The Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) recently voted to merge with the other two Valley MPOs – Harlingen-San Benito and Brownsville – and has asked the governor to create a regional MPO.
The MPOs make decisions about transportation planning for the cities within their jurisdictions. Any transportation project that will receive federal funding, i.e., most projects, must get approval from the MPO in order to move forward. For a region that is growing at a fast clip, the MPO’s role in making sound development decisions cannot be overstated. For this reason, an MPO must listen and respond to the needs of all of its constituents.
The Brownsville MPO is comprised of a diverse group of elected and appointed representatives of interested entities, including the cities of Brownsville, Los Fresnos, and Rancho Viejo, the county, school board, the port, the Economic Development Council, and Texas Department of Transportation. With the assistance of the MPO Director and his staff, they are responsible for deciding what transportation projects are in the best interests of the area’s residents.
It is critical for our development that the MPOs remain responsive to the constituents whose lives and futures are affected by their decisions. An example of how this can work is the “West Parkway” toll road project.
Beginning in 2008, the West Parkway toll road was advanced by the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority (CCRMA). It called for an 8-mile toll road to be built on an abandoned railroad, cutting through historic West Brownsville from the B&M Bridge to near Olmito, and it came with a $180 million price tag. The CCRMA, which was pushing the project, is comprised of an entirely unelected, appointed Board. The toll road also had the backing of the county, TxDOT, state politicians and the moneyed toll road interests.
The City of Brownsville and a large, organized group of Brownsville residents were opposed to the toll road. The City passed a resolution against the toll road, which would be located almost entirely within its territory, and the citizens gathered 5,000 signatures on a petition denouncing the highway. But these efforts were not enough to stop the CCRMA. It seemed like an impossible battle.
Finally, in 2012, the citizens and the City of Brownsville went to the MPO and expressed their concerns. The MPO listened, and voted to remove the toll road from the transportation map. It was a rare defeat for the toll road backers, who now admit it was never a good idea. The toll road defeat would not have been possible if the MPO did not adequately represent its constituents.
The decision of whether to merge the three Valley MPOs should be carefully considered. We expect our representatives to get answers to basic questions before any decision is made. What exactly is the governance structure? Does any original MPO have veto power over projects in its area? Is there a guarantee that more money will be available? If not, what is the likelihood of getting more money with one centralized MPO versus joint efforts by all three? Can any original MPO withdraw from the central MPO at any time? Most importantly, any regional MPO must be set up in a way to ensure that the people have a voice.
To be sure, I am not against regionalism. I think it can often make us stronger, because we have much more in common than not. But our enthusiasm for regionalism should not blind us from making reasoned decisions. The proponents of a merger should explain the specific ways that a combined, centralized structure is superior to any other model of regionalism. How is this the best option for ensuring adequate local input while also garnering more state and federal money?
Our representatives should not make such a significant decision regarding governance in our region before reaching a clear agreement on the basics.