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Featured, seated, from left: Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina; Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernández; Gov. Greg Abbott; and Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell. Standing, from left: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen; and Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen. The South Texas leaders were on hand at the Texas Capitol on Wednesday, June 14, 2019 in support of the signing of an agreement by Abbott that created the Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization (RGV MPO).  Photograph Courtesy OFFICE OF THE TEXAS GOVERNOR

Featured, seated, from left: Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina; Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernández; Gov. Greg Abbott; and Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell. Standing, from left: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen; and Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen. The South Texas leaders were on hand at the Texas Capitol on Wednesday, June 14, 2019, in support of the signing of an agreement by Abbott that created the Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization (RGV MPO).

Photograph Courtesy OFFICE OF THE TEXAS GOVERNOR

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Rep. Canales leads effort to shorten driver license wait times at DPS offices throughout Texas

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

A new state law designed to shorten wait times that often approach an hour or longer for people seeking or renewing a driver license or state identification card in Texas went into effect on Wednesday, September 1, 2019, according to Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg.

The measure, Senate Bill 616, will provide for the conditional transfer of the driver license program, currently handled by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TDMV).

“Over the years, it has become clear that the DPS, with its deserved reputation as Texas’ top law enforcement agency, has been struggling with the administrative requirements of overseeing the issuance of driver licenses and state ID cards,” said Canales, who serves as Chair, House Committee on Transportation. 

SB 616, which was supported by Canales, was authored by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Grandbury,  and sponsored by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall.

The author is the legislator who files a bill and guides it through the legislative process (also called the primary author). The Senate allows multiple primary authors for each bill or resolution. The sponsor is the legislator who guides a bill through the legislative process after the bill has passed the originating chamber. The sponsor is a member of the opposite chamber of the one in which the bill was filed.

On Saturday, June 10, 2019, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill, which also keeps the Texas Department of Public Safety running.

“Transferring the program would allow DPS to continue to prioritize other public safety functions and combine the program’s administration with motor vehicle services and regulation in TxDMV,” said Canales. “Currently, 42 states issue driver licenses through a department of motor vehicles.”

Some metropolitan areas reporting wait times of three to four hours

According to the bill analysis for SB 616:

• DPS is a $2.5 billion law enforcement agency and should focus its efforts on law enforcement instead of customer service programs. At the same time, the TxDMV is an agency that is dedicated to customer service and is better suited for conducting customer service programs; 

• Multiple metropolitan areas routinely have wait times of three to four hours, even after millions of dollars of state funds have been allocated to improve services throughout the last several years; and

• The wait times in many areas are often the example Texans use to speak about how state government is not working efficiently. Many believe, including almost all Members of the Texas House of Representatives by their vote on the issue, that the TxDMV will be able to better manage and operate the entire driver’s license program than the DPS. 

The Sunset Advisory Commission found that of the 28.4 million people living in Texas in 2017, 20.3 million held a Texas driver license and another 3.2 million held a state-issued ID. Managing the enormous demand for driver license and state ID card services takes away from the DPS’ mission of fighting crime.

(https://www.sunset.texas.gov/public/uploads/files/reports/Department%20of%20Public%20Safety%20Staff%20Report_4-19-18.pdf)

In Fiscal Year 2018, more than one quarter million people came to the six DPS offices in the four-county Rio Grande Valley to obtain, replace, or renew their driver license, ranging from 21,880 at the Mission DPS Driver License Office to 63,731 at the McAllen DPS Driver License Office.

In Texas, the fiscal year for state government is from September 1 to August 31.

Also during Fiscal Year 2018, the DPS Mega Center in Edinburg issued 32,070 driver licenses, the Harlingen DPS Office issued 35,485 driver licenses, the Weslaco DPS Office issued 46,120 driver licenses, and the Brownsville DPS Office issued 52,570 driver licenses.

Canales utilizes power role as Chair, House Committee on Transportation, on efforts to improve driver license program in Texas

SB 616 contains many key elements dealing with the transfer of the driver license program that was featured in House Bill 11, which Canales helped guide out of the House Committee on Transportation and passed by the House of Representatives.

Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, was the author of HB 11. 

In his leadership role as Chair, House Committee on Transportation, Canales used his influence to improve the driver license program in Texas.

The House District 40 lawmaker said that during the Spring 2019 regular session of the Texas Legislature, he fought for relief efforts in the state budget, House Bill 1, by voting to double funds for the driver license program in the DPS bill to $260 million for 2020 and $230 million for 2021. 

By comparison, Senate Bill 1 from the 85th Legislative Session, which took place during Spring 2017, allocated only $116 million per year. 

These additional funds from HB 1 allow DPS to fund wages, resolve tech issues, hire new employees to fill windows not occupied in facilities, and improve overall customer service.

