MPO merger possibly coming into focus

SAN BENITO — Local officials say they are continuing to discuss and weigh bylaws for a possible merger of the Valley’s three metropolitan planning organizations.

Those bylaws, submitted to the Harlingen-San Benito MPO board by TxDOT officials, have not been made public.

“We’re working through the legalities of what a merger would look like, and we continue to negotiate that,” Harlingen City Manager Dan Serna said in an interview. “It has to be something that works and is viable for everyone involved.”

The merger of the Valley’s three MPOs has been discussed, debated and tossed back and forth for about five years. A unified agency could mean tens of millions of extra dollars in highway funding for the Valley, some say.

All three of the Valley’s MPOs — Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County — would have to agree to the merger to ensure the regional agency represents a population of more than one million. If one of the MPOs balks, the whole merger idea dies stillborn.

And once a merger is agreed upon to form a single unified Valley MPO, there’s no going back to the status quo as it stands now.

“I know that you’ve been working for years and I think that we should move on this quickly and move diligently,” County Commissioner David A. Garza said at the Harlingen-San Benito MPO meeting last month.

“We’re making sure that we cross all our Ts and dot all our Is and make sure that everyone’s interest is protected — ours, San Benito’s, the MPO here,” Serna responded.

Questions, concerns

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell has voiced concerns about the structure of a unified MPO. Hidalgo County’s MPO is in favor of the merger but Boswell questioned earlier proposals to allocate seats on a unified MPO on the basis of population, essentially giving Hidalgo County representatives control of any Valley-wide board.

He has said he isn’t against a merger, but wants to agree on language which would form the structure of a unified board first and determine if the interests of all cities will be protected.

In Brownsville, Mayor Tony Martinez has said several times he wouldn’t commit to a unified MPO without seeing specifics about its structure and being convinced his city would gain state funding and how much that would amount to.

“We acknowledge that the city of Harlingen and the city of Brownsville are taking a proactive approach and having that unbiased view, if you will, at the potentially proposed bylaws of the MPO merger,” Pete Alvarez, TxDOT engineer for the Pharr District, said at the MPO meeting in San Benito.

“It’s about doing the right thing for your region as a whole,” he added.

Time is ticking

Commissioner Garza said delays over a merger for the past year have already cost the Valley, and “we saw 200 million dollars float away into the sky because of the fact that we are not one unified area.”

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.)

A unified Valley-wide MPO would earn a seat at the table of the heavy hitters instead of being lumped with the rest of the state’s MPOs, all 21 of them, which are left to pursue highway and road funding from a smaller pool of available dollars.

What it means

TxDOT officials estimate the three Valley metropolitan planning organizations — Harlingen-San Benito, Brownsville and Hidalgo County — will receive $510 million in Category 2 and Category 7 funds over the next decade. A potential merger of the three transportation agencies could mean an additional $110 million.

“No one has told us we’re guaranteed more money, no one has actually said that,” Serna said.

Where’s the money?

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 last year.

“I know that we’re going to have two new commissioners at TxDOT coming in and there seems to be one priority at that level, and that one priority is congestion,” Commissioner Garza said at last month’s meeting. “Unfortunately, we have maybe two congested areas out of hundreds in the state of Texas in our region.”

Garza’s implication was TxDOT priority spending from the Category 12 pot would go outside the Valley to improve highly congested traffic areas, and that the best way to secure more highway funding is via a unified MPO.

Garza said the county Commissioner’s Court would make itself available to facilitate any unification proposal which arises from the current discussion over the proposed TxDOT bylaws.

“If you’ve got something,” Garza said, “bring it to us and we’ll help.”