Dateline Texas

Bridge Over Muddy Water


Brad Tyer

Laredo is a city proud of its history, and even more proud of its connectivity. Established in 1755 at a crossing point for sheep, goats, and people traveling from Mexico into what would later become Texas, Laredo elected its first local officials in 1768. Long a Democratic stronghold, the city has for just as long operated on an almost feudal system of dynastic political bloodlines, families who could take the south Texas heat and visualize the economies that might grow around something as simple as a railroad or a bridge–anything to connect Laredo to the rest of the world.

One such family is named Bruni, and traces back to the Italian immigrant who founded nearby Bruni, Texas, making his fortune in cattle and oil, memorialized in downtown Laredo’s Bruni Plaza. Another is named Martinez, with a history in ranching. Members of the Bruni and Martinez clans have held elected offices in South Texas since time more or less immemorial, and in the persons of Louis Bruni, 53, and Mercurio Martinez, Jr., 60-something, they still do.

There was a time when the two families were allies. Louis Bruni’s father–a county commissioner for 20 years–and Mercurio Martinez, Jr. were close friends, both directors of the same Laredo bank, and before the elder Bruni died in 1992, he asked Martinez, Jr. “to make sure you take care of my son Louis, he’s a good guy, sometimes he gets a little hotheaded but it doesn’t last more than a couple of hours.”

But the family friendship did not survive the request. Because Mercurio Martinez, Jr. did not take care of young Louis. And because Louis’ hot head steamed its way past the two-hour mark long ago. And because Louis Bruni and Mercurio Martinez, Jr. are now fighting, like dogs on a bone, over that greatest symbol of Laredo’s prosperity–a bridge.

Laredo’s bridges, especially post-NAFTA, are cash cows. There are four of them–Puente de Las Americas (Bridge 1), Juarez-Lincoln (Bridge 2), Columbia (Bridge 3), and World Trade (Bridge 4)–built and operated by the city’s integrated Laredo International Bridge System. Up to 9,000 tractor trailers per day cross Laredo’s two commercial traffic bridges, hauling roughly 40 percent of the total trade between Mexico and the United States, and making Laredo the largest inland port in North America. The bridge system raises about $31 million in annual revenue, about 50 percent of which flows directly into the city’s general fund.

The proposed Bridge 5, according to the city, is necessary partly because NAFTA has drastically increased the traffic load through Laredo, and partly because of the success of Bridge 4.

Bridge 4, the World Trade Bridge, says assistant city manager Cynthia Collazo, who bore much responsibility for the project, “has totally eliminated a lot of the conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles.” The traffic once backed up all the way to the Holiday Inn on the IH-35 corridor. There were accidents, drivers coming over a blind hump in the freeway, smashing into the stalled line to cross. Nobody came to downtown anymore, or crossed the river just for dinner or a hoot. The traffic was too intimidating.

Collazo says she thought that Bridge 4 would provide some breathing room, but what happened is that the breathing room was almost immediately erased as the long-deterred tourists and local business swept back in to fill it up again.

“We had lost them,” she says, “because of the truck traffic, the time it took them to cross. Now they’re back.”

Thus the need for Bridge 5, which would connect to Loop 20 in southern Laredo, providing a missing thoroughfare around the city center, and realizing a decade-old master plan. It would carry non-commercial vehicular traffic, and allow Laredo to convert Bridge 1, in the heart of the business district, to pedestrian only, further easing congestion. The city says traffic patterns and projections show a steady increase meriting yet another international crossing in the next five to seven years, which is roughly the same time period usually required for the acquisition of a Presidential Permit–a necessary precursor to any new international span.

Bridge 5, of course, is also expected to spew revenue, and Webb County Judge Mercurio Martinez, Jr., sitting for 12 years now at the head of one of Texas’ largest and poorest counties, is hungry for a slice. Martinez proposed that the city and the county pursue the Presidential Permit jointly, share the construction costs, and split the revenues. The city, rallied by second-term city councilman Louis Bruni, said no thank you very much. Only 3 percent of Webb County’s population lives outside of Laredo city limits. Why, Bruni asks rhetorically, would the city want to give 50 percent of new bridge revenue to 3 percent of the population? What does it have to gain? (That’s assuming, of course, that this is a really story about city folks versus county residents–and not city bureaucrats versus county bureaucrats.)

