Cities support merging highway authorities

HARLINGEN — A single Valley-wide metropolitan planning organization took a great leap forward yesterday as Harlingen, Brownsville and the Cameron County Commissioners Court all adopted proposals to merge three MPOs into a single mega-highway authority.

McAllen and San Benito already have passed similar proposals, clearing the bureaucratic roadway for a single MPO which has been debated and studied for almost two years. Hidalgo County has been pushing the merger for nearly two years.

After minor differences in the proposals are resolved, TxDOT commissioners will make the final decision, which would seem to be near-certain approval since they have lobbied for a single Valley-wide MPO for years.

Skeptics of the merger of the three MPOs had expressed concern, and this was confirmed by TxDOT, that there was no guarantee additional funding for highways in the Rio Grande Valley would magically appear. However, combining the three Valley MPOs into one with a total population above the required minimum of 1 million people would open up new categories of TxDOT funding not available now.

“This proposal that has been adopted by our commission and by Cameron County … assures that a percentage based on current percentages will continue to go into the sub-regions and that that can’t be changed unless each of the original signatories to the designation agree to that,” Mayor Chris Boswell said last night after a special commission meeting in which commissioners voted unanimously to approve the resolution.

“So that’s the protection that assures us we’re going to continue to receive at least as much money as we’ve received in the past,” the mayor added. “We think we’ll be able to receive significantly more funding in the future.”

The merger strategy means the combined Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County MPOs become the fifth-largest MPO in the state. The smaller MPOs, which number 21, are not even eligible for almost half of TxDOT’s annual road and highway funds.

The top four mega-MPOs in the state — Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and Alamo Area (San Antonio and New Braunfels) — consume about 80 percent of TxDOT’s highway funding now.

A mega-Valley MPO will have a seat at that bigger table.

All told, TxDOT spending over the next 10 years spread among the top four mega-MPOs will amount to $12.3 billion. The smaller 21 MPOs? They will divvy up just over $2.5 billion over the next decade.

The real prize is in Category 12 funds, designated for strategic priority spending, which are distributed as discretionary funds by the TxDOT board of commissioners. This will amount to $10 billion over the next decade.

At present, the Valley receives zero dollars from this significant category of TxDOT spending.

“Certainly we’ve got a much better shot at being able to realize that category of funding that totals about 40 percent of what they spend every year,” Boswell said. “Based upon this framework, we would be participating in that increased funding.”

Much of the impetus behind merging the three Valley MPOs is based on the continuing rapid growth of the region and growing concerns about transportation and mobility. The Valley’s 1.5 million population is expected to be 2.5 million by 2040.

With the border blocking any transportation options of routing traffic to the south, a third east-west corridor is planned to link a second causeway to South Padre Island and run north of Harlingen before connecting to the planned Hidalgo County loop.

Such a corridor would ease congestion on I-2/Expressway 83 and U.S. 281, the border road also known as Military Highway.

But making these improvements, along with other highway projects, is expected to cost as much as $3.3 billion in the Valley over the next 20 years.

“We should go into this with guarded optimism and understand that nothing is assured,” Boswell said. “But I think we do have a better chance of getting that kind of funding and I think more importantly this proposal that’s been adopted protects us.

“It is a fair and equitable way to go into this and it assures that we’re not going to lose any funding, we’re going to continue to get the same level of funding that we’ve received,” he added. “There will still be projects in northern Cameron County, which was my primary concern all along.”


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