HARLINGEN, RGV – State Rep. Armando Martinez is licking his wounds and promising to soldier on after his top legislative agenda item went down in flames at the very end of the 85th legislative session.
House Bill 1986 sought to provide for “a united, comprehensive effort in the development and sustainability of regional public transit services in the Rio Grande Valley by authorizing the creation of a regional transit authority in the area.” Having a regional transit authority, Martinez has argued, could have led to the creation of a light rail service in the Valley.
Martinez’s legislation sailed through the House with meaningful input from various local stakeholders, including Valley Metro, Brownsville Metro and Metro McAllen. It also made it out of the Senate Committee on Transportation, with help from state Sen. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen. However, the legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, never came up for consideration on the Senate floor.
In an interview with the Rio Grande Valley at Valley International Airport, as he flew back from Austin two days after the legislative session ended, Rep. Martinez was asked if he thought HB 1986 was a casualty of the bitter, end-of-session, clash between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus.
“I don’t think it was a casualty of that. I think it was more a case of the majority of the senators just not having the open-mindedness to think about the needs of the rest of Texas. I think the Republican majority in the Senate needs to change, so we have people who are open-minded and business-oriented and who want to come in and do what is best for Texas, not just to go as Right as they can to see who is most conservative. I think those political philosophies need to be thrown out the door, so we can have economic development, so we can have job growth, so our economy can be more robust,” said Martinez, D-Weslaco.
“This transit authority is something other parts of Texas enjoy. Other parts of Texas are able to do this. We just want to put the Rio Grande Valley in line with the rest of the state.”
Asked if the Valley could set up a regional transit authority without the help of the Legislature, Martinez said that, unfortunately, it could not. “I think you need to have an executive body and an executive board in place and in statute. Unfortunately, we cannot do that without legislation and so we will reintroduce it at the start of the next legislative session. We are not giving up.
Under Martinez’s legislation, voters in Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties would have been given the opportunity to approve the creation of a regional transit authority. Martinez built in further transparency safeguards by insisting that the RTA’s executive board be accountable to the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council.
The new regional transit authority would have been able to issue bonds and collect fares and other charges. Language in HB 186 referred to international bridges imposing a fee for use by the authority, with fees set at $1 for passenger vehicles; $2 for commercial motor vehicles; and 25 cents for pedestrians.
Tom Logan, executive director of Valley Metro, said a regional transit authority with tax raising powers would have allowed his agency to expand services to area universities and community colleges, as well as colonias and low-income neighborhoods, where bus services are most critical.
“We think a regional transit authority would be great for the Valley,” said Tom Logan, executive director of Valley Metro. “It will help put in place the bigger service we need in this area. We would definitely see the benefit from the service plan it is going to call for. The service plan will make us work together and start planning for the transportation services we will need in the years to come.”
Logan pointed out that ahead of the 85th legislative session, Rep. Martinez made a point of reaching out to the other three public bus services in the Valley, to ensure they were happy with the legislation. The three are in South Padre Island, Brownsville and McAllen.
When HB 1986 successfully made it through the Texas House, Rep. Martinez issued a news release. The news release said the legislation “sets the foundation to plan for passenger rail.”
The news release pointed out that, currently, the Valley does not have a regional entity that can provide a “comprehensive effort in the development and sustainability of regional public transit services in the area.” It stated that RTAs “have been formed in other areas of the state and have proven essential in providing efficient public transit services, especially for rail transit.”
The news release quoted Martinez as saying: “With the creation of a regional transit authority, our communities can truly begin to plan for the future of mass transit in the Rio Grande Valley. HB 1986 provides an efficient vehicle for the Valley to formally collaborate to provide transit services of all types to the public. This addresses road congestion, provides a vital service to students and lower income residents, and brings with it significant economic development.”
The news release pointed out that Martinez’s bill has been under review and revision for multiple sessions, and that it has been negotiated extensively with stakeholders “to ensure that this is a solution that suits all involved.” It said no municipal or regional bus provider voiced opposition to the bill and many of their recommendations have been incorporated into the language.
“A solid foundation has already been laid for expanded public transit services by the current bus providers in the Rio Grande Valley. The cities of Brownsville, McAllen, and South Padre Island each provide municipal bus service while Valley Metro, operated by the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, is the single regional bus provider. Although the providers have worked together loosely in the past to provide partial regional services such as Metro Connect, a regional transit authority is necessary for large scale projects such as rail,” Martinez’s news release stated.
The news release stressed that the RTA would be accountable and transparent. “One of the most important aspects of the bill is the involvement of the public in the RTA. Under HB 1986, voters in each county must approve of the creation of the RTA at an election.” It confirmed that the LRGVDC would be the executive committee of the RTA. “The COG is comprised of elected officials from every community in the Rio Grande Valley. By placing the COG in charge of the RTA, it places the actions and direction of the RTA directly under oversight of voters. It also ensures that every community has a voice in the RTA.”
Asked about the possibility of light rail, Valley Metro’s Logan said. “A feasibility study completed in 2012/13 called for rail service. It was here in the 1920s. We want history to repeat itself,” Logan said.
Asked about the possibility of light rail, Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia said: “If we all hold hands together it is a no-brainer. We have got a track that runs all the way from Brownsville to McAllen and then our spur comes in from McAllen. It can serve all the cities in between. It is in place, all we have to do is work towards it.”
Editor’s Note: Reporter Steve Taylor contributed to this story from Edinburg, Texas.