WESLACO, RGV – Today, April 24, 2017, is being dubbed an historic day for the Rio Grande Valley and a breakthrough for regional cooperation. 

The reason? Mayors will meet in Weslaco to sign an agreement to merge the three local metropolitan planning organizations – Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito, and Hidalgo County.

The united entity will be called the Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization. 

Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez

“This is an historic day,” said Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, who chairs the Hidalgo County MPO’s transportation policy committee. 

MPOs in Texas are the conduit through which state and federal transportation dollars flow. Comprising local elected officials, they decide which transportation projects to submit to the Texas Transportation Commission for funding. 

By merging the Valley’s three MPOs, the region gets to sit at the so-called “big boys” table, along with the other top five urban conurbations in Texas. No less than 80 percent of transportation dollars are divvied up among the large, urban, MPOs. The smaller rural MPOs can seek funding from the remaining 20 percent. Tens of millions of additional transportation dollars are expected to reach the Valley as a result of having one, unified, MPO.

Hernandez said merging the existing three MPOs is long overdue.

“I liken us to San Diego – we have land, sea, and air ports. But, we look nothing like them because we are always trying to fight for our own cheese, instead of working together,” Hernandez said.

“We have come together, all the mayors of the Rio Grande Valley. We decided it is time for us to unite under one flag for the betterment of all our constituents. Everybody has fought for their area, I wholeheartedly respect that fight, but, at the end of the day I knew we had to do what is right, which is to put all our needs forward, rather than individual cities or ports of entry. That is what we did.”

Hernandez said that at 1 p.m. today, at the offices of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council in Weslaco, top mayors from across the region will come together to sign an agreement to merge the three existing MPOs. The LRGVDC offices are deemed an appropriate place for the signing because this entity will be the fiscal agent for the new MPO.

“Today, at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, we will be signing the document, all the signatory cities, and then shipping it up to Austin to the Governor’s Office and the Texas Department of Transportation’s office so they can execute it. Finally, we will have a unified MPO serving the entire population of the Rio Grande Valley.”

Asked how long before the new MPO is up and running, Hernandez said: “Because we want our projects to take off, we would like to have everything up and running, the board will be set in place, we will need to find an interim director and then a permanent director, we will need to unify our plans. My understanding from TXDOT is everything needs to be done by October. If it gets delayed to December I am fine with it but the sooner the better. It should not take long, I anticipate October 1.”

Asked how much additional money will be available for Valley transportation projects, Hernandez said:

“With the new MPO will have a seat at the $10 billion table. We will be sitting with the big boys and they typically take 80 percent of that. We will be there at that table. And when it comes to discretionary funding, which is what we are most interested in, that remains to be seen. At the end of the day, TXDOT is very fair about distribution. If you get your project ready and it is a priority for our region, a priority for the MPO, it should be funded.”

Hernandez said it is not enough just to merge the Valley’s MPOs. There has to be a complete buy-in to the notion of regional cooperation. 

“As I have articulated to my partners, the mayors and the county judges, it is not enough to merge, what really matters is let’s get our resources in play, our projects ready so when they get identified by the TxDOT Commission, they see we are real players, contributing our tax dollars, getting our projects ready and we need the rest to come though. There is no reason why they won’t.” 

Hernandez spoke about the merging of the Valley’s three MPOs in an interview with reporters following a groundbreaking ceremony in Las Milpas. The ceremony was held to announce a new cold storage warehouse facility being constructed by Zuko for Portus Freight Forwarding Services. 

Hernandez said the MPOs need to merge in part so that the region can react to a growth in international trade.

“This region is a great investment for the State of Texas, its taxpayers and its economy, and the nation as a whole. We have the most ports of entry. We know this is a thriving community. We have great relations with Mexico, our No. 1 trading partner. That is not going to change, despite all the political rhetoric that comes out, but with that comes more traffic, more needs, more infrastructure and we need to do our part, to be prepared. We are not asking for a handout. We are just asking for our fair share.”

Brownsville perspective

Last week, the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM interviewed Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez about the planned merger of the Valley’s three MPOs. In discussions over the past couple of years, Martinez had been reluctant to merge Brownsville MPO for fear of losing out on funding. Now, he said, his fears have been allayed.

“We do have an agreement. The idea was, nobody loses out. We wanted to make sure we could finish what we call the TIP, which is all the transportation projects that we have going right now,” Martinez said.

Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez

“The second thing is we needed an equitable division, based upon our population and it has to not be skewed one way or the other, regardless of representation on a committee or with regard to the funding.

“We also have to accommodate for growth. In other words, this document has to be a living thing so that as the growth continues, and I suspect, in my humble opinion, we probably have a greater amount in the Cameron County area, just because of the nature of the businesses we know that are coming to this area, we have to accommodate for that.”

Martinez acknowledged that more transportation funding would come to the Valley once the new MPO is up and running.

“Once you get projects moving forward, it will make us more efficient in some ways. If you get your project ready to go, you will have a greater ability to get more funding. The growth of Cameron County simply requires us to have that due diligence. I am comfortable with the principals at hand. We do have a transitional period and we do have bylaws to go through. I do not anticipate we will stumble there but I would suspect we will have a few discussions going forward.”

Asked how much more money the Valley is likely to get by merging the three MPOs into one, Martinez said:

“Eighty percent of the money that comes from the federal government goes to the urban MPOs. You only have 20 percent that goes to the rural MPOs. So, we will jump from the 20 percent pond to the 80 percent pond. This gives us a greater opportunity to get more funds. What that amount is, nobody likes to quantify that for the simple reason, we do not know what the federal government is going to do.”

The Texas Transportation Commission meets in Austin on Thursday. State Sen. Juan Hinojosa is likely to make a presentation about the merger of the three Valley MPO’s at the meeting.