A bigger piece of the pie: TxDOT runs dollar numbers on MPO merger

HARLINGEN — Nearly five years of sometimes intense debate, hundreds of hours of talk and backtalk, and a good dollop of traditional regional mistrust finally may be reaching a conclusion.

For years, the three metropolitan planning organizations in the Valley have pushed and pulled with and against each other over the possibility of merging into one super-MPO to improve the odds of gaining more highway funding for the region.

The three transportation agencies — Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County — have been unable to agree on a structure for a single merged entity. For the smaller Brownsville and Harlingen-San Benito MPOs, the questions have always been exactly how much more funding, and who will control where it is spent.

For the first time, the how-much-money question has been addressed by TxDOT.

The answer is, a lot more money.

A billion here, a billion there

Metropolitan transportation planning organizations are required under federal law for areas that reach certain population numbers as revealed by the census every 10 years.

There are four major metropolitan-area MPOs that soak up the vast majority of the state’s available highway funds. They are Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston-Galveston, Austin and Alamo Area (San Antonio.)

The rest of the state’s MPOs, 21 of them, are pretty much left waiting for scraps to fall off the big table.

For example, of Category 2 and Category 7 funds available for interstate maintenance and state highway preventive maintenance, 80 percent of $12.3 billion over 10 years will go to the Big 4 MPOs. Smaller ones, which is where Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County fit in, will split $2.5 billion, or 20 percent.

In addition, a huge pool of funding is found in Category 12 which is designated for strategic priority spending on highways. The $1 billion a year in this category is earmarked for discretionary spending by TxDOT commissioners.

The Valley MPOs didn’t receive a dollar of those funds this year. As one might expect, most of the cash went to the four mega-MPOs.

The Valley’s cut

Where the state’s highway funds go could change with a merger of the three Valley MPOs, says Pedro “Pete” Alvarez, the newly-appointed district engineer for TxDOT’s Pharr District, which spans the entire Valley.

For the first time in a meeting last week with Harlingen-San Benito MPO board members, Alvarez laid out the potential dollar gains for the Valley if the MPOs band together as a regional agency. If they do, they become mega-MPO No. 5 with a population of more than 1 million.

And with it comes a seat at the big table.

“Our role is not to dictate what to do, it’s not to force any action, it’s just a matter of providing the information and opportunity for the elected officials to make these tough decisions,” the TxDOT engineer said.

Alvarez told the Harlingen-San Benito board the Valley’s three MPOs currently receive 4 percent of the Category 2 and 7 funds — $510 million over 10 years.

If they merged into one MPO, a Valley-wide entity would receive 5 percent of Category 2 and 7 funds — $620 million over 10 years.

“Looking at the big picture, TxDOT over the next 10 years has $70 billion dollars, that’s 7-zero billion dollars over a 10-year period,” Alvarez said “Of the $70 billion, $12.3 billion are in the Category 2 and the Category 7 MPO categories.

“Approximately 80 percent of those $12.3 billion, $9.8 billion, goes through the four big MPOs,” he added. “Eighty percent of the dollars go to four MPOs. The remaining 20 percent, which is equivalent to about $2.5 billion, goes to the other 21 MPOs. So four MPOs get $9.8 billion, then 21 MPOs get $2.5 billion.”

In becoming the No. 5 mega-MPO, he said, it would also open up another lucrative funding avenue the Valley MPOs are not tapping at present — Category 12 funds.

While Alvarez was clear his position is one of providing facts and working in an advisory capacity, TxDOT commissioners have no such restrictions and are openly lobbying for a single Valley MPO.

“We’ve had three TxDOT commissioners within the last four years come to the Valley and say, ‘you need to work as one,’” he said.

A matter of trust

Over the decades, Valley rivalries — county versus county, city versus city — have prospered in a political soil rich in mutual distrust.

While the idea of additional highway and road funding is almost a magical lure for Valley leaders, many are reluctant to give up an assured level of state money they directly control for a mere promise of more money they may not control.

The Hidalgo County MPO has already voted for a resolution which backs the formation of a single Rio Grande Valley MPO. An early draft framework for how the MPO would be structured has been floating around for about a year or so.

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell is not only a member of the Harlingen-San Benito MPO, he is also a member of a subcommittee which has been studying the merger of the three Valley MPOs.