And so now, while both camps acknowledge the clear position of the U.S. State Department–that it will not consider competing applications–both city and county, personified by Louis Bruni and Mercurio Martinez, Jr., are pursuing the bridge independently, whatever the cost.

“It’s personal,” Bruni says. “It’s very personal.” Louis began to step out of his father’s shadow in 1994 with a run for city council, wherein he defeated Hector “Tito” Garcia, Mercurio’s nephew. Running for reelection in 1998, Bruni found himself pitted against the judge’s son, Mercurio Martinez III.

Bruni prevailed, but term limits tossed him out of council earlier this year. The race to replace him found Martinez nephew Hector “Tito” Garcia running again, this time against Bruni’s younger brother Raymond. In an unlikely twist, Louis publicly endorsed Garcia over his estranged and litigious sibling. Garcia, who ran on a platform comprised almost entirely of a promise to follow Louis Bruni’s lead, won.

Louis, meanwhile, figured he’d run either for mayor or county judge. Perhaps it helped make up his mind that his father had always coveted the county judgeship, but never achieved it. And it definitely helped that Mercurio Martinez, Jr. was pushing ahead with his plan to secure the fifth bridge permit for the county.

“To me,” Bruni says, “it’s an ego move. Something that the sitting county judge would consider a feather in his political cap.”

So Bruni ran, with ownership of the bridge his key campaign issue. While Martinez seemed not to take the 53-year-old whippersnapper as a serious contender, Bruni painted the elder statesman as out-of-touch royalty managing the county as his own personal fiefdom.

“Unfortunately,” Bruni admits, “Laredo politics is one of the nastiest, dirtiest games in the United States.”

To the surprise of most everyone but himself, Bruni won. He takes over as county judge on January 1, 2003. First order of business: Kill the bridge project, on which the county has already spent an estimated $1.5 million.

“To me,” says Bruni, “this is total mismanagement of the taxpayer’s money. It’s going to die a very rapid death.”

Martinez, as befits an elder, isn’t the sort to indulge in overtly personal backbiting, but until Bruni actually takes office, he says with a large laugh, “I’m not letting go of this project.” The Laredo city council has passed a resolution against building bridges with the county, but that hasn’t dampened the judge’s hopes.

“Our attorney’s opinion is that the city cannot prevent us from getting involved at all,” Martinez says, and with two new incoming councilmen, the county intends “to visit and explain what we have completed, and I am optimistic that they will reconsider.”

Meanwhile, Martinez suggests, incoming judge Bruni may not find it so easy to single-handedly kill the county’s momentum. “He might have one vote, but there’s a total of five votes.”

“It hasn’t hit him yet,” counters Bruni. “He still goes around saying ‘I am still the county judge, and if Louis Bruni wants to talk to me, well, he can come to my office and talk to me.'”

“All I have to say to him is he needs to vacate his office so I can get it painted and move in my stuff.”

While Martinez and Bruni duke it out on the frontlines, another battle of the bridge takes place behind closed doors, because the bridges are cash cows not just for the municipalities that build them, but increasingly, judging by the example of Laredo, for the consultants paid to shepherd the projects through the corridors of power.

Since no individual dog in Laredo politics barks loudly enough to bury the bone, both sides have put bigger dogs on the payroll–dogs on a sniffing basis with the biggest dog of all, George W. Bush, who will have to sign the Presidential Permit required of any new international bridge project.

The county has hired James Francis, a way-back Bush pioneer and Texas Department of Public Safety Commissioner, at a renewable salary of $12,500 per month. So far, according to county documents, Francis has been paid a total of $210,000 for his services. Not a bad return on Francis’ investment in Bush’s presidential campaign. And as a condition of Francis’ employment, the county was also required to hire the Washington, D.C. lobbying firm of Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healy for another $150,000. BKSH is the government-relations subsidiary of the world’s largest communications and P.R. firm, Burston-Marsteller.

