Who wins, who loses? Creating metro organization could add funds, hurt smaller communities

HARLINGEN — Streamlining the Valley’s metro planning organizations into one entity could mean more funding for transportation in the region.

Or it could result in lost dollars in some communities, while others gain.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling repeated his support for exploring such a consolidation, citing efficiency and the potential for an overall increase in state transportation funding.

Darling, speaking to the McAllen Economic Development Corp. last week, said merging the McAllen, Harlingen-San Benito, Hidalgo County and Brownsville MPOs could lead to increased state funding by dramatically increasing the population a Valley-wide metro planning agency would represent.

“The incentive to merge the MPOs is that we would then reach a population level that would possibly mean we would have a seat at the discretionary fund table,” Darling was quoted as saying by the Rio Grande Guardian.

That discretionary fund table is dominated by the four biggest MPOs in the state — Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin.

Those four organizations are the biggest recipients of Texas Department of Transportation discretionary transportation funding.

The comments by Darling are the latest development as officials weigh consolidation of the region’s MPOs.

In 2015, the Rio Grande Valley MPO Merger Committee was formed to explore the potential benefits of creating a single planning entity.

“It is possible that more discretionary funding would be available to a regional MPO, but how that would be allocated is still an open question,” Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell said this week via email. “The committee is still looking for a suitable governance model for a regional MPO.

“I have always been open to considering the possibility of a merger if we can be assured of (1) increased funding and (2) a governance model which would assure that funding percentages would remain in the territory of the previously constituted MPOs,” Boswell added. “In other words, we don’t want to see Harlingen-San Benito monies shifted to another region within a newly formed regional MPO.”

That merger committee is comprised of four representatives from each of the MPOs in question.

The Harlingen-San Benito MPO committee representatives include Combes Mayor Mark Sanchez, County Commissioner David Garza, Harlingen-San Benito Director Joel Garza and Boswell.

Boswell said there have been three committee meetings to date. He said a 2012 Texas Transportation Institute report on a possible merger found the “creation of a regional MPO results in slightly less total regional funding than remaining three separate entities … Category 2 dollars coming into the region would be approximately $180,000 less than the three MPOs remaining separate.”

“Mayor Darling, in his capacity as president of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council (the COG) has recently convened meetings of the large cities coalition of the COG to have an opportunity for dialogue among the large cities which I welcome,” Boswell continued. “This is one of the topics which came up in those meetings, but as noted, the merger study has been ongoing since last summer.”