Pharr Mayor and Hidalgo County MPO Chair Ambrosio Hernandez, TxDOT Pharr District Engineer Pete Saenz, Hidalgo County RMA executive director Pilar Rodriguez, and Hidalgo County MPO Andrew Canon.

WESLACO, RGV – Even though opposition from state lawmakers and Texas voters to toll roads has grown in recent years, the State Highway 365 project from Mission to Pharr will remain a tollway.

This is the view of Pilar Rodriguez, executive director of Hidalgo County Regional Mobility
Authority. Rodriguez spoke about the 365 project at a recent luncheon hosted by the Society for Marketing Professional Services-RGV.

Asked by a reporter about Texas Department of Transportation instructions not to proceed with tollway projects in El Paso and Laredo, Rodriguez acknowledged that toll roads were no longer in fashion among state lawmakers.

“Yes, we have heard that the legislature no long supports toll roads. But our project was in the pipeline prior to the state changing its rules. We were told, you are fine. Any project after Jan. 1, 2014, tolls may not be supported. Our project predates this,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said the SH 365 project could not proceed if it were not funded through fees paid by those who use it.

“Because of the scope, the magnitude, the dollar amount associated with SH 365, the project would not work at this point without tolls. It is a $247 million project. That money just is not out there to be grabbed.”

Rodriguez pointed out that the 365 Tollway project is “an expressway type facility, 12.2 miles in length that goes from the Anzalduas International Bridge to the Pharr International Bridge.”

Earlier, Rodriguez had said toll roads are “One of the tools we have in the tool-box.” He pointed out that local governments have using tolls for a long time.

“McAllen, Pharr and Donna all used tolls for their bridge projects. We are just using a mechanism that has been used for a long time and applying it to projects on a larger scale. To get the projects moving faster,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez explained why toll projects are good.

“You borrow the money today and you service the debt for that with tolls you collect tomorrow. It is usually over 30 years. We have received some allocations from TxDOT, to the tune of almost $128 million to leverage that money. We also have the vehicle registration fee. So, when you register your car you actually pay a $20 fee. Ten dollars goes to the Regional Mobility Authority and $10 goes to Hidalgo County Road and Bridge fund. The $10 that comes our way is about $5.5 million. We use that to borrow money and service the (tollway) debt so we can get shovel ready today, versus having to accumulate the money and then sometime in the future try to build it.”

Merging Valley’s three MPOs

Rodriguez was one of four transportation specialists to speak at the SMPS luncheon. The others were Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, chairman of Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization, Andrew Canon, executive director of Hidalgo County MPO, and Pedro “Pete” Alvarez, Pharr District Engineer for TxDOT.

In his remarks, Mayor Hernandez spoke forcefully for uniting the Rio Grande Valley’s three MPOs.

“We need to become a region, so we can sit at the table in Austin and get our fair share of what we deserve as taxpayers. We deserve to be one of the largest MPOs because we have the population, we have the needs. That cannot be achieved unless we merge,” Hernandez said.

“So, our vision is to have all three MPOs, Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County merging under one umbrella. There has been a lot of talk about it. There has been no disputing the fact there is a major upside for the citizens of the Rio Grande Valley. We need to be under one flag.”

Hernandez said Hidalgo County MPO is fully on board for a united MPO for the Valley. He said he is confident any questions about the governance of a united MPO can be worked out.

“We are not reinventing the wheel. I have spoken to our colleagues in Brownsville, specifically Mayor Martinez and also Mayor Boswell. They are open to the idea. I know that at times change can be difficult, people can be scared of what they may lose but change always happens and I am sure we can work something out whereby the governance is acceptable to all parties.”

The mayors Hernandez was referring to are Tony Martinez of Brownsville and Chris Boswell of Harlingen. Hernandez said organizations in the Valley that are truly regional in nature already exist and should be emulated.

“The perfect example is our Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council. There you have representation for the entire Rio Grande Valley and they work in harmony. We do exactly what we are supposed to do for the betterment of our population. So, I am going to push very hard for us to be merged into one MPO.”

Mayor Hernandez predicted more discretionary funding would come the Valley’s way if the three MPOs were merged.

“It is a significant amount of money we can bring down. And we deserve it. We are not asking for any handouts from the state or the federal government. It is money we deserve,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez added that on the issue of governance of a regional MPO, there is nothing to fear.

“We are not the first to do this. Other people have done it throughout the state. If you fear Hidalgo County will dwarf you, that is not going to happen. The reason it is not going to happen is because as chairman, I am giving you the exact template that Dallas and Fort Worth use. I am asking you to look at it, gut it up, red light it, whatever word you want to use and make it palatable to you. When you guys are happy with it, you two MPOs, then send it back to Hidalgo County and we will red line it as well. The fear is we will dwarf you, consume you, that is not the case. We want to be a partner. With open communication and honesty, I know we can get it done.”

Alvarez, TxDOT’s Pharr District Engineer, said any decision to merge the three Valley MPOs would ultimately depend on local leaders. He said TxDOT will serve as a resource.

“It helps to have one regional MPO. One voice moving forward. We have got to get this locomotive going so we can be building projects year in, year out. We need to continue this momentum, moving forward. Our goal is to develop partnerships,” Alvarez said.

He said TxDOT had crunched the numbers.

“The region has a whole receives about $510 million over a ten-year period. If we were to merge that number could potentially grow to $620 million over a ten-year period, a difference of $110 million. Or, about $11 million a year. In the big scheme of things, $11 million is not a lot of money. What it would do is show the Valley is unified, that there is one voice for the Valley, that we have our priorities already identified,” Alvarez said.

“When I made my visits to the state Capitol at the beginning of August, I visited with several of our elected officials, state reps and senators. Nothing is more pleasing to hear than “the Valley delegation.” These folks are united, working in cooperation, helping each other out. We have a great opportunity to do that, as it pertains to the MPOs. Focusing on Category 2 and Category 7, the basic MPO funding, is one thing. The big prize is Category 12, that is the TxDOT Commission discretionary dollars.”

Alvarez stressed that taking a regional approach to transportation would pay off in the long run.

“I cannot speak for the TXDOT commission, they have many, many needs throughout the state. What I can say, which was further emphasized by Chairman Bruce Bugg (in Edinburg) last week is, don’t focus on the money, focus on having one vision, one voice, prioritizing projects, and the money will take care of itself.”