The girders and concrete pillars form a trail of construction at FM 495 in Pharr and head toward what is the Rio Grande Valley’s largest highway construction project since the region saw its first convergence of freeways in the 1990s.
The project of three decades ago would be called the Pharr Interchange. The highways in the early 1990s, known as U.S. Highway 281 and Expressway 77/83, are now I-69C and I-2. Where they meet is today’s Pharr Interchange. It’s the Valley’s largest freeway mixmaster and is getting a $303-million makeover for nearly eight miles of roadway. There will be new ramps and connectors. With additional lanes, it is what for now will create arguably the largest tangle of highway construction in Valley history.
It’s a three-year project which began in September 2020 and is aiming to be complete in the fall of 2023. Heading west into McAllen or east toward Harlingen, the mass of construction is impossible to miss. Traffic at times piles up as lanes and exit ramps close to accommodate construction where I-69C and I-2 meet in Pharr. Inconveniences today are temporary, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation said. There are the benefits of smoother traffic flow and greater capacity up ahead in the coming years.
“The added capacity will be very helpful,” said Octavio Saenz, a public information officer for TxDOT, of the project’s completion. “Motorists will be able to maintain speed.”
Easing The Pileups
Traffic pile-ups had become commonplace at the interchange years before all of the construction started.
Motorists taking I-2 exits to Harlingen and McAllen would often back up for miles, even in non-rush hour times. The same has been true for years for motorists in McAllen taking the I-69C exit to Edinburg. They were daily reminders that the interchange built in the 1990s was no longer able to meet the increased vehicle counts and population growth of the last three decades.
The $303-million project’s design meets those issues. A new north/south freeway span will ease the current bottleneck that forms at the current Harlingen/McAllen nexus. Capacity is increasing from two to four lanes on I-69 as motorists head east and west coming into the Interchange. Lane capacity heading into the Interchange on I-2 is increasing from six to eight.
The site at the heart of the interchange in Pharr is currently a tangle of construction. By the week, it is taking shape and proceeding in an orderly fashion. It’s a design/build project where several different aspects are proceeding in a mostly simultaneous fashion, Saenz said. The project can go faster and more efficiently that way, he said, as is the fact a single developer is doing the entire whole project.
Dragados-Pulice is the developer responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of the project. Pulice Construction, with offices in Houston and Arizona, is a heavy civil general contractor. Its international experience includes building bridges, dams and rail projects. Pulice is a wholly owned subsidiary of Dragados S.A., which its website describes as being one of the world’s largest heavy civil contractors.
Engaging with the community and business owners are among the biggest public relations challenges that TxDOT and Dragados-Pulice face in working toward the project’s completion.
Dragos-Pulice has a public information coordinator for the project, Jennifer Cabrera, who works with Saenz in having direct phone and email contact with individual business owners along with providing daily construction updates via social media. An 1-2/I-69 Interchange Project page on Facebook provides nearly daily updates on construction progress and exit and lane closures.
There’s also an information hotline at 1-877-494-8084. General public information updates are useful, but Saenz said TxDOT and Dragos-Pulice know they must communicate directly with individual business owners in the four cities touched by the interchange project.
“I can say something on air that can be hit-or-miss, but if I call you directly, then there’s no way you can miss the information,” Saenz said. “Local businesses don’t always have time to go on social media, so we have to reach out to them. We don’t want people to feel like they’re not getting the information they need.”