HARLINGEN — The slow-moving, four-year drive to merge three Valley transportation agencies has experienced a breakthrough which should accelerate the eventual creation of a super-sized traffic planning organization.

Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. announced this past week an agreement has been reached on a framework to proceed to the next step of merging the Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County metropolitan planning organizations.

“When this merger is approved and completed, the Rio Grande Valley is going to see a transformative change in the next 10 to 20 years and beyond,” Trevino said. “We will no longer have to settle for bits and pieces of the transportation funding that our state leaders disburse on an annual basis.”

The merger of the three Valley MPOs into a single entity would be a watershed moment for traffic planning here in the region. Such an agency would be the fifth-largest MPO in the state, which would open up vast new avenues of TxDOT funding which potentially could turn into hundreds of millions of additional dollars.

Many officials in Cameron County have been wary of a combined MPO because members on an eventual board would be allocated by population, giving Hidalgo County the potential to dominate the agency as well as guide state highway funds to roadways there.

But Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell says the framework agreed to by the three MPOs provides rules in an eventual charter which will ensure current TxDOT funding levels will remain the same within the MPO regions.

“The mechanism that will offer the assurance or the protection is the concept of sub-regions and a sub-region allocation,” Boswell said. “So that each of the three prior MPOs would constitute a sub-region and that there would be a sub-allocation to each of those regions based on the same way that we currently calculate the amount of money that goes into the three MPOs.

“That offers the assurance then that no MPO territory would lose the amount of funding that it’s currently receiving as a stand-alone MPO,” the mayor added.

Billions on table

There is big money at stake in the creation of a single Valley MPO, which would make it the fifth-largest in the state, along with Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio-New Braunfels. An MPO region is required to have 1 million population or more to qualify as a mega-MPO.

The Valley’s three MPOs currently receive 4 percent of TxDOT 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.

Of the 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 currently 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. Some $1 billion a year in this category is earmarked for discretionary spending by TxDOT commissioners and almost all of it goes to the big MPOs.

“Folks ought to be cautiously optimistic about additional monies flowing in because I think to a certain degree it still will remain a competitive process,” Boswell said. “But being a larger MPO does put us in a position of being awarded some of the Category 12 discretionary money that we’re not currently getting.”

Bumper-to-bumper

When it comes to traffic in the Valley, the clock is ticking.

Already Hidalgo County is experiencing traffic flow problems in some areas at certain times of the day. And as the Valley grows — the population is expected to increase from 1.5 million to 2.5 million by 2040 — those traffic problems are flowing eastward.

Current highway spending projections show $3.3 billion will be needed to fund projects planned over the next two decades in the Valley.

“The (TxDOT) district engineer, Pete Alvarez, was sharing with us just this week some numbers about traffic on I-2 running east and west in the Valley, and it’s like 150,000 vehicles a day versus 120,000 that go between San Antonio and San Marcos,” Boswell said. “You know how much that area of the state has grown, and the fact that we have a higher traffic count on I-2 than they have on I-35 between San Antonio and Austin is pretty astounding.”

Boswell also pointed out the increase in truck traffic between Mexico and the United States as being a factor that must be addressed when it comes to allocating Valley highway funds.

“We have a lot of truck traffic that comes to deliver goods like vegetables that come from out of Mexico that pass through our region that are distributed throughout the United States,” he said. “We’re kind of like the front door … We need to have transportation dollars in this region to address the flow of trucks that carry goods back and forth between Texas and Mexico.”

Fast-tracking

The merger of the three Valley MPOs is far from finalized, but the agreement announced by Judge Trevino is seen as a crucial development following four years of study, debate and legal back-and-forth.

“Brownsville, Harlingen and Cameron County, and the Harlingen-San Benito MPO, all passed resolutions a couple months ago adopting a term sheet that would provide for a structure for a re-designated MPO, a combined MPO,” Boswell said. “Based upon further discussion and negotiation with Hidalgo County, it’s being modified and that’s being worked on right now.

“If all goes well, it could be we might have something that the various jurisdictions would be able to consider as early as next week,” Boswell added.

MORE INFO

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