Rio Grande Valley MPO merger may speed work on second South Padre Island access

Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernendez is flanked by other valley mayors and county judge during the signing for a Valley-wide MPO merger on Wednesday, April,24, 2019 in Weslaco. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

The Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority’s East Loop Project is just one among transportation projects that could get done quicker thanks to the new merger of the Rio Grande Valley’s three Metropolitan Planning Organizations.

Officials representing the Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County MPOs signed an agreement April 24 that officially begets the merger. Next comes the creation of bylaws for governance of the newly formed RGV MPO.

Proponents have long argued that a merger was desirable because it would result in more federal transportation dollars for the Valley through the Texas Department of Transportation, which has pushed for a Valley merger. The RGV MPO is now the state’s fifth largest MPO.

“I think it’s going to light a fire under a lot of projects,” said Cameron County Administrator David Garcia. “We’ll be in a position to garner more funds and move projects along faster. At the end of the day it all boils down to funding. I think the agreements that have been put forward are going to allow for the county and the Valley as a whole to move forward on major infrastructure projects such as the East Loop.”

The East Loop is a planned overweight/oversized truck corridor to link the Port of Brownsville with I-69E at Veterans International Bridge at Los Tomates via a roughly 10-mile loop skirting the city to the south. Design is complete, environmental approval is pending and construction should start soon on the first phase, the South Port Connector Road.

CCRMA Executive Director Pete Sepulveda Jr. said the East Loop has been on the books for over three decades but has been held up by the environmental assessment piece and a lack of funding.

“We’ll go through that phase hopefully in the next nine months,” he said. “We’re very aggressively working on that right now, knowing that the merger is going to go through, and we have an opportunity to get this project funded. We’re extremely well positioned to be able to tap into different funding categories at the state and federal level.”

The project has become more urgent over the years, since the current overweight route — International Boulevard — has become increasingly urbanized over the past 20 years, with schools, residential and commercial developments, Sepulveda said.

“There are over 20 different conflicts between the bridge and the port,” Sepulveda said. “We need to put (the route) in a more rural area. It’s extremely important to the community.”

A second access to South Padre Island may also get done faster as a result of the merger, he said.

“Right now the Laguna Madre area is not in any MPO boundary,” Sepulveda said. “Once the merger is done it can be brought into an MPO boundary. That will help in getting funding for the SPI second access project.”

Another project that’s been on the shelf for years and could get a boost from the merger is the Outer Parkway, which would provide a new east-west travel route linking Cameron and Hidalgo counties and improving connectivity in rural areas of northeastern Cameron County. TxDOT currently has the project listed as “on hold.”

“We’ve got several projects in Harlingen and Brownsville,” Sepulveda said. “I think the projects that Cameron County as a whole is working on will be placed in a much better position to compete for funding.”

Garcia said the various municipalities were in talks for two or three months to draft terms amenable to all stakeholders. The “MPO-redesignation term sheet” that came out of it, and which was approved April 24, contains parameters and conditions that protect existing funding for each former MPO and guarantee that all parts of the Valley will be treated equably in terms of funding, he said.

“The cities, the mayors and the counties are encouraged that not only are we going to help every community in the Valley, big and small, the region is going to benefit as a whole,” Garcia said.

With approval of the term sheet, officials will craft bylaws to govern the new RGV MPO board, he said.

“We’re hoping it takes no longer than three months,” Garcia said. “We’ve already started working on those preliminarily in preparation for (the signing). We hope that it won’t take too long. We want to try to get it done by September.”

PREVIOUS COVERAGE

Valley leaders sign historic pact for merged MPO

Rio Grande Valley MPOs in Austin to take final steps toward merger