If all four area county judges had attended what was billed as the Rio Grande Valley’s first-ever State of the Valley luncheon address on Monday in Weslaco, then it would certainly have been historic. But the fact that Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia was absent — tied up in court — still doesn’t diminish the importance of what this event symbolized and the direction we see our region heading. And that is a real push toward regionalization for Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy counties.
More importantly, comments made Monday by the county’s top leaders signalled a very public recognition of the need to work, plan and execute projects together as one, growing Valley region. It even prompted a request by the Willacy County judge, to please include his smaller, rural county in transportation merger talks.
It was obvious that leaders of the larger Hidalgo and Cameron Counties are viewed with more political clout, likely because their counties have bigger tax bases. But that shouldn’t preclude them from being equal partners in plotting our economic future.
Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company, even referred to them as the “gorillas in the room,” when he urged panelists that all four counties should do their best to work together. “The problem, I see, is that everybody is looking for some institutional structure to do that,” Vale told them. “There’s never going to be a perfect time … like business people, you need to get in and get working on it.”
He is absolutely right. And with a combined population of 1.4 million, and growing by the day (and hour,) now is the time for the lower, mid and upper Valley to join forces in full force.
A prime example would be to merge the Valley’s three Metropolitan Planning Organizations into one organization. This concept we have advocated for before, as have state transportation officials and local leaders. Doing so would allow our region to vie for more state funds — monies that we readily and often lose out to larger MPOs in Houston, Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth and San Antonio. In fact, our region stands to gain $11 million per year more in transportation funds, said Bobby Villarreal, Hidalgo County Economic Development Director, who subbed in on Monday’s panel for Garcia. If we merged, the Hidalgo County MPO, Brownsville MPO and the Harlingen-San Benito MPO, then our region could become the state’s fifth-largest MPO and would bump El Paso.
Unfortunately, when pressed on the issue by The Monitor, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño said “both Brownsville and Harlingen’s MPOs are not quite on board yet” because there “is a lack of confidence that the regional MPO will have as much benefit as the existing MPOs.”
We appreciate that leaders in Cameron County are methodically strategizing, but we’re disturbed that they are doing it alone, and not recognizing assurances by many state leaders that there is money to be had for all of us — if we work together. Just ask the Houston-Galveston MPO officials, whose district represents dozens of miles, millions of people and several major cities.
Treviño said he is personally “very much in favor of it but we need to make sure it’s a win-win proposition.”
We caution that being too cautious sometimes hinders economic gains. As Vale said: “You need to get in and get working on it.”