The Rio Grande Valley is one of the southernmost regions in the continental United States, second to the southern tip of Florida. Locally referenced as “the Valley”, the four-county region expands across nearly 4,316 square miles along the Rio Grande River, and is predominantly agricultural due to its year round temperate climate. First settled in the 1700s by Spanish explorers1, two things excelled the development of the Rio Grande Valley region: irrigation and the railroad. Irrigation was introduced to the Valley on a large scale in 1898, with railroad lines entering the area by 1904. Both resulted in thousands of acres being converted for agriculture use and turned the region into a major agricultural center2. Since then, the Rio Grande Valley has seen exponential growth in several of its cities, including Brownsville, Harlingen, McAllen, and Pharr.
The southernmost city in the Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville is the county seat of Cameron County, one of the four counties that make up the region. Founded in 1848, and incorporated twice due to a land ownership dispute (1850 and 1853, respectively)3 Brownsville serves as the only deepwater port in the region. Due to its geographic location, Brownsville is one of the southernmost municipalities in the contiguous U.S., only slightly higher in latitude than several Florida cities, including Miami.
Harlingen, incorporated in 1910, lies at the crossroads of IH-69E (U.S. 77) and IH-2 (U.S. 83) in the east-central part of the Valley. The city boasts itself as being the “Capital of the Rio Grande Valley”4 and serves as a shipping and distribution hub.
Originally the site of ranch land owned by John McAllen, the city named after him was formally incorporated by 1911. McAllen is located in the lower-central part of the Rio Grande Valley, north of Hidalgo and the Mexico border. The city serves as an agricultural and oil center, as well as also being one of several tourist destinations in the region.
Pharr is a neighboring city to McAllen in central Hidalgo County. Established in February 1916, Pharr experienced tremendous growth through the 2000s, with a population ballooning to over 70,400 by 2010.5. Both IH-69C (U.S. 281) and IH-2 (U.S. 83) serve as principle corridors linking Pharr with other Rio Grande Valley cities: McAllen and Mission to the west, Edinburg to the north, and Harlingen and Brownsville to the south and east.
Three primary highway corridors connect the Rio Grande Valley with the remainder of the state: IH 2/U.S. 83, IH 69C/U.S. 281, and IH 69E/U.S. 77. Until 2012, the Rio Grande Valley region was the largest not served by the Interstate Highway System. Federal legislation in that year designated freeway portions of U.S. 77, U.S. 83 and U.S. 281 throughout the Valley as branches of the IH-69 corridor. The eastern branch (IH-69E) runs tandem with U.S. 77 from Raymondville through to Brownsville while the central branch (IH-69C) follows U.S. 281 from a point north of Edinburg south to Pharr. IH-2 currently travels with U.S. 83 from Mission east to Harlingen where it ends at IH-69E. Long range plans call for an extension of IH-2 west from its current end to Laredo.