Boswell has said he is open to discussing such a development, but has reservations about the make-up of a super-MPO which would allocate board members by population. That means two-thirds of any combined MPO board would consist of Hidalgo County representatives, at least according to the draft bylaws.

Boswell has suggested an organizational structure which would require a super-majority vote from a combined MPO in order to assure smaller cities would retain a say in where highway dollars go.

“Partnerships are supposed to be good for everybody, right?” Boswell asked. “If you go into a partnership, you go into business with somebody, if you join forces, then you want that partnership to be positive and you want to be protected.

“If I’m going to say I want to be your business partner, how is it going to work?” he continued. “Who’s going to make the decisions? How are we going to split the profits? How are we going to split the losses? Shouldn’t all of those things be discussed not after the fact but up-front?”

One of the unspoken fears over creating a new super MPO — it’s never been done in Texas — is the decision would be irrevocable. If, say, a city didn’t like the spending patterns of a combined Rio Grande Valley MPO, they couldn’t just opt-out once they’re in.

“The MPO has to have equal votes not only for southern Cameron, northern Cameron and Hidalgo, it should be all equal and that group should decide what’s good for the entire Rio Grande Valley, and not just Hidalgo, or just Cameron, or just us,” Palm Valley Mayor George Rivera said.

“As (Combes) Mayor Mark Sanchez said,” Rivers continued, “get yourselves in a room and don’t come out until you get that wrinkle worked out.”

Breaking down the TxDOT numbers

21 — The number of small metropolitan planning organizations in the state that divvy up highway funds

4 — The number of mega-MPOs in metro areas that receive 80 percent of highway funds

12.3 — Billions of dollars in Category 2 and Category 7 funding over next 10 years

9.8 — Billions of dollars of the $12.3 billion that will go to the Big 4 MPOs over a decade

2.5 — Billions of dollars earmarked for smaller MPOs like Harlingen-San Benito over 10 years

70 — Total billions of dollars TxDOT will use to fund highways over the next decade

TxDOT funding categories

Category 1 — High-priority interstate corridors

Category 2 — Interstate maintenance

Category 3 — National highways, Texas trunk system, national highway rehabilitation, national highway traffic management systems, miscellaneous national highway spending

Category 4 — Surface transportation program/safety, transportation enhancements, metro mobility/rehabilitation, urban mobility/rehabilitation, rural mobility/rehabilitation, railroad grade separations

Category 5 — Congestion mitigation and air quality improvement

Category 6 — Bridge replacement/rehabilitation

Category 7 — State preventive maintenance

Category 8 — Rehabilitation of Texas farm to market roads, farm to market roads system expansion

Category 9 — State park roads

Category 10 — Traffic control devices, rehabilitation of traffic management systems

Category 11 — State district discretionary

Category 12 — Strategic priority

Category 13 — State-funded mobility, hurricane evacuation routes, NAFTA discretionary/border trade projects, urban streets

Category 14 — State rehabilitation

Category 15 — Congressional high-priority projects

Category 16 — Miscellaneous

Category 17 — State principal arterial street system

Category 18 — Candidate turnpike projects

Key categories for local MPOs

Categories 2, 7 — $12.3 billion over 10 years. Eighty percent, or $9.8 billion, goes to the four biggest metro MPOs. The smaller 21 MPOs divvy up about $2.5 billion. A merger would put a Valley MPO over 1 million population, and it would be mega-MPO No. 5, qualifying for money from a much bigger pot.

Category 12 — $10 billion over 10 years is earmarked for discretionary spending by TxDOT commissioners, almost all of which goes to the four biggest metro MPOs. The Valley received zero dollars this year in this category.

How much will a merged Valley MPO receive?

— The three Valley MPOs currently receive 4 percent of the Category 2 and 7 funds — $510 million over 10 years

— If merged, a Valley-wide MPO would receive 5 percent of Category 2 and 7 funds — $620 million over 10 years

— The Harlingen-San Benito MPO receives $8 million a year now, and a merged Valley MPO would mean $10 million a year

— The Brownsville MPO receives $9 million annually, and a merged MPO would mean $11 million a year

— The Hidalgo MPO receives $34 million a year, and a merger would bump that figure to $41 million a year

— In addition, a united Valley MPO would be eligible — no guarantees — for a portion of the $1 billion in annual discretionary Category 12 funds

Source: TxDOT