WESLACO, RGV – The idea of having one metropolitan planning organization for the Rio Grande Valley, rather than the current three, gained traction this week but officials say there are still a lot of fine details to iron out.

While Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia and Cameron County Judge Pete Sepulveda issued a joint news release in support of a feasibility study on the issue and the Valley’s legislative delegation in the Texas House penned a letter along the same lines, there were also voices of caution.

At a Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council (LRGVDC) meeting in Weslaco on Wednesday, San Benito Mayor Celeste Sanchez said Harlingen-San Benito MPO has only agreed to a feasibility study that looks into merging the two MPOs in Cameron County.

Former La Feria Mayor Steve Brewer does not want to see Hidalgo County MPO cut its ties to the LRGVDC.
Former La Feria Mayor Steve Brewer does not want to see Hidalgo County MPO cut its ties to the LRGVDC.

Earlier that same day, Brownsville MPO voted to support a feasibility study but its director, Mark Lund, told the Rio Grande Guardian there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered.

“There is an awful lot of complicated stuff that would have to be worked out. Everybody has been talking about how there would be more money but the complicated stuff is how do you set up an organization like that. There would be weighted voting. How would that work? Maybe the study will address some of those issues,” Lund said.

The Brownsville MPO board met at the Historic Brownsville Museum. After the meeting, Lund said he would expect the Texas Department of Transportation to hire a consultant to do a feasibility study on the pros and cons of consolidating the Valley’s MPOs.

Lund was asked to define an MPO in layman’s terms. “An MPO is set up under federal law. They make the decisions on how transportation funding is spent. It involves state funding and local funding but it is primarily focused on federal money. There about 400 MPOs in the urbanized areas of the United States. We do a long range plan, which is a fiscally constrained plan, not just a wish list. You have to show the sources of money for future improvements are. And, you have to implement the improvements within federal guidelines,” Lund said.

Lund said the Brownsville MPO has an annual budget of half a million dollars. He said Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez is the chairman. Asked if the smaller cities in the Valley may be concerned about a consolidation of the three MPOs, Lund said: “If you combine all the MPOs then your little cities, whereas now they may have a vote but in the future maybe they will have to share their vote with some other little cities. We have not talked about those difficult things.” Lund said his board agreed to send a letter to TxDOT asking for a feasibility study. “One of our members said there should be a combination of the two MPOs in Cameron County before we merge with the MPO to the west. I would imagine this study would look at the different combinations.”

There was a lively discussion at the LRGVDC meeting about who the fiscal agent for Hidalgo County MPO should be. At the meeting, Sanchez, the San Benito Mayor said: “At our last meeting we (Harlingen-San Benito MPO) voted to study a merger with the Brownsville MPO to have a Cameron County MPO because there are some benefits. But, we are not making a move until we have got answers to formulas, to representation. We have a list of questions that would need to be answered before we decide.”

In their news release issued Wednesday, the judges of Hidalgo and Cameron counties said they were delighted a feasibility study had been approved by the three MPOs.

“This is a tremendous step forward to studying the proposal and I congratulate my colleagues on the respective MPO’s with the decision to allow the Texas Department of Transportation to study the initiative. Now, more than ever, it is critically important that the Rio Grande Valley has a seat at the table when infrastructure funding decisions are being made in Austin,” said Judge Garcia.

Sepulveda also praised the effort, calling it an important first step. “Last week while I was in Austin I met with most of the valley delegation and the theme of our conversations was a regional approach to most every major issue we are working on in South Texas. The Friday night football mentality will continue to set us back and we must move forward together. This first step is what will help us determine our future for many years to come.”

In their letter to the three MPOs, Valley state Representatives René Oliveira, Ryan Guillen, Armando Martinez, Eddie Lucio, III, Sergio Muñoz, R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra, Terry Canales, and Oscar Longoria, wrote: “As we tackle critical priorities in Austin on behalf of South Texans we continue to realize that there is strength in numbers. There are many projects that are under development by various agencies but the dollars are scarce. A united approach in pursuit of funding opportunities will give the region more consideration in project selection and development.”

The legislators added: “Currently, major transportation funding goes to the “Big Four,” which consists of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. If there were to be a merger of all three MPOs the Rio Grande Valley MPO would be the fifth MPO with an urbanized population exceeding more than one million people. This is an enormous opportunity for the region.”

At the LRGVDC meeting, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling intimated that governance of a united MPO might be the hardest thing to agree on. “We have just got to not let politics interfere with the best decision for our citizens. There is a fiscal agency issue which is really secondary to the governance issue. That is the most important one,” said Darling, who chaired Wednesday’s LRGVDC meeting.

