Feature Photo (above): The U.S. 281/Interstate 2 interchange in Pharr. Image: Google Streets.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Weslaco (Hidalgo County) — Mayors of the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s principal cities gathered Wednesday to sign an agreement to merge the three area Metropolitan Planning Organization bodies into one, a move that will allow Valley transportation planners to draw substantially larger funds from the Texas Department of Transportation.
The agreement is the culmination of three years of negotiations between counties and municipalities that represented the three MPOs. It is a historic shift that will increase the Valley’s clout by putting the region on equal footing with the other major MPOs in Texas.
In order to apply for federal transportation funds through state transportation agencies, the creation of an MPO is required for urban areas with a population of more than 50,000. However, not all MPOs are treated equally. MPOs with a population of more than 1 million have access to 80 percent of transportation dollars in any given year.
Only four “super” MPOs have had access to the 80 percent–the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which includes the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, San Antonio-Bexar County’s Alamo Area MPO, and the Capital Area MPO (Austin).
Combined, the four counties that comprise the Valley–Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy–have a population of about 1.35 million. Not including Starr County, the area from Mission to Brownsville is about 69 miles, roughly the same distance as that of suburbs east of Dallas to the west side of Fort Worth.
According to a report in Harlingen’s Valley Morning Star, the three Valley MPOs currently draw 4 percent of state Category 2 and Category 7 funds, or $510 million over 10 years. A third state fund, Category 12, accrues about $1 billion a year, but the big four MPOs get almost all of it.
By unifying the three MPOs, the Valley can expect to receive 5 percent of Cat 2 and 7 funds, or about $620 million over 10 years, and the region can compete for Cat 12 funds.
State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa presents the unified Rio Grande Valley MPO agreement to the Texas Transportation Commission. Image: screenshot from TTC video archives.
State Sen. Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa, representing the Valley and accompanied by a large delegation, presented the original agreement forming the Rio Grande Valley MPO to the Texas Transportation Commission at their Thursday regular monthly session in Austin. In his formal statement, Hinojosa said:
“After three years from the time we started the conversation about merging the three Valley MPOs, I was honored to present the signed agreement to the Texas Transportation Commission. By taking this regional approach, the newly created Rio Grande Valley MPO will be one of the largest in the state. This merger will allow South Texas to access more funds to construct larger projects. The merged MPO will be more efficient and allow for projects to be considered and approved as a region.
“This historic moment would not have been possible without regional cooperation, collaboration, and negotiations that were pretty tense at times. However, in the end, the benefits of a merged MPO prevailed over a small city approach. With the creation of the Valley MPO, we have delivered on our commitment to speak with one voice.”
Transportation Commission Chair, J. Bruce Bugg Jr., credited Hinojosa for his ability to bring the many factions together and recalled that his first trip upon being appointed chairman by Gov. Gregg Abbott in September 2017 was to the Valley.
“Since then, I have had many meetings with you down in the Valley and have gently encourage you all to come to this point. I can’t tell you how delighted I am. This commission recognizes the great potential in your future and we want to be there to support you in that,” Bugg said.
The Interstate 69 East and Interstate 2 interchange in Harlingen. Image: Google Streets.
The McAllen Monitor reported Wednesday that Hidalgo County Commissioners Court passed a resolution Tuesday in support of the mergers of the Brownsville MPO, Harlingen-San Benito MPO and Hidalgo County MPO.
Hidalgo County will have seven seats and Cameron County will have five on the new 31-member board. Cities with populations above 50,000 will fill the remaining voting bloc.
“Voting privileges were a big concern for the cities represented by the three MPOs, and at one point, the issue stalled the merger,” The Monitor said.
The mayors came together for the signing at the offices of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council in Weslaco. The LRGVDC will become the fiscal agent for the new MPO.
The qualifying population, in terms of what TxDOT can consider, is that of the four Valley counties. However, the Valley has transportation needs that must take into account a much larger population. The Valley is geographically interlocked and has nearly two centuries of economic and cultural relations with two major Mexican cities.
In effect, the Valley contains two of the six major “borderplexes” that exist along the U.S.-Mexico border. Combined, the McAllen-Reynosa borderplex and the Brownsville-Matamoros borderplex have a population of about 2.6 million.
The cross border commerce combined with an energy boom that is sending natural gas and other energy products from West and South Texas to the Port of Brownsville is putting intense pressure on the region to upgrade its infrastructure.
Bas-relief art on an Interstate 69 ramp at East 6th Street in Brownsville. Image: Google Streets.