MCALLEN, RGV – State Sen. Juan Hinojosa says he expects Rio Grande Valley leaders to agree to merge the region’s three Metropolitan Planning Organizations before the year is out.
If that happens, Hinojosa said, the Valley can look forward to an additional $11 million in additional discretionary transportation funding every year and probably event more. He said the additional funding would be distributed in such a way that all parts of the Valley would benefit.
The three Valley MPOs are Hidalgo County MPO, Harlingen-San Benito MPO, and Brownsville MPO.
Under a draft agreement, the Brownsville MPO area would see an additional $2 million a year, going up from $9 million to $11 million a year. The Harlingen/San Benito MPO area would see an additional $2 million a year, going up from $8 million to $10 million a year. and the Hidalgo County MPO area would see an additional $7 million a year, going up from $34 million to $41 million a year. The Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council could become the fiscal agent for a united Valley MPO.
“Having three different MPOs does not allow us to speak with one voice. We do not carry as much weight. Nor do we receive the large amounts of money the other major MPOs receive,” Hinojosa said.
“Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, they all have single MPOs. For us to compete with them, we have to merge.”
Hinojosa said the leadership of the Texas Department of Transportation has met privately with each of the three Valley MPOs to point out how much more in discretionary funding would be available. He said Valley leaders have seen the benefit of taking a regional approach when it comes to education, with the creation of UT-Rio Grande Valley and its four-year medical school. He said it is now time to apply it to transportation.
“We have had this conversation again and again. Pushing and pulling. We have had TxDOT discuss it with each MPO in the Valley. But I think, finally, we have gotten over the hump. There are ongoing conversations which seem to point to a merger taking place by the end of the year,” Hinojosa said.
“People are seeing the tremendous progress that was made when we took a regional approach to create a new university, UTRGV, and a new medical school. That happened because we took a regional approach. The reality is we are one of the fastest growing regions in the state of Texas and our infrastructure needs continue to grow. The only way we can increase funding aside from one-shot deals is to merge into one MPO for the Rio Grande Valley.”
What will that mean in dollars and cents, Hinojosa was asked.
“It will mean between $146 million to $150 million in additional funds over a ten-year period,” Hinojosa said. “The discussions that have been taking place have been positive. The discussion is going on and it looks like a consensus is emerging for this to be done.”
Hinojosa added that a merged Valley MPO could use the same approach as Dallas-Fort Worth MPO when it comes to apportioning funds between the various communities in the region.
“TxDOT and the Valley’s legislative delegation has suggested we use the same structure that is set up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area so that we ensure that each county and each city gets its fair share of funding and there is no reduction. In fact, there will be an increase.”
Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez has been one of the Valley leaders working hard to secure a merger of the three Valley MPOs. Hernandez is chairman of Hidalgo County MPO. He told the Rio Grande Guardian that rural and small communities “will benefit greatly” from a merger of the three MPOs and would receive much-needed funding to accomplish their respective road projects.
“In the spirit of true cooperation, this merger will transform our area, give everyone a seat at the table, allow us to access more transportation dollars, and give the flexibility to allocate funding where it is most needed. The entire region, state, and nation will reap the benefits of this merger for generations to come,” Hernandez said.
Asked how much more money the Valley could get in discretionary transportation funding if its three MPOs merged, Pete Alvarez, Pharr District Engineer for TxDOT, said: “The numbers are estimated but based on the current formula, we anticipate approximately $11 million a year, plus any additional funds that might become available in the future. So, over a ten-year period, we anticipate an additional $110 million.”
Alvarez was quick to point out that TxDOT does not make a decision on whether an MPO merges.
“It will ultimately be a local decision, by the communities, by the elected officials. Our job at TxDOT is to provide the facts, the data, the numbers, the engineering judgment. From a TxDOT perspective, additional funds would be helpful. The transportation and infrastructure needs must be met as our population continues to grow. We are here to support,” Alvarez said.
Cameron County Perspective
Pete Sepulveda, executive director of Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, is a big supporter of the Valley’s three MPOs merging. In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Sepulveda went into great detail on why one regional MPO was needed.
“We really need to have one voice going to TxDOT. Historically, there was one discretionary fund we could not tap into. If we have one MPO for the whole Valley, we can access it and it is worth over $100 million,” Sepulveda said.
“We have a lot of international trade that comes into our region. We need the proper infrastructure for this. We need the infrastructure to cope with the increased population projected over the next ten, twenty, thirty years. We need to be prepared for that. It is about time the Valley came together and admitted we are one big urban area and we start working together as such.”
Having one regional MPO will help the Valley when it comes to big regional projects, Sepulveda argued. He listed some of those projects.
“We have many regional projects, like FM 1925 that can potentially connect I-69 C to I-69 E. We have the Outer Parkway that goes from I-69 E, north of Harlingen, to the new proposed second causeway. We have the second causeway, that is a regional project. A lot of the folks that go to South Padre originate in Hidalgo County. We have the La Joya relief route, we have the Hidalgo County RMA Loop project. We have State Highway 68. We have State Highway 365. We have many regional projects that if we merged, we would be able to compete statewide very well, because of our population. Eventually, these regional projects go beyond the Valley. They help the state, and the nation, for that matter,” Sepulveda said.
Sepulveda pointed out the Valley has four interstates, I-2, I-69 C, I-69 E and the interstate spur that runs from Olmita to the Port of Brownsville. “When you have an interstate category road, you can tap into additional funding at the federal level for maintenance projects. That frees up money for other projects. If you include the ferry, we have 11 international crossing points in the Rio Grande Valley. We have six airports. We have three deep water ports. And so, it is extremely important for the Valley to unite and regionalize the MPOs.”
Sepulveda also pointed to the increased trade that is coming from Mexico.
“There is a lot of industry that is coming in, a lot of projects that we have been working on Valley-wide for the last ten, 20 years. These are coming to fruition. We have SpaceX, we have the superhighway that runs from Mazatlán to Matamoros. The Pharr International Bridge is bearing the brunt of that traffic, much of it fresh produce. We have the privatization of Mexico’s oil and gas exploration and production. All that adds up and if we do not have the proper infrastructure in place we will not be able to maximize those opportunities.”
Sepulveda said the top five MPOs currently access 80 percent of TxDOT’s discretionary funds. He said the remaining 20 percent is shared between the rest of the state.
“If we merge we become the fifth largest MPO in Texas. If we do that we will have a seat at the table when the discretionary funding distribution is talked about. We will be able to have representation and be able to tap into that additional funding that we so badly need. We have a lot of projects on the horizon and a lot of them are close to getting to construction phase. It would be nice for the Valley to come together and realize that and tap into that additional funding that is currently going to other areas of the state. It is about time we utilized state and federal money to build and have a Class A infrastructure system in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Sepulveda said he understands TxDOT is in the process of preparing a written response that it will provide to the political leadership in the Rio Grande Valley. “They will say look, you will be guaranteed the amount of funding you are getting today and in addition to that you are going to be placed in a position to tap into additional money.”