HARLINGEN — If the merger of the Rio Grande Valley’s three metropolitan planning organizations was a roll of the dice, the region just raked in the pot.

TxDOT Transportation Commission members in Austin have made their decision on highway funding for the next decade, and Hidalgo and Cameron counties will receive $1.1 billion in a massive infusion of highway funds which will transform mobility in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Unified Transportation Plan, or UTP, passed last week allocates $77 billion to highway improvements across the state of Texas, and includes approximately $368 million for Cameron County and $750 million for Hidalgo County.

Much of the funding for the latter is tied to what is called the Hidalgo County Loop, a long dreamed-for project which will add 120 miles of freeway to relieve traffic congestion by routing traffic north of I-2/Expressway 83.

In addition to the approximately $274 million to be spent on the loop, another $58.2 million is allocated to Brooks County to upgrade U.S. 281 to freeway from FM 755 to the Hidalgo County line.

Cat 12 windfall

The massive highway funding layout in the new 2020 UTP includes significant monies from a revenue stream which Valley MPOs previously have been denied.

Category 12 funds are a huge pool of money designated for strategic priority spending on highways. Some $1 billion a year in Category 12 is discretionary spending by TxDOT commissioners and the state’s big four MPOs have received practically all of it.

In the 2020 UTP, however, over the next decade the new Rio Grande Valley MPO will be working with around $422.5 million in Category 12 funds, perhaps intended as a visible and lucrative reward for the merger of the Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County MPOs, a development long-sought by TxDOT commissioners.

The new MPO, which officially begins operation Oct. 1, will be the fifth-largest in the state, joining Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and the Alamo Area MPO, which consists of San Antonio and nearby cities.

Big Category 12 funds will go to the U.S. 281 upgrade to a freeway from the Hidalgo/Brooks county line to State Highway 186, which is receiving $186 million of the $194 million project from Cat 12 funds.

Also in Hidalgo County, the State Highway 68 new freeway project from U.S. 83 to FM 1925, a $180 million project, will receive $156.6 million from Category 12 funds. And the Old U.S. 83 to new freeway project from FM 2221 to Showers Road will receive $63.2 million in Cat 12 funds to help with the project’s $126 million price tag.

Tollways are go

Two major projects, the 365 Tollway in Hidalgo County and the State Highway 550 project in Cameron County, were green-lighted even though they are toll roads. Last year, TxDOT commissioners placed a moratorium on any new toll roads in the state, but allowed those in the planning stages which had funding identified to proceed.

Significantly for Cameron County, this moratorium puts plans for a second causeway to South Padre Island, estimated to cost anywhere from $500 million to $750 million, on hold. The 2020 UTP does not mention the causeway project.

The 365 Tollway project ($174 million, $159 million local funds from toll revenues) is a 12.2-mile section which will begin near the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge. It is expected to significantly improve the flow of commercial truck traffic to and from Mexico.

“The headaches are actually very good headaches to have,” Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, the first chair of the new RGV MPO, told the TxDOT commission prior to its vote Thursday in Austin. “We’re growing, we’re prosperous, and with a very strong economy, which is a great place to be. In one way I envy you, because you’re going to make history today and also you’re going to impact our fellow Texans in a positive way.”

The 550 project ($14.4 million) is a non-freeway, limited access toll road of 10 miles that will connect the Port of Brownsville and State Highway 48 to I-69E, providing a quick route for truck traffic to and from the port area.

“I’m here to urge the commission to keep two projects down in the Rio Grande Valley,” state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen) also told TxDOT commissioners. “That’s State Highway 365 and State Highway 550. The Rio Grande Valley is one of the fastest-growing areas in Texas and we have a lot of congestion, but we also play a very important role in the economy of the state of Texas, with the trade and our ports with Mexico. …

“We have to plan for the future and look out to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes we did in the past,” Hinojosa added.

“Thank you, Senator Hinojosa, and I also want to thank you for your leadership in bringing together the MPOs of the Rio Grande Valley,” responded J. Bruce Bugg, chairman of the TxDOT Transportation Commission.

“We were together with Gov. Abbott when he signed that and that was a very important moment in the life of the Rio Grande Valley,” he added, “and certainly Gov. Abbott recognizes how important the RGV is to the state of Texas and to this commission, and this chairman understands the importance of the RGV.”

Breaking down funding

The long-sought merger of the three Valley MPOs opens up vast new funding opportunities as befits what will become the state’s fifth-largest MPO.

