EDITORIAL: Much discussion, little action over Valley MPO merger idea

As the Rio Grande Valley grows, many people are calling for local officials to think regionally and combine their efforts for the greater good. Discussions about merging the Valley’s three metropolitan planning organizations, which have come and gone for nearly a decade, were resurrected in a big way this month with an attempted coup of sorts against the leadership of the Brownsville MPO.

During the Dec. 4 Brownsville City Commission meeting, commissioners voted Commissioner Ben Neece off the MPO Policy Committee and debated a motion to replace Mayor Tony Martinez as committee chairman. The legality of the effort was questioned, as the MPO’s bylaws clearly state that the mayor shall be the Policy Committee chairman.

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1962 created MPOs to plan and oversee the use of transportation dollars allocated across the United States. Some 25 MPOs currently operate in Texas, three of them in the Valley: one serves Hidalgo County, one is for northern Cameron County and the third Southern Cameron County.

The Hidalgo County and Harlingen-San Benito MPOs support the proposed merger and it has many advocates, including most of those who represent the Valley in the state legislature. The Brownsville-Los Fresnos-Rancho Viejo group hasn’t rejected the idea, but hasn’t approved it either.

Advocates note that the merger would create the fifth-largest MPO in the state. Currently, about 80 percent of road and highway funding goes to the four largest MPOs: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston-Galveston, Austin-San Marcos and San Antonio-New Braunfels-Seguin. Advocates say a larger RGV organization would compete for that larger share of the funding, rather than the 20 percent that goes to all the other MPOs combined. It also would qualify the Valley MPO to request money from special funds created just for the largest regional projects.

The windfall would be an additional $11 million a year, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, which is assisting in the discussions and has proposed a set of bylaws to govern a merged MPO.

Opponents say there is no assurance that the four largest organizations, with their larger population centers, won’t still get the lion’s share of the funding. Some have expressed concerns that Hidalgo County, with its greater number of incorporated cities, could dominate the membership of a regional board and steer the money to the western end of the Valley, leaving Cameron County with less money than its two independent MPOs might receive otherwise.

They also note that a merger would be irrevocable; there would be no turning back, even if people don’t like the results.

Gonzalez and Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell say they don’t reject the merger idea, but want assurances that the money would be allocated equitably.

It’s admirable that these officials and others haven’t let the lure of more money overpower their desire to ensure that fairness is guaranteed. But their concerns are known; proposed bylaws have been written and can be debated and amended. All the pieces appear to be in place for formal, final discussions that can settle the issue — without mutiny.