BY RAMON GARCIAS

The Rio Grande Valley is on the threshold of joining the top four metropolitan areas in the state to access millions in transportation dollars that would address congestion and ensure our interstates, highways and local roads can handle our area’s continued and future growth. However, to reach the goal, our Valley must come together as one unified force and combine our three local metropolitan planning organizations to become the fifth-largest MPO in the state.

MPOs are federally mandated and federally and state funded transportation policy-making organizations made up of representatives from local government and governmental transportation authorities. These organizations work to create comprehensive transportation plans needed for future growth in the areas they serve. Every urban area with a population of more than 50,000 is required to have an MPO, however funding increases for MPOs serving populations of 1 million or more.

This year, the Texas Department of Transportation dedicated $70 billion, over 10 years, in funding available to MPOs. About $12.8 billion was distributed to Texas MPOs this year; of those funds, about 80 percent was divided among the state’s largest four MPOs: Dallas-Fort Worth, comprised of 12 counties; Houston-Galveston, with eight counties; Austin-area, comprised of six counties; and the San Antonio-area, with four counties. The Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito, and Hidalgo County MPOs were among the other 21 MPOs that split the remaining 20 percent of the pot.

Merging the three Rio Grande Valley MPOs would place us over the 1 million population threshold, thereby entitling our new, regional MPO access to 80 percent of the funding, which would then be divided among the five, rather than four, largest MPOs in the state.

Let me put it another way; our region stands to lose out on an estimated $11 million each year if we stand alone as opposed to standing together.

We cannot afford to continue to lose out on those millions of dollars and expect to be able to keep up with our growing region’s transportation needs.

To date, both the Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County MPOs are ready to merge. The only hold-out is the Brownsville MPO. I sincerely hope that Brownsville will join with us for the betterment of the entire region and to gain additional funding, which is pro-rated by a mandated formula. If large, metropolitan areas can merge together for transportation, then we can do it too.

However, with or without Brownsville, Hidalgo County and Harlingen-San Benito are ready to merge as one united MPO. Once we do that, the new MPO will work to add South Padre Island, Laguna Vista and Laguna Heights and, if that doesn’t bring our MPOs urban population up to the 1 million threshold next year, it should by the next Census in 2020.

Within Hidalgo and Cameron counties, we have water and land ports, rail, major highways and soon a commercial space launch site. While our local economies and population continue to thrive, our transportation infrastructure grows increasingly problematic. I intend to meet with Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr., in the near future and one of the items we’ll discuss is regionalization and plans to merge our MPOs.

The Rio Grande Valley has experienced tremendous growth. We must remain forward thinking and seize untapped opportunities to bring our fair share of state and federal dollars to the area.

More than ever, we share a common destiny that we can master only if we face it together. The RGV finds itself on the cusp of major change for the better and it is our responsibility as leaders to do what is right and move forward with a regional solution that will benefit all of our communities. When it comes to our transportation needs, that solution is a single, unified MPO.