WESLACO — Rio Grande Valley officials yesterday buried decades of political infighting and geographical jealousies by signing a historic accord to create a single metropolitan planning organization stretching from Brownsville to Sullivan City.
The pact will create a single MPO — the organizations which determine local highway priorities and allocate state and federal funds — out of three smaller transportation agencies in Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County.
“A lot of people thought this would never be possible in the Valley,” said Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. “That we would never put differences aside in order to benefit the entire community … I know that we’re doing the right thing for the Valley, and I’m proud to be part of it.”
The long-sought merger of the three Valley MPOs opens up vast new funding opportunities as befits what will eventually become the state’s fifth-largest MPO, joining Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, Houston and the San Antonio-area agencies which together consume 80 percent of state highway monies.
“We realize that our Valley is growing, we realize that we all have to be treated equally, we realize that we’re all part of one family,” said Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez, a family which is also “learning how to respect and honor each others’ wishes and compromising and coming to what we decided was in the best interest of all of you in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell, who worked on the merger issue for the past four years, said he was heartened by the cooperation shown by all participants during the process.
“I do want to congratulate everybody in the room who worked so hard for such a long time to make this a reality for us in the region,” he said. “It’s been a great thing to really finally work together on a regional project, a true regional project, and come together in a spirit of cooperation and regionalism. It’s going to be a great thing for our valley as we move forward.”
The historic signing at the Lower Rio Grande Development Council offices will be followed by a more formal signing ceremony on the re-designation agreement with TxDOT commissioners today in Austin. Following that, the accord must be approved by Gov. Greg Abbott, whose support of the merger is expected to be quickly forthcoming.
“I think to me it’s a very special moment because this document really is built on trust,” said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling. “We had to give up some autonomy, and that’s very tough to do. It’s probably the biggest hold-back in the Valley … so this is built on trust between all of us, a trust in the future and a trust in the great things that can happen in the Rio Grande Valley if we all agree to work together.”
New funding avenues
The re-designation of the three Valley MPOs into a still as-yet unnamed agency will make it the fifth-largest in the state. An MPO region is required to have 1 million population or more to qualify as a mega-MPO, which the Valley’s 1.3 million population surpasses.
The Valley’s three MPOs currently receive 4 percent of TxDOT Category 2 and 7 funds — $510 million over 10 years. By merging into a single MPO, the region would receive 5 percent of Category 2 and 7 funds — $620 million over 10 years.
Of the Category 2 and Category 7 funds available for interstate maintenance and state highway preventive maintenance, 80 percent of $12.3 billion over 10 years has gone to the Big 4 MPOs. Rural MPOs, the pool in which Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County were in, would split just $2.5 billion, or 20 percent.
But perhaps most importantly, there is a huge pool of money in Category 12, which is designated for strategic priority spending on highways. Some $1 billion a year in Category 12 is discretionary spending by TxDOT commissioners and the big MPOs get practically all of it.
Just how soon the Valley can capitalize on joining the Big 4 MPOs in the state is yet to be determined.
Valley and TxDOT officials believe by the time the new MPO becomes organized and hires staff, the possibility of additional funds over what is already allocated to the three MPOs for 2019 is remote.
Instead, they say, the real impact of a Valley-wide MPO will be seen in the 2020 highway funding cycle, when the new agency will be fully involved and up to speed.
To the governor
“Technically, the governor still has to approve it, and I’m sure that will happen quickly,” Boswell said. “But whether that will be tomorrow or next week, I don’t know. There are still lots of little details that need to be worked out.”
Boswell said discussions have been held to organize a meeting on the new MPO within a couple of weeks to talk over some of the details involved in the agency’s birth. The re-designation agreement makes the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, located in Weslaco, the fiscal agent for the new MPO.
But whether any additional highway funds will be available this year to a reconstituted mega-MPO will be up to the TxDOT commission, he said.
“TxDOT is already working on the plan, their version of the TIP (Transportation Improvement Program), so in all likelihood in the formal kind of a process, probably we wouldn’t see anything until the following year,” the Harlingen mayor said.
“However, there is a chance, and some people really think that there is a chance, that the TxDOT commission could do something out of the discretionary funds sooner than the following cycle.”
Top 5 Texas MPOs:
Alamo Area (San Antonio)
Rio Grande Valley (pending)