When talking about a fiscal agency issue, Darling was referring to Hidalgo County MPO. The MPO board would like to move fiscal agency responsibility away from the LRGVDC to Hidalgo County to save money. An unrelated issue is whether the MPO should move out of its offices at the Valley Transit Center in Weslaco.

At the LRGVDC meeting, former La Feria Mayor and LRGVDC board member Steve Brewer spoke out strongly against Hidalgo County MPO breaking its ties with the LRGVDVC. “For seven years all the discussion (at the LRGVDC) has been about having one regional MPO and this flies in the face of that,” he said.

Asked to elaborate on his concerns after the meeting, Brewer told the Rio Grande Guardian: “You get this letter (from the state representatives), which says we want to work on being regional, that there is more money if we are a regional agency and we here we have the Hidalgo County MPO wanting to go to the Edinburg, McAllen, area to be non-regional. I just don’t understand it. We are going in the wrong direction. I understand the logic of wanting to save money but prove it to me. This letter says there is more money for the region if all the counties go into one MPO. What is the motivation other than power and control? It upsets me that we are a regional organization working towards regional goals, regional planning and yet we are going non-regional with this move. I do not understand it.”

At the LRGVDC meeting, Hidalgo County MPO Executive Director Andrew Canon had defended the decision of his board to look into moving fiscal responsibility for the MPO from the LRGVDC to Hidalgo County.

“My board has voted to move forward with exploring a possible move to Hidalgo County, with the County being the fiscal agent for the MPO. This decision was made strictly on the basis of cost savings to the program. At present, the COG is allowed to charge an indirect rate to my program for paying my bills and services, such as HR, procurement, pay roll and retirement. The proposal from the COG for 2015 was in the neighborhood of $265,000 in indirect. Hidalgo County has proposed to do it for us for, in the neighborhood of $39,000 annually,” Canon told the Rio Grande Guardian, after the meeting.

COG stands for Council of Government. This is another name for the LRGVDC.

Canon said all told, Hidalgo County MPO would likely save $300,000 a year by moving from the LRGVDVC to Hidalgo County. “All this is about is deciding on who pays our bills. All we are trying to do is be fiscally responsible with taxpayer money,” he said.

Hidalgo County MPO Executive Director Andrew Canon says there are financial benefits if Hidalgo County becomes the fiscal agent for the MPO.
Hidalgo County MPO Executive Director Andrew Canon says there are financial benefits if Hidalgo County becomes the fiscal agent for the MPO.

Canon pointed out that 25 years ago, then-Gov. Ann Richards ruled that the LRGVDVC is the fiscal agent for Hidalgo County MPO. However, he said new federal regulations stipulate that the designation needs to be with the transportation policy committee of the MPO. “We are working with TxDOT to get that new designation done,” he said.

Canon added: “There is some confusion about a rush to move from the COG. There is no rush. We are contemplating it by October. If the board says, finances aside, stay at the COG we are going to stay here. I have a wonderful working relationship with Ken Jones and the Lower Rio Grande. He has been a great mentor to me since I have been here. This is strictly a budget sheet decision at the end of the day. We do not want the elected officials to think that it is anything more. The County is not the MPO, will never be the MPO; is not asking to be the MPO. The County is simply agreeing they are capable of paying my bills.”

In a phone interview with the Rio Grande Guardian on Wednesday, Garcia, the Hidalgo county judge, said he fully supported merging the Valley’s three MPOs into one.

Ken Jones is executive director of the LRGVDC. “Funding reliability and governance are the two key elements (when considering a merger of the MPOs),” Jones said at the LRGVDC meeting. He pointed out that four or five years ago the LRGVDC unanimously voted in support of a united MPO for the Valley.

Edcouch Mayor Pro Tem Eddy Gonzalez sided with Brewer on whether Hidalgo County MPO should change fiscal agents. Gonzalez is a member of the MPO and the LRGVDC.

“I have been mulling this in my mind for weeks. This was so fast moving that I do not understand. I see these few pushing to make it happen. All the experience I have, I am an old doggie, I have been around here a long time. One thing I have learned to do is listen to what my mind and my heart is telling me. What my mind, my heart, my body, everything is telling me, I smell something here that I don’t like. I am not comfortable. I think we should leave things the way they are.”

Editor’s Note: The main picture accompanying this story was taken at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council meeting held Wednesday, March 25, 2015, in Weslaco. Pictured are LRGVDC Recording Secretary Deborah Morales, LRGVDC Executive Director Ken Jones, LRGVDV 2nd Vice-President and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, and LRGVDC Secretary and San Benito Mayor Celeste Sanchez.