PHARR, Texas – Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal was praised for his “electrifying commentary” at a Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization board meeting held at the Pharr Events Center on Wednesday.

The praise came from Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, chairman of the RGV MPO. Villarreal and Roma Mayor Jaime Escobar, Jr., spoke in support of Starr County being admitted into the organization.

“It is a pleasure to be here. I am here with our assistant city manager and we are just happy to be considered to be part of the RGV MPO. It is a big step for Starr County. We humbly ask that we may be considered part of this. It is a pleasure meeting you and thank you for this opportunity,” Escobar said.

Villarreal gave a longer and more impassioned speech, arguing that the RGV MPO is helping to overcome a harmful narrative the Rio Grande Valley has to endure at the national level.

“There is no doubt that the Rio Grande Valley has forged tremendous growth, prosperity and success over the last several years and this is something that benefits us in Rio Grande City, the city of Roma, La Grulla, Escobares and certainly Starr County,” Villarreal said.

“By the way, it gives me great pleasure to hear the narrative that is being promoted here today as far as what the Rio Grande Valley as a whole represents, and to have a unified and resounding voice that resonates in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, particularly over the last several months.”

Villarreal said the Valley needs to “continue to promote a different narrative” to the one heard at the national level. He said he heard that different narrative at the MPO meeting.

“We are gradually becoming the green energy capital of Texas. We have 11 international ports of entry, billions of dollars in trade, any destination anywhere USA, we certainly have first rate hospitals and schools, we have a strong, young workforce, we have space exploration now as well,” Villarreal said.

“And, just to reiterate the point of the binational, bicultural identity that serves as our strength, I am having to promote that narrative, especially over the course of the last several months, because that narrative is absent at the national level.”

Villarreal added: “So it gives me, again, great pleasure to hear today that narrative that all of us are promoting, that the Valley is a great place to live, to work, and to certainly forge the American Dream. So, again, thank you for your consideration of Starr County as part of this RGV MPO, I think it will continue to resonate the unification of the Valley as whole and what it represents. So, again, thank you so much for your consideration.”

Chairman Hernandez responded: “Thank you for that electrifying commentary. I think it is the other way around. We are honored to have you consider us, working together with your beautiful county and your great cities, to add to our entity as well.”

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell praised the inclusion of Starr County in the RGV MPO but noted that the RGV MPO’s designation agreement will have to be amended to reconstitute the make up of the board of directors.

Texas Secretary of State Ruth Ruggero Hughs was a guest of the RGV MPO board meeting. Chairman Hernandez explained to her how the group’s footprint is being expanded, thanks to the inclusion of Starr County and South Padre Island.

“Madam Secretary, when we first initiated the merger we had an agreement between Hidalgo County and Cameron County that we would always support each other. We do not dictate terms for either county. Nor will we do it for Starr County. We want to be sure we grow together under one umbrella,” Hernandez said.

“As each one encourages other communities to join us we grow stronger together. We know that we are going to be advocating together for Starr County. Now that it is the RGV MPO it is no longer only Hidalgo County, only Cameron County. Now it is three (counties) and we have incorporated South Padre Island as well.”

Hernandez said the premise is that “we are stronger together.” He said the Valley needs to “align our dollars to be sure that everybody benefits from it.” He added that the Valley does not want to go back to the way things were, when the region had three MPOs and little coordination between the three. “We had roads like the bridge to nowhere kind of deal and we don’t want that kind of infrastructure anymore.”

Pete Alvarez, the Pharr District engineer for TxDOT, said including Starr County will help the RGV MPO take a more regional approach.

“It is about partnering, it is about working together as one. We have identified multiple projects that will connect… most of the time when you think of the Valley you think of a connection north-south, along 281, 77. But, we need to be thinking east-west as well. That is Interstate 2, US 83, and so as we move forward, from a planning perspective, this will enable us to be able to carry on roadway systems that start in Cameron County, go through Hidalgo County, and ultimately will touch Starr County, and vice versa.”

By way of an example, Alvarez said there is a lot more truck movement between Laredo and the Valley these days. “So, we have looked at expanding roadways such as US 83 to four-lane divided highways. When it comes to the area as a whole, what we are looking at here is expanding the planning area. We are talking about connectivity, regionalization, mobilization. And so we want to make sure that continues to happen, moving forward. And I think that Starr County being incorporated into the RGV MPO really gives us a greater voice as was previously mentioned and we are excited for the opportunity.”

Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina pointed out that by including Starr County, the RGV MPO adds 61,000 people to its catchment area.

“I do want to give credit to Mayor O’Caña for meeting with the Starr County Judge. Thank you, mayor, for coordinating this and putting it together and seeing the bigger vision.”

Armando O’Caña is mayor of Mission. He led the RGV MPO’s efforts to bring Starr County into the organization.

There was a unanimous vote in favor of bringing Starr County into the RGV MPO and applause from everyone in room when the vote was taken.

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