2019 RGV Citizens of the Year: Valley MPO officials

Many cities and towns comprise the Rio Grande Valley, yet it generally is regarded as a single entity, with common characteristics, goals and problems. Its residents can be seen as one big family.

Like any family, the relationships among the member cities and counties are complicated. Despite their commonality they sometimes come at odds, competing for key businesses and other features that can boost the economy not only of the Valley as a whole, but also of the host city. Clashes over the placement of institutions such as the medical school or funding allocations have even raised consternation from state officials who said no allocations would be considered until local officials stopped bickering and presented a single regional request.

Sometimes, however, sensible, regional thinking develops on its own, and that happened in a big way when the Valley’s three metropolitan planning organizations, which plan transportation projects for the areas they cover, agreed to merge into one regional body.

For that bold, regional thinking, the MPO members who voted to merge their resources, energies and planning have been chosen as the Rio Grande Valley’s Citizens of the Year for 2019.

AIMMedia Texas, parent company of Valley publications that include The Monitor, The Brownsville Herald, Valley Morning Star, El Nuevo Heraldo, The Coastal Current Weekly and El Extra, each year selects a person — in this case a group acting as one single body — who best exemplify good citizenship and service to the community.

We congratulate the MPO members and applaud them for their foresight and willingness to put the greater good of the region ahead of more local interests.

It’s a big deal: MPOs plan regional transportation infrastructure and apply state and federal funds to those projects. That funding is given according to need and project planning.

“(The merger) received statewide attention — everybody’s talking about it,” said Andrew Canon, executive director of the new agency. He was director of the Hidalgo County MPO and was voted into the new position by the membership, who formerly represented the local bodies there, in northern Cameron County and southern Cameron County.

Those three entities voted to merge in May and Gov. Greg Abbott signed the new charter in June. The merger became effective in September.

Getting to this point was not fast or easy, however. The idea had been discussed for several years. Advocates noted that the combined entity would become the fifth-largest MPO in the state, out of more than 20 in Texas, and qualify for funding that is reserved for the largest metropolitan areas such as Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. Officials with the Texas Department of Transportation estimated that moving into the larger bracket could bring the Valley MPO about $11 million more per year than the combined amount the three smaller bodies might receive.

Despite the promise of extra money, however, there was some hesitance. Some city and county officials, who fill the MPOs’ directors’ seats, worried that they might lose control, as they could be outvoted more easily in a larger body.

“Your first duty is to the city or county you represent,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez explained. “We had to make sure that the allocation of funding was fair and equitable. And we had to define what was fair and equitable.”

After several meetings, the officials gained each other’s trust, and became confident that the group would be fair. They also agreed that all projects that each of the smaller MPOs had started would be completed.

MPO planning extends 25 years, so the group has time to negotiate major projects for the future. Funding, Canon said, will be applied to shovel-ready projects, as some allocations have deadlines for their use.

A more immediate concern, he said, is to help promote participation in the upcoming Census. Because much funding is tied to population, an undercount could hurt the Valley’s infrastructure planning.

The Rio Grande Valley MPO’s work has just begun, but perhaps the hardest part — letting go of their fears and committing to a regional view —has been done. For that, the many MPO members who agreed to combine their talents, efforts and resources are the RGV Citizens of the Year.

Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernendez is flanked by other valley mayors and county judge during the signing for a Valley-wide MPO merger on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 in Weslaco. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

HERE WERE THE FINALISTS

We continue to receive strong recommendations for RGV Citizen of the Year, and we appreciate our readers’ input. Here are some of the finalists who were considered among the many excellent nominations we received.

>> Sergio Cordova and Mike Benavides, founders of Team Brownsville, who have been working to address the needs of South American migrants and other needy people since 2018. Their use of a popular internet fundraising platform to finance their benevolences recently earned them a GoFundMe Community-Nominated Heroes Award.

>> Rey Avila, founder of the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame and Museum in San Benito, who died in October.

Sometimes a person’s contributions to the Valley are so steady that they might be taken for granted. In reviewing a person’s life upon his passing, however, we are struck by the breadth, and importance, of his contributions.

Avila worked tirelessly to promote a unique style of music that began as a regional novelty, combining Latin and European rhythms and instruments, but grew into a major part of Texas and northern Mexican culture.

>> George Ramirez, founder of the Brownsville Latin Jazz Festival and president of the Brownsville Society for the Performing Arts, is another posthumous consideration; he died in October.

Ramirez was a longtime patron of the arts, promoting wide-ranging genres of music, drama and other arts. He also operated local radio station KXIQ, 105.1-FM, which exposed local listeners to widely eclectic musical fare.

>> Hugo de la Cruz, a longtime Valley broadcasting legend who retired after the fall high school football season. “Mr. Nifu Nifa” was a Friday night staple during the season, mixing scores and updates with banter and light-hearted ribbing with callers to his Football Scoreboard radio show. De la Cruz’s son Victor Hugo will pick up the mike and continue the program next season, building on a tradition that isn’t likely to be found anywhere else.