Is merger of Valley’s planning groups the right way to go?

HARLINGEN — The question is whether, even in Texas, bigger is better.

The merger of the Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization with the Harlingen-San Benito and the Brownsville MPOs would be the first of its kind in the state.

Hidalgo County approved a resolution urging a merger with the two MPOs to the east, arguing such a consolidation would mean more highway dollars for the entire Rio Grande Valley, and a place at the table with the state’s Big Four transportation areas — Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

Many cities are reluctant to lose local control over where their highway funding goes. After all, that was the reason MPOs were created by the federal government in 1973, in an attempt to ensure new highways weren’t ramrodded through by federal and state agencies without local input on their routes.

While it remains merely a proposal, municipal planners and TxDOT officials have little historical reference to guide such a unique consolidation as the one proposed for the Valley.

The closest situation is the interesting case of New Braunfels, the second fastest-growing city in the nation which sits between San Antonio and San Marcos astride I-35 on the way to Austin.

The 2010 Census found the city had reached the magical “urban status” with a population over the 50,000-person threshold.

That’s when the trouble began.

The hot debate in New Braunfels municipal offices between 2012 and 2014 wasn’t about whether to form an MPO — they were mandated to do so — but whether it would be independent and locally controlled, or the city would join the larger San Antonio-Bexar County MPO, known now as the Alamo Area Meteropolitan Planning Organization.

“There was obviously within the city council and the (previous) city manager concern about joining the MPO for a fear or a concern that they would not be able to control their own destiny, that they would be put into a planning organization with San Antonio where the demands for transportation emphasized Bexar County as opposed to Comal County and New Braunfels,” recalled New Braunfels Mayor Barron Casteel in a recent interview.

“But I will tell you, it has been exactly the opposite,” Casteel added.

“The Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has been a collaborative planning organization,” the mayor said. “They realize that the value of their area is determined by the value of the surrounding area as well.

“Transportation investment in New Braunfels, Comal County, Guadalupe County and Kendall County are as important as the core of their community,” Casteel said.

For the San Antonio-Bexar MPO, which now serves as transportation planner for a swathe of 2,700 square miles stretching nearly to San Marcos, it was about making the case for New Braunfels and Seguin to join up.

“They weren’t really interested and really wanted to do their own thing,” said Isidro “Sid” Martinez, director of the Alamo Area MPO. “If you’re familiar with the City of San Antonio, it’s 1.7 million, and with New Braunfels at about 50,000, it’s a big disparity in terms of size.”

As debate in New Braunfels heated up, the consensus seemed to favor a local MPO, and Martinez said his organization “could have really quickly called it a day.”

“But the MPO here really wanted to bring New Braunfels and Seguin to the table in a constructive way,” Martinez said.

Given New Braunfels’ location wedged between the MPO in San Antonio and the MPO in San Marcos on the city’s other side, Martinez said granting the smaller city its own MPO in close proximity to larger MPOs would have set a national precedent that state and federal officials would rather avoid.

In the end, he said, the Alamo Area MPO convinced New Braunfels officials their highway and infrastructure projects would receive not just better technical and planning tools, but funding for their projects also would be adequate.

After two years of what he called “tough meetings and tough discussion,” New Braunfels decided to join the bigger Alamo Area MPO in 2014.

“At the end of the day, I think if you would ask those people in those cities, they would be pretty quick to tell you that even though they didn’t want to be in the MPO, things have worked out pretty well,” Martinez said.

For his part, New Braunfels Mayor Casteel says his city’s spectacular growth is continuing, and now its population has reached around 75,000 people.

Such growth naturally puts some stresses on transportation infrastructure, and the mayor is particularly pleased about the Loop 337 project which should ease some traffic problems in the city.

“I’m excited about Loop 337, which we started planning for in the 1960s,” Casteel said. “The very first thing we saw when joining the Alamo Area MPO was a $51 million state highway expansion on our outer loop … and we are actively designing and participating in the most basic of transportation investments — sidewalks for pedestrians throughout our community.

“It would not have been possible without being in the Alamo MPO to do that,” the mayor said.