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Valley working as whole to address issues

February 6, 2017 GMT

After decades of division, the Rio Grande Valley has improved its cohesion over the past several years. There is still frequent Valley tension, but the birth of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is perhaps the largest example of the Valley working to be united.

An ongoing example is the looming merger of the three RGV Metro Planning Organizations — Hidalgo County, Harlingen-San Benito and Brownsville. MPOs are, in a nutshell, transportation policy organizations. A merger gives the Valley a “seat at the table” to plan funding for the state, along with the big four MPOs in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. It’s a step in the regionalization approach many in the Valley discuss.

Another step toward that Valley unification is RGV Day at the Texas Legislature, which is happening Tuesday in Austin. A group of 215 people across the Valley, from Brownsville to Rio Grande City, will spend all day at the Capitol meeting with lawmakers, giving presentations and hosting a reception Tuesday night.

The planning for this day started in May, through the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, with drafts, redrafts, votes and divvying up more than 20 groups that will disperse out to different sections of the Capitol on Tuesday to meet with every lawmaker in the state.

The five Valley-wide initiatives the group of volunteers and officials decided to push on RGV Day are transportation and infrastructure, border-relations image, UTRGV Medical School funding, health and workforce training, with planning documents, reviewed by The Monitor , related to each issue.

This is now the second RGV Day and Steve Ahlenius, President of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, said he learned plenty from 2015’s inaugural effort. This year’s group has almost 100 more people and much more planning went into this one.

“We want to make sure we develop regional issues,” Ahlenius said. “Individual communities can pursue their own agendas, but we really want to go at this from a regional approach. The Valley’s a big place, and telling our story together is important.”

TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE

With a growing region and significant increasing cross-border trade, the delegation, set up through the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, is trying to ensure that infrastructure and transportation grows as well.

The goal is to continue and improve I-69 East, I-69 Central and the interchange expansion as well as providing an alternative evacuation route. With the Pharr International Bridge as a big, full-service commercial crossing, the delegation will also focus on the international trade corridor from the bridge to I-2 as well as State Highway 68.

Another point of emphasis is South Padre Island Second Access - to alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety and economic development, as well as deepwater port funding for all seaports through the Texas Department of Transportation.

They will also try to expand regional public transportation to increase bus routes, expand rural coverage and enhance student access to colleges, among a few other transportation items.

BORDER RELATIONS-IMAGE

There is $800 million from the Department of Public Safety committed to securing the border. Securing the border comes with more than security. Promotion is important, Ahlenius said, echoing something Gov. Greg Abbott told local law enforcement officials last week.

“We want to achieve safety and security, but we also want to promote economic development,” Abbott said. “Mexico is our largest trading partner. We need to, I think, ensure we are able to continue that very effective trade.”

The goal is to, of that $800 million, set aside $25 million annually for a matching fund. For example, if a Valley city is going to spend $300,000 promoting itself, the state, with the money set aside from that fund, will match that $300,000.

The funds can also be used for promoting the RGV as a nature and tourism destination.

“We agree that safety is important for the State of Texas as much as it is for the RGV, and we appreciate the state’s efforts to make Texas and our region safe,” the document for the border-relations image said. “Yet an unintended consequence of these efforts is an inadequate perception that the RGV is a region of elevated crime and insecurity. This inadequate perception in turn discourages investors, tourists and business people to explore the opportunities offered by our region and/or the state of Texas as a whole. Therefore, while we invest in safety, we need to simultaneously invest in supporting business and trade in the RGV as it has a significant impact on the economic prosperity of the state as a whole.”

UTRGV MEDICAL SCHOOL FUNDING

The group is requesting that the state properly funds the medical school with $5 million per year over the next two years. The school started in 2016 and there are five critical needs, the document for this section states:

• Provide operating funds toward achieving Provisional Accreditation

•The development of years 3 and 4 of medical education, which will focus on clinical experiences

•Clinical educators and support of the clinical sites and partnerships necessary for the continuation and completion of the integrated medical education curriculum at the School of Medicine

• Faculty researchers

• The addition of three new cohorts of students will create increasing demands for faculty time and effort and for student support across all departments

Ahlenius said this is independent of the four local cities — Edinburg, McAllen, Mission and Pharr — who have a memorandum of understanding with UTRGV.

Edinburg is the only one that has paid its agreed upon amount this year. McAllen, which committed to paying up to $2 million each year, has repeatedly tabled its decision over the past few months. Mission committed to pay exactly $250,000 and Pharr pledged exactly $500,000. Neither has paid this year as well.

They are also seeking Health Related Institution (HRI) formula funding to place the medical school on equal standing with other existing medical programs across the state. The document said that the alternative, the General Academic Institutional (GAI) model of funding would put the UTRGV Medical School at a “distinct disadvantage not experienced by other medical programs.”

HEALTH

Healthy South Texas, a program through Texas A&M, is a preventative program working with at-risk people - diabetes, prenatal care, nutrition and weight management, among other things, Ahlenius said.

As the name indicates, it is currently only geared at South Texas but the goal to expand to the rest of the state. Ahlenius said Texas A&M wants to increase the funding for the goal of going statewide.

Since the program was launched in September 2015, “nearly 300,000 individuals have been impacted by the initiative’s programming, adding up to a projected health care cost savings of $60 million in diabetes control, medication assistance and physical activity engagement,” the document for this issue said.

The document also listed three requests for continuation of funding:

• Support evidence-based education and monitoring in areas including diabetes, prenatal care, weight management and nutrition, to improve health and quality of life by empowering participants with knowledge.

• Support education and integration of services to prevent and reduce the consequences of asthma affecting children and their families resulting in decreased healthcare related costs for families, communities and the state.

• Support extensive outreach in rural and urban communities to reduce the number of infectious disease cases in South Texas and their consequences, with an emphasis on prevention and vaccination.

WORKFORCE TRAINING

McAllen Economic Development Corporation President Keith Patridge has said he wants the next Microsoft, Apple or any big, innovative company to be here. In order to get there, one of the steps requires training a workforce appropriately.

The document for this section said the group is requesting to increase the funding level from $48 million to $60 for the Texas Workforce Commission Skills Development Fund (SDF) to “support community colleges’ customized training and workforce development for business and industry employers.”

It is also asking the legislature to “support the appropriation of $2.5 million of SDF funds specifically for LNG related industries.”

A liquefied natural gas facility is, controversially, looming in Brownsville. There is a wide variety of workers needed that need to be trained appropriately, which the group is asking the state to help fund.

“Regional data for engineering indicate a projected 16-percent increase from 2015 to 2025,” the document said. “Texas Workforce Solutions data (2016) projects a 14 percent increase for Industrial Engineers from 2016 to 2026. There are various technical manufacturing occupations in this industry that may lead toward engineering. Particular occupations have higher projected growth rates, including industrial engineering technicians (13 percent project change) and machinists (16 percent).

“Roughly 4,600 manufacturing occupations by 2026 in our region, an 8 percent change from 2016, which exceeds the state rate of 7 percent.”

mferman@themonitor.com