Is bigger better? Brownsville workshop eyes pros and cons of MPO merger

BROWNSVILLE — The long simmering topic of a potential merger of the Rio Grande Valley’s three Metropolitan Planning Organizations got a public airing on Dec. 18 during a public workshop at a regular meeting of the Brownsville City Commission.

Pete Alvarez, Pharr District engineer representing the Texas Department of Transportation, was on hand to discuss the pros and cons of a merger, provide data and answer questions. An MPO is the policy board of an organization dedicated to carrying out metropolitan transportation planning, with federal money flowing through state departments of transportation.

The Brownsville MPO provides administrative support and technical services to coordinate, carry out and conduct transportation planning for Brownsville, Los Fresnos and the Town of Rancho Viejo to conform to federal highway and transit regulations.

Merging Brownsville’s MPO with those of Hidalgo County and Harlingen-San Benito has been the subject of debate in Brownsville for years, proponents arguing that it would mean more money for local projects, while critics caution that the city could end up losing money and power.

Mayor Tony Martinez opened the workshop with a prepared statement in which he said “realignment” rather than “merger” is a better description of what’s being proposed. He noted that the federal government named McAllen the original fiscal agent for the Hidalgo County MPO, and though the Rio Grande Valley Development Council was later designated the fiscal agent, McAllen retains veto power on any proposed MPO redesignation or merger, as do Harlingen and Brownsville, being the largest cities within their MPOs.

Martinez said he’s OK with a realignment as long as it really means more money for Brownsville, but opposes any move that would end up depriving city residents and businesses.

“I would like to remind everyone, while we may all have different opinions in planning for the future, we must deal in facts, verifiable projections to reach an informed and most appropriate decision,” he said.

Martinez cited the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley as an example of the downside of regional realignment, noting that the transfer of a large number of activities from UTRGV in Brownsville to UTRGV in Edinburg has been cause for “great concern.”

“While I have faith that it will equalize in time, it remains a process which in my opinion could have been planned and done in a different fashion,” he said. “We do not want to repeat this same approach with this experience in mind.”

Alvarez, noting that the Pharr District is the only one of the TxDOT’s 25 districts statewide with three MPOs, said one advantage to combining the Valley’s entities into one is that it would allow the Valley to speak with one voice in prioritizing regional projects. It would also mean a regional approach to transit projects, as opposed to each MPO working individually on projects that stop at the city or county limit, he said.

Other pros to a merger are a coordinated, regional approach to addressing traffic congestion, as well as an increase in total funding for TxDOT funding categories 2 and 7, which entail, respectively, metropolitan Transportation Management Area corridor projects and metropolitan mobility and rehabilitation projects, Alvarez said.

More total money from TxDOT’s 10 other funding categories is also a possibility, though it’s ultimately up to TxDOT commissioners, he said. If the Valley’s MPOs do merge, it will make up the fifth largest MPO in the state, larger than El Paso’s, he said.

The downside of a merger is that individual MPOs would lose their autonomy and funding for MPO administration might be reduced, Alvarez said. Another issue could be the sheer size of the new MPO’s board, which would combine members from the three existing MPO boards, he said. At the same time, Alvarez noted, the Dallas-Fort Worth MPO managed to bring a dozen counties together.

“If 12 counties can do it and God knows how many cities, I think that here in the Valley we should be able to meet that challenge,” he said.

In a question regarding potential governance models for a regional MPO, Brownsville MPO policy committee member Eddie Hernandez, who represents the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce on the committee, said he has asked repeatedly for presentations on potential governance models, including the DFW model and the oft-mentioned “Florida model.”

“My understanding is the Florida model is more of a partnership, with a shell MPO, but they retain their individuality and their local-ness,” Hernandez said. “And the DFW method is … one solid MPO. That’s all I’ve been told.”

He said he can’t be expected to agree to a merger if he doesn’t know what he’s agreeing to.

“It’s almost like I’m being asked to sign a pre-nup without being able to see it,” Hernandez said. “It’s not going to happen.”

Alvarez said the governor’s office has indicated it would not consider the Florida model for Texas, so doing a presentation on it would be a “waste of time.” He added that hammering out a governance proposal and associated bylaws would be the responsibility of the mayors of Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen, and the Cameron and Hidalgo county judges. Once that process is complete, plans would be presented to the individual MPOs, Alvarez said.

In response to a question from an audience member as to why it’s necessary to merge MPOs now, when the federal government’s original intent in creating MPOs was to give local communities a say in regional transportation planning, Alvarez said it’s due to the Valley’s population growth over the last few decades, which demands a regional planning approach.

The Valley’s population in the mid-1980s was between 500,000 and 600,000, compared to around 1.5 million today, and estimated to be 3 million by 2040, he said.

Martinez said the public is entitled to know all the facts concerning realignment talks and that another public workshop session on the same topic is scheduled for Jan. 8.

“This is a continuing thing that needs to be discussed fully,” he said.