The city, in response, has hired Infrastructure Solutions, Inc., the Austin-based firm run by Karen Johnson, who served on the Bush-Cheney transition team, at $20,000 per month. Johnson’s contract, announced in May 2001, has already cost the city more than $300,000.

“I think it’s an accurate picture to paint,” says city manager Larry Dovalina, “that the county hired an 800-pound gorilla. And I think we hired a young, suave, sophisticated lady who has equally as strong or stronger connections than Jim Francis.” This marks the first time in Laredo’s successful four-bridge history that the city has felt compelled to hire an outside consultant in pursuit of a Presidential Permit. “It’s an escalation.”

What exactly the consultants are hired to do, beyond deliver the permit, is a bit of a mystery in its specifics. Laredo describes Johnson’s duties as getting the process of the presidential permit “expedited and on the right track.”

Martinez describes Francis’ role, a bit more frankly, as “basically a door-opener, if I may call it that.” So far as is publicly known, Francis has led Martinez and his commissioners on a junket to Washington, D.C., where the Webb County delegation got a meeting with BKSH’s Charles Black, who is now, Martinez says, “part of the team,” neglecting to mention that Black has been paid to play.

The Department of State, which has stated that it will not consider competing proposals, is the target. Once the Presidential Permit is secured, based on the formal okay of the Department of State, more agencies get involved–EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, Customs, INS, even, since the Rio Grande is still classified as a navigable river, the Coast Guard.

“This,” Martinez reports, “is where Mr. Black as well as some of the other individuals that are on our team will obviously give us the help that we’ve got to have. We have yet to meet with some of the key people, but with the Department of State, we have already met in Washington. At this point, as we understand it, the city has yet to really complete their documentation.”

Not so, says Dovalina. Recent legislation requires for the first time that bridge applications go through the Texas Department of Transportation before submittal to the feds. He says TXDOT, still working out the kinks of its new role, is presently reviewing the city’s application materials. It is the city’s understanding that its application is the only one presently under TXDOT review.

But just to confuse the issue, TXDOT reports that it has indeed received an application from Webb County, but returned it as incomplete. And while there have been preliminary discussions with the city, TXDOT says that it has yet to receive any application materials at all from Laredo.

Regardless, Dovalina’s not going to be drawn into a race. In the best of times, the acquisition of Presidential Permits is a three-to-five-year process, and one that the city has successfully navigated before. The city has the experience and the system in place. Told that Martinez thinks the county has a head start, Dovalina says simply, “I don’t think it makes any difference.” The county had previously grabbed for a piece of the pie on Bridge 3–the Columbia Bridge, 15 miles upriver–permitted under the Clinton Administration. But eventually the county withdrew and agreed to let the city proceed as sole applicant. Dovalina figures something much like that will eventually happen with Bridge 5.

And Bruni, he just can’t wait to make sure that’s what happens. The county has obligations he figures–and he has a list of his own pet projects–but building bridges is not one of them. He’s going to take the county’s bridge budget, he says, and redirect it to “quality of life issues.” He will explore the possibility of selling county bridge preparations to the city, if any of it turns out to be useful, as an attempt to salvage some of the waste.

As for Francis, “Francis is just a way to see how [Martinez] could jam up the process.” As for Johnson: “We wouldn’t have had to spend that money if it wasn’t for the county.” And about that county: “Go grade a road or something.”

“I will kill this issue January 1,” Bruni says, again.

And perhaps the balance will settle firmly, finally, on the side of the city, where perhaps it will stay. At least until 2006, when Laredo mayor Elizabeth G. Flores–a Martinez supporter in the county judge race–succumbs to term limits. Louis Bruni is probably not the only politician in Laredo who wouldn’t be surprised to see Mercurio Martinez, Jr. run to succeed her.

And in the meantime, bridge or no bridge, county or city, the consultants will continue at the trough, collecting the revenue generated by their own bridges to Bush.

Last time we checked, contributing writer Brad Tyer was on the road somewhere between Texas and Montana.