Outgoing South Padre Island Mayor Dennis Stahl says merging the Rio Grande Valley’s three metropolitan planning organizations will lead to more money for a second SPI causeway.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, the Valley could trap into more than $100 million of additional transportation funding, should the region’s three MPOs merge. The three are Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito, and Hidalgo County.

South Padre Island Mayor Dennis Stahl

The MPOs are the conduit for state and federal transportation dollars. Made up of locally elected officials, the MPOs prioritize which transportation projects go forwards.

The cities of Brownsville, Harlingen and San Benito, along with Cameron County, have agreed on a framework for merging the Brownsville and Harlingen-San Benito MPOs with Hidalgo County MPO. They are waiting to hear back from Hidalgo County leaders.

“Regarding the second causeway we are very excited about the merger of metropolitan planning organizations. That will provide more funding for the second causeway,” Mayor Stahl told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM.

“We would very much like to have a second causeway but we need the funding for it. By merging all metropolitan planning organizations, it makes us the fifth largest MPO in Texas. We would be at what I call the big boy table in Austin. Almost 80 percent of the funding from TXDOT goes to the top five. We would be in the top five.”

Getting to sit at “the big boys table” would allow the 2nd Causeway project to be considered for additional discretionary funding from TXDOT, Stahl said. “It is very exciting and allows the City of South Padre Island and the 2nd Causeway project to get on the list.”

Asked how environmental assessment studies of a second causeway are going, Stahl said: “There are several and they (environmental agencies) have worked their way methodically through most of them. Most of them are out of the way now.”

Asked how much a second causeway to South Padre Island would cost, Stahl said: “I have heard broad ranges on that. We will not really know until they work through it.”

The time it takes to build a second causeway is not that long, the mayor said.

“The most exciting idea I heard was, one contractor told me, a good friend, it could be built in 21 months. They would start in the middle, on the Island and on Holly Beach and run them all together, much like they did the old railroads. Hopefully a two-year construction project at best.”

Stahl will serve as mayor of South Padre Island until a special election is held to succeed him. That is on May 4. Stahl spoke about the second causeway project while attending a news conference at Valley International Airport on Monday. The news conference was about American Airlines starting daily flights from Harlingen to Dallas-Fort Worth.

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell was also at the news conference. He was asked about the second causeway project by KVEO-TV reporter Alfredo Cuadros.

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell

“We have developed a framework that all the necessary parties in Cameron County have signed off on, Brownsville, the City of Harlingen, Cameron County, Harlingen-San Benito MPO, and the City of San Benito have all signed off on,” Boswell said.

“They have all agreed to this framework. We are now trying to work with our partners in Hidalgo County and get them to sign off on to same kind of framework that we think will be beneficial to each of the regions in our community but there are still some negotiations to do.”

Asked why merging the three MPOs is important, Boswell said: “For all of us it would mean the potential of getting more discretionary funding, more Category 7 funding for our area and we would all share in that. The goal is to increase the types of funding we could garner here in the Rio Grande Valley.”

Boswell added: “Cameron County is all on the same page. Now we have to get Hidalgo County together. We think we will get that done but we think it will take a little bit more time.”

During a Rio Grande Guardian livestream on Facebook on Monday, Boswell said: “We continue to work on this MPO merger. I think that is something that is good for the entire region. We still have some ways to go on that but I’m hopeful that we will find a way to bridge any gaps that we have and bring that together.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez spoke about merging the Valley’s three MPOs at a McAllen Chamber of Commerce legislative affairs committee lunch event last week. He pointed out that MPOs with a population of more than a million received the lion’s share of transportation funding, courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation.

If the other two MPOs in the Valley do not want to merge with Hidalgo County MPO, Cortez said, Hidalgo County could just wait until the 2020 Census is complete. Its population would then be over one million.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez

“As you know, our system of allocating funds is based on where the greatest needs are. The Texas Department of Transportation says, let’s take care of where the highest density is. That makes sense.”

Unlike the Valley, Cortez said, areas such as Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio consolidated with surrounding areas in order to create the critical mass needed for a seat at the ‘big’ table.

“When they consolidated themselves they created the critical mass. So, they (the big metro areas) enjoy 83 percent of the monies that are available. The rest of us get 17 percent. Well, because of the numbers, we (Hidalgo County) are not quite a million. If we were to merge with Harlingen, Cameron County and Brownsville, we would be over a million. So, we would go automatically go to the 83 percent and enjoy much more money.”

Cortez admitted he does not have a lot of experience with MPOs. However, he said he does have a lot of experience on what is fair and just.

“So, when we were trying to negotiate a deal (with Brownsville MPO, and Harlingen-San Benito MPO), I was listening and listening and listening. It appeared to me, and I may be wrong, and I want this conversation to continue, but it appeared that they (Brownsville and Harlingen-San Benito) felt that they needed to have a little greasing because we could not do it without them saying yes,” Cortez said.

“So, they were going to ask for a little bit more. Perfectly understandable. If I were negotiating for McAllen or the county I would try to get all I can. That is just human nature. But this is so important that we cannot play those games. It is so important for us to do this right; that we sit down and identify what is fair and equitable and let that definition decide how we allocate and spend the money, not who the boss is going to be.”

Cortez said Hidalgo County MPO has sent the other two Valley MPOs a proposal.

“Hopefully, they will agree to it because that would be very important for us to meet that (million population) threshold. Should that be unsuccessful… I hope it would be successful because Cameron County is part of who we are, they are just a little further east from us. We want that to work. I believe that after this Census we will be at a million ourselves and so basically what we have to do is maybe wait a little extra.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows the Queen Isabela Causeway linking Port Isabel to South Padre Island. A second causeway is under consideration to the north.

Steve Taylor