DALLAS -- Laredo, Tex., has received a presidential permit to build a fourth bridge across the Rio Grande River on the U.S.-Mexico border, clearing the way for the nation's largest inland port to relieve trucking congestion and to provide a better link to Mexican industrial giant Monterrey.

The permit is believed to be the first issued since the North American Free Trade Agreement was approved last year by the U.S. Congress.

It also is considered a crucial step in completing the much-needed bridge for about $50 million by late 1996. Financing for the project will be obtained through an unusual revolving loan fund to be operated by Texas agencies.

"We are ecstatic in Laredo," city manager Peter Vargas said following a speech to the Southern Municipal Finance Society, which met in Dallas last week. "Interstate 35 has become a virtual parking lot for international trade."

With more than 1.3 million trucks crossing the border last year, a 49% increase from 1991, traffic often is backed up for three to five miles along 1-35, which connects to the two international bridges in downtown Laredo. Vehicles are tied up an average of two hours.

To prevent those delays and help expedite the booming trade business between the United States and Mexico, Vargas said Laredo applied for the permit in 1991 to build the Northwest Crossing, about 10 miles from downtown.

The permit was finally awarded about two weeks ago by the Department of State, after extensive lobbying from Laredo officials, Texas Gov. Ann Richards, and others.

Given its fast growth, the city had a good case for wanting a bridge. But federal officials balked at approving another bridge when a new, eight-lane bridge was opened two years before and received little, if any, traffic.

The Columbia Solidarity Bridge was located about 20 miles from the city center in Laredo and was intended to connect Texas to a new toll road being built from Monterrey in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon.

However, the toll road was never completed and hooked to the bridge. As a result, few trucks wanted to drive the extra miles along the old Mines Road, and few trucking customers wanted to pay extra fees to transport their goods across the bridge. Traffic on the bridge amounts to only about 5,000 trucks a month.

Vargas maintains that the new bridge and planned new road on the Mexican side should help bolster traffic on the Columbia Solidarity crossing because it will help provide missing links in the transportation system. It also will provide a crossing specifically built to accommodate 18-wheel trucks.

He said the city is now negotiating details with the Mexican government and he expects they will be successful.

Plans call for completing engineering design work next year and finishing the bridge by the end of 1996, Vargas said. The bridge will cost the United States about $25 million and be paid for with city, state, and federal funding, he said. The Mexican government is expected to spend about an equal amount.

The city hopes to get its share of the financing and issue revenue bonds -- about $11.5 million -- through a state revolving loan fund, which is being established by the Texas Turnpike Authority.

Considered to be the first of its kind in the nation, the fund would enhance credit and provide financial leverage for state infrastructure projects. Laredo could be the first to use the fund.

"We continue to be on the cutting edge," Vargas said.

In addition to the Northwest Crossing bridge, a $20 million road is being planned on the Mexican side to link the new Monterrey toll road to the proposed bridge and eliminate some of the time and fee differences that have prevented heavy utilization of the Columbia Solidarity, he said.

The new bridge is expected to be constructed between downtown and the Columbia Solidarity Bridge at the intersection of Mines and Milo roads in Laredo.

Meantime, Vargas said more than 30 other bridge permits have been submitted to the federal government as border cities fight for the privilege.

Also being proposed to the federal government is a new railroad bridge linking Laredo with Mexico that would be financed by Union Pacific. Vargas said he expects approval in the next year.

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