence. Port Director Jesus Luis Chavez was present at the meeting on February 28 and encouraged city council members to reach out to the governor’s office directly. He reported that he had been personally barraged with complaints from locals on the long lines at the bridge, with delays that could last up to 10 hours during peak holiday weekends. 

“We want to support you guys — we want to make sure that we’re there for you,” Chavez told the crowd. “But the fact is, we need everyone’s assistance on this. If we do it right and it gets done this year, your traffic will be a lot better.” 

Beyond locals’ frustration with long wait times at Customs, Velázquez-Ornelas brought up more practical concerns about the delayed construction. “I have safety concerns with the materials that are left exposed on the bridge,” she said. “If you have rebar that’s been exposed to the weather — is it going to need to be repaired? All the material that’s in front of Pancho’s Pizza, that’s all material for the bridge. What’s the cost going to be to rebuild and re-order this material?” 

Velázquez-Ornelas was happy to report at the council’s next meeting on April 1 that Chris Weber, TxDOT’s local engineer out of Alpine, had addressed her concerns. Weber explained that thanks to the dry desert climate in Presidio, the uncovered metal materials would not need to be replaced. “There’s movement forward, so I’m thankful for that,” she said. 

Ponton was skeptical that the MOU was a necessity in the first place. “I think the real story here is that there doesn’t need to be an MOU, because you don’t build a bridge without a presidential permit signed by the presidents and the secretaries of state of the U.S.A. and Mexico that says, ‘We’re going to build this bridge,’” Ponton said. 

The Trump administration signed off on the permit for the Presidio bridge on June 15, 2017. SICT and CAPUFE on the Mexican side proceeded with construction without an MOU with the state of Texas — at the meeting on February 28, council reported that Mexico had “substantially finished their half.” Construction on the American side started to hit snags in March 2019, when TxDOT initially suspended construction “awaiting MOU with Mexico” before indefinitely pausing the project in April 2020. The bridge was closed to nonessential traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic between March 2020 and November 2021, contributing to delays. 

A spokesperson for TxDOT explained that the presidential permit wasn’t enough to authorize the use of state funds: “The Presidential permit authorizes the State of Texas to construct, operate and maintain the Presidio-Ojinaga International Bridge at the International Boundary between the United States and Mexico, however, an agreement is required by the State in accordance with Sec. 792.006, Texas Government Code; for which an agreement made by a state agency that involves the use of money appropriated from the state treasury is not valid unless it is approved by the governor and the Legislative Budget Board.”

Confusingly, local officials noticed construction activity before the MOU was initiated by Abbott’s office, and that the agency’s contractor had been ordering materials for the bridge and stockpiling them near the U.S.-67 southbound entrance by Pancho’s Pizza. At the April 1 city council meeting, Velázquez-Ornelas reported that the project had “already been funded,” per an internal TxDOT source; former City Manager Brad Newton reported seeing movement of equipment at the site where bridge materials were kept. 

Despite all the misunderstanding, local officials ultimately saw the governor’s initiation of the MOU as a sign of progress. “From what I understand, even though maybe it has not been signed yet — whatever the process is, it’s underway,” said Presidio Mayor John Ferguson. “It may not be signed right now, but hopefully it will be within a couple of weeks. Ultimately, if we can actually get this thing back underway, and get it done, that’s all that matters.”

Now that the MOU has been initiated, all parties involved will need to sign the agreement before it gets a second pass across the governor’s desk. Governor Abbott’s office did not respond for comment by press time.