WESLACO, RGV – The Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization has only just come into existence but the planning area it considers for transportation projects may be expanded.

At a board meeting on Wednesday, staff were tasked with looking into the feasibility of adding Starr, Willacy and Brooks counties to the MPO, along with those parts of Cameron County that were never part of the Brownsville or Harlingen-San Benito MPOs.

RGV MPO Chairman Ambrosio Hernandez

Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a declaration that merged Hidalgo County MPO, Brownsville MPO, and Harlingen-San Benito MPO into the new new RGV MPO.

“When we merged, one of the stipulations we agreed was that we reserve the right to expand the MPO,” said RGV MPO Chairman Ambrosio Hernandez. “I am looking at Starr County, Brooks, Willacy and South Padre Island because I think the bigger we are, the more we need to help each other to provide infrastructure.”

Hernandez, the mayor of Pharr, said there is more state and federal money for the RGV MPO if its coverage area is expanded.

“We are always strong when work together. Hidalgo County MPO notified the others from the outset, before we signed and the ink dried, that we were interested in growing. My colleagues from Cameron County are fully aware of our intentions. I reminded my colleagues, remember the discussions we had,” Hernandez told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“So, we have asked staff, please look at the risk-benefit analysis of bringing those parties in to help us out.”

Asked if the communities that could be brought into the RGV MPO had approached him, Hernandez said: “We have had unofficial conversations with Starr County and through a third party we have spoken with Willacy County and South Padre Island.”

Some possible logos for the new Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization. The logos were created by high school students. University students are going to be invited to design a logo also.

Ron Garza is executive director of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council (LRGVDC). He is also interim director of RGV MPO.

“The staff were tasked, and we will definitely consult with TXDOT, to conduct an assessment on what could be the process should we want to include additional counties within the MPO planning area,” said Ron Garza, interim director for RGV MPO.

“We want to look at the feasibility of bringing in Starr, Willacy and Brooks counties, and the remaining portion of Cameron County. We are going to do some research so that if that should be of future consideration, the policy board has accurate data. This first step is merely to initiate a potential for feasibility.”

RGV MPO Interim Director Ron Garza

Garza said there was discussion about adding adjoining counties when talks were taking place about merging the Valley’s three legacy MPOs. 

“During the consolidation process it was a topic that was recurring and the chief elected officials that were designated to make the consolidation official decided that it would be best to get through that process first before we explored any future feasibility,” Garza said.

“It could very well be that it is not a feasible option.”

Asked if leaders in counties such as Starr and Willacy have asked about the possibility of joining the MPO, Garza said: “They want appropriate advocacy where possible, so if it is included and it is for the best of both parties, then why not pursue it.” 

Starr County is not part of the LRGVDC, the official council of government for Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties. Asked if that would affect the possibility of Starr County joining RGV MPO, Garza said: “Not necessarily, these are different jurisdictions.”

Garza added: “We have been tasked with initiating the feasibility of adding other areas to the MPO. We will discuss it at our next meeting but there may not be enough information to make a decision. However, we will continue to look at the feasibility. All these leaders on the MPO are dedicated to doing things the right way. This could take several months.”

Pete Alvarez, Pharr district director for the Texas Department of Transportation, said he has been approached by leaders in counties neighboring Cameron and Hidalgo to see if their counties could join the RGV MPO.

“When the merger discussion came about there was interest by both Starr and Willacy counties to be part of the RGV MPO. At the time the powers that be that looked at the consolidation made a decision to postpone that discussion until the RGV MPO had been stood up,” Alvarez said.

TXDOT Pharr District Director Pete Alvarez

Asked why the whole of Cameron County was not included in the RGV MPO from the start, Alvarez said: “When the two MPOs were created in Cameron County, there was no urbanized area between San Benito and Brownsville. There was s very clear definition about where the urbanized area was. That has changed. Now, the city limits are touching, back to back.”

Alvarez said it is important to note that there is a difference between an urbanized area and a planning area. “Population density comes into it. When Hidalgo County MPO was formed, the urbanized areas thought the county would grow so they said, let’s add all of the county into the planning area.”

Alvarez said he has been approached by representatives in northern Cameron County that want to be part of an MPO. 

“I have explained to them, we need to stand up the new RGV MPO and look at the feasibility of adding these areas into the planning area initially and then, once the 2020 Census takes place, then we can determine whether they are an urbanized area. The key here is the census and so it is imperative that all folks fill out the census, make sure they are counted because this determines federal funding in the long term. The census will also determine the urbanized densities for the new RGV MPO.”

One of the big transportation projects the new MPO would like to work on is a second causeway to South Padre Island. Plans are for a toll road to be build linking a second causeway to Interstate I-69 East north of Harlingen. However, it is the current policy of the Texas Transportation Commission not to commit state highway funds to toll projects.

Asked if having adding the remainder of Cameron County into the new MPO would assist efforts to build a second causeway, Alvarez said: “I do not know if it would help but it would certainly not hurt. I think that is the fairest way to put it.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows the RGV Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting in the Ken Jones Boardroom at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council offices in Weslaco on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (Photo: RGG/Shon Gonzalez)