The Valley’s three MPOs currently receive 4 percent of TxDOT Category 2 and 7 funds — $510 million over 10 years. By merging into a single MPO, the region will 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 has gone to the Big 4 MPOs. Rural MPOs, the pool in which Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County used to be in, would have split just $2.5 billion, or 20 percent.

These funding streams are in addition to the newly available Category 12 funds.

Andrew Canon, director of the Hidalgo County MPO, was asked if the action taken by TxDOT will transform Valley transportation.

“That’s not too strong of a take at all,” he said. “I think that’s dead-on, and I think that’s what the elected officials want.

“The mayor (Pharr’s Hernandez), the judge (Hidalgo County’s Richard Cortez), all the officials on the RGV MPO, as we were going through it were really moving forward with that emphasis in mind, that they knew that this was what was going to be best for us, the citizens of the Lower Rio Grande,” Canon said. “They were very mindful of it, they partnered with TxDOT, and they made it happen.”

$4 billion for safety

The UTP 10-year plan, which will extend from fiscal 2020 to 2028, contains more than $4 billion for safety improvements, including $600 million for the next two years to help accelerate even more safety measures in an effort to reduce crashes and eliminate fatalities on Texas roads.

These improvements include widening roads, improving median barriers and bridges, upgrading guardrails, providing intersection improvements, such as upgraded traffic signals and signage, and making safety improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians.

More than $600 million committed to fund transportation improvements in the state’s economically roaring Permian Basin energy sector is included in the plan.

Many of the projects in the UTP plan are designed to improve roadway segments identified on Texas’ 100 Most Congested Roadways list. Funding for the UTP comes from federal monies, from legislative and voter-approved initiatives that allocate portions of oil and gas taxes, sales taxes, and from other money to the state highway fund.

More money coming?

For the Valley, the winning might not be over. The TxDOT Transportation Commission, starting today, begins the annual UTP revision process for fiscal year 2020-21.

And it may mean even more projects are funded here in the Valley.

“Because the MPO merger happened so late, in their eyes a lot of the funding was already distributed, or kind of drafted to other areas,” said J. Joel Garza Jr., director of the Harlingen-San Benito MPO. Like Hidalgo County’s Canon, he also will be part of the new MPO’s staff.

“We hope in this next go-around, now that we’re one single MPO starting Oct. 1, we can petition and let the commission and TxDOT know, ‘Hey, we’re now officially an RGV MPO, these are the needs of the area,’” Garza said. “They’ve already requested, a couple weeks ago, the priorities for the Valley, so we sent jointly three or four projects that are major for the Valley.”

Garza said he was not authorized to speak on all the projects, but did reveal one — the FM 1925 Project, which runs from U.S. 281 and the new Hidalgo County Loop, through Combes, and on to General Brant Road/FM 106.

The 26-mile project will connect I-69C in Edinburg to I-69E north of the Harlingen and then connect to FM 106 through Rio Hondo and points east.

“That project is of regional significance,” Garza said. “It will start in Edinburg at 281 and will come toward Cameron County on FM 1925 and go into I-69E and then go into General Brant Road and eventually to the second access to SPI. That is something that is needed in the area. That is one of our number ones.”

What is the UTP?

The Unified Transportation Program is TxDOT’s 10-year plan for state highway funding.

It is organized by 12 funding categories, each addressing a specific type of work.

The UTP authorizes distribution of construction funds expected to be available over the next decade.

In addition to highway projects, the UTP addresses public transportation, maritime, aviation, rail and freight and international trade.

Total funding for the next decade is $77 billion.

Cameron County

$368 million — Approximate total UTP funding for county for fiscal years 2020-2028

Top projects — US 281 upgrade to freeway from SH 186 to FM 490 ($80 million), US Business 77 widen from Arroyo Colorado Bridge to SH 345 ($29 million) SH 48 widen from SH 4 to FM 511 ($28 million), FM 1732 widen from US 281 to I-69E ($22.6 million), SH 107 widen from FM 1924 to FM 676 ($20 million), SH 107 intersection improvements from Business 281 W to I-69C ($19 million), SH 550 new location non-freeway from SH 4 to FM 511, ($14.4 million).

Hidalgo County

$750 million — Approximate total UTP funding for county for fiscal years 2020 through 2028

Top projects — US 281 upgrade to freeway from Hidalgo/Brooks county line to SH 186 ($194 million), SH 68 new freeway, from US 83 to FM 1925 ($180 million), 365 Tollway from FM 396 to US 281 ($174 million, $159 million local funds from toll revenues), Old US 83 new freeway, from FM 2221 to Showers Rd ($126 million)