According to the bill analysis of SB 616 by the House Research Organization, which is the nonpartisan research arm of the Texas House of Representatives:

• The DPS is required to enter into a contract with an independent, third-party contractor designated by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts to conduct a feasibility study that examined and made recommendations on the management and operating structure of the driver license, commercial driver license, and election identification certificate programs and on opportunities and challenges of transferring them from DPS to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TxDMV);

• By September 1, 2020, the contractor would have to report to the Legislature, governor, Sunset Advisory Commission, DPS, and TxDMV. If the report was not submitted by the required date, then the bill would transfer all functions and activities of the programs from DPS to TxDMV effective September 1, 2021;

• All DPS rules, fees, policies, and decisions would be continued in effect until replaced by TxDMV. All money, contracts, property, and obligations related to the programs would be transferred, and DPS full-time equivalent employee positions that primarily relate to the licensing programs would become positions at TxDMV. A license, certificate, or other authorization issued by DPS would be continued in effect.;

• As soon as practicable after the effective date of the bill, DPS and TxDMV would have to establish a workgroup to plan the transfer of the licensing programs. The workgroup would have to adopt a transition plan to provide for the orderly transfer of the licensing programs, including ensuring that the transfer would be completed on or before August 31, 2021. The workgroup would have to provide a quarterly report of its progress to the lieutenant governor, the House speaker, the governor, and the Sunset Advisory Commission;

• To prepare for the transfer, DPS would have to provide TxDMV with access to any systems, information, property, records, or personnel necessary to administer the transferred programs; and

• As soon as practicable after the bill’s effective date, TxDMV would have to study the most effective use of available state and county resources to administer the transferred programs, prioritizing administrative efficiency and cost savings and accessibility of the programs.

• Available state and county resources to administer the transferred programs, prioritizing administrative efficiency and cost savings and accessibility of the programs, including in rural areas.

MERGER THAT CREATED THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY METROPOLITAN PLANNING ORGANIZATION (MPO) A HISTORIC MOMENT FOR TEXAS, SAYS SEN. HINOJOSA

The Wednesday, June 14, 2019 signing by Gov. Greg Abbott of the re-designation and consolidation agreement to merge three separate Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) – Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito, and Hidalgo County – was an historic moment not only for South Texas, but for the State of Texas, according to Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

“It is the first time that we merged three MPOs into one,” he said. “Over the past decade, we have seen the transformation of the Rio Grande Valley spurred by remarkable population growth. This has led to economic prosperity — thousands of new jobs, innovative construction projects, our cities ranked nationally as some of the best places to live, and new educational opportunities such as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, which will graduate our first group of physicians next year.”

A Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is the policy board of an organization created and designated to carry out the metropolitan transportation planning process. MPOs are required to represent localities in all urbanized areas (UZAs) with populations over 50,000, as determined by the U.S. Census. MPOs are designated by agreement between the governor and local governments that together represent at least 75 percent of the affected population (including the largest incorporated city, based on population) or in accordance with procedures established by applicable state or local law. When submitting a transportation improvement program to the state for inclusion in the statewide program, MPOs self-certify that they have met all federal requirements.

An urbanized area with a population over 200,000, as defined by the Bureau of the Census and designated by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), is called a Transportation Management Area (TMA). As described in 49 U.S.C. 5303(k), and in recognition of the greater complexity of transportation issues in large urban areas, an MPO in a TMA has a stronger voice in setting priorities for implementing projects listed in the transportation improvement program and are responsible for additional planning products. The planning processes in MPOs in TMAs also must be certified by the Secretary of DOT as being in compliance with federal requirements.

(https://www.transit.dot.gov/regulations-and-guidance/transportation-planning/metropolitan-planning-organization-mpo)

Hinojosa, in an editorial distributed by his office to news media outlets in deep South Texas, offered the following background on the merger efforts, and his views on how the Rio Grande Valley will benefit:

“Much of the progress is due to cooperation by local stakeholders. For years now, we have been advocating and pushing for a regional approach to fight for our priorities. When a city in our region secures new funding for a project, a new company or business moves in, and there’s an expansion of educational opportunities, all of our region benefits.

“Our efforts have been bolstered by a unified delegation of legislators, elected officials and community and business leaders working together for the benefit of South Texas. Advocating for our priorities with one voice has helped get the attention of state leadership — Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dennis Bonnen. By working together, the RGV earned a seat at the table and is at the forefront of critical transportation and infrastructure discussions that will shape Texas’ future.

“Despite all of our progress, our inability to access more funding for transportation and infrastructure projects to complement the region’s economic growth was preventing us from recognizing our full economic potential. Having three small MPOs competing against each other for funding was inefficient and self-defeating. We needed them working together, fighting for funding against the bigger MPOs — Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio.

“For years I called for a merger of the three MPOs. As Vice-Chair, Senate Finance Committee, and a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, I could see how much more funding was being allocated to the largest MPOs of the state. I knew that accessing more funding would require a regional approach.

“Thankfully, Gov. Abbott made