McALLEN, RGV – McAllen Mayor Jim Darling says Rio Grande Valley leaders are to write to the Texas Transportation Commission to ask about the benefits of merging the region’s three metropolitan planning organizations.

Darling spoke about the possibility of merging the Hidalgo County, Brownsville, and Harlingen-San Benito MPOs at a McAllen Economic Development Corporation board of directors meeting this week. He said the possibility of a merger had been discussed recently at a meeting of the RGV Large Cities Coalition.

Jim Darling
Jim Darling

“The incentive to merge the MPOs is that we would then reach a population level that would possibly mean we would have a seat at the discretionary fund table. Before we do that we want some reassurances that that would be possible,” Darling said.

The discretionary fund table comprises TxDOT plus the four largest MPOs in Texas – Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. The so-called ‘Big Four’ MPOs exert a fair amount of influence on how TxDOT spends discretionary transportation dollars.

“We are going to write a joint letter. Senator Nichols and Chairman Lewis are asking for something in writing,” Darling said.

State Senator Robert Nichols of Jacksonville chairs the Senate Committee on Transportation. Tryon D. Lewis is chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. The pair visited the Valley recently to discuss the region’s transportation needs.

At the MEDC meeting, Darling also said the newly-formed RGV Large Cities Coalition is starting to take shape. To be a member, a Valley city has to have a population over 25,000. It thus comprises Brownsville, McAllen, Edinburg, Mission, Pharr, Harlingen, Weslaco, San Juan and San Benito. “This was our second meeting. It is coming together. We have written up a loosely worded charter,” Darling said. “At our next meeting we want to invite economic development corporations because we want to hear about joint economic development projects.”

A big supporter of a united MPO for the Valley is Andrew Canon, executive director of Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization. He has been urging Valley leaders to merge the Valley’s three MPOs for many years and wrote a white paper on the subject back in 2008.

Canon said that when funding formulas were being worked on for Proposition 1 the communities that had a big say were Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio. Proposition 1, which was approved by the voters of Texas, provided money from the energy sector for transportation projects.

“The Big Four – Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin – were invited to Austin to talk to Texas Transportation Commission and the TxDOT staff. They decided what that formula would look like. We had no voice in our own fate,” Canon said.

“In addition to the additional money, we need a united MPO so that we can go to Austin with the political will of the Valley behind us. We are a much stronger voice if we are one large metroplex instead of two smaller and one much smaller metro area. State leaders want to hear about a regional strategy for the Valley. They do not want to hear three individual viewpoints about smaller projects.”

Canon said he knows through his visits to Austin for various transportation meetings that the Valley’s influence has declined in some respects.

“The pot of money has become smaller just through inactivity on our part. Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin have all expanded their areas of planning. We have stood still. We are still just Hidalgo County. Harlingen-San Benito and Brownsville, the same,” Canon said.

“No one has expanded their borders to take in any additional area of responsibility. We have not merged, we have not spoken to anybody else. I can see Rio Grande City in the future being a partner at the table, given the growth they are having, with the additional campuses and the student influx. Our own inactivity is detrimental to us. The other guys are going to continue to expand and continue to get larger and continue to get more of that money and our pot is going to shrink due to inactivity.”

Andrew Canon
Andrew Canon

Canon said if the Valley had one united MPO it would leapfrog El Paso and become the fifth largest MPO in Texas. He said that if the impact visitors from Mexico have on the Valley’s highways and streets were taken into account, the region could be considered bigger than Austin.

“We are starting to get state leaders to understand that we have a tremendous population across the river that we don’t get to count on our formulas. I grew up in Houston. The Rio Grande is no larger than Buffalo Bayou was when I grew up in Houston. And yet it is an international border with millions of people on the other side that use our roadways, our infrastructure, our schools, our entertainment, they go to our stores, our outlets. We need to consider the impact this has as well,” Canon said.

Another unique population the Valley possesses, Canon said, are Winter Texans. “I look at us as being larger than Austin. We just need to go to Austin with one united voice. One strong voice that says, we have a regional outlook, we have a regional aspect, we have a regional voice and this is what we need and this is what we want, and fight for our fair share of the pie. At the moment we are not doing this collectively.”

Canon said Valley leaders should listen carefully to the words of Texas Transportation Committee Chair Lewis. “Chairman Lewis was very poignant. He said, when we come to Austin state leaders want to hear from a single RGV voice. He stressed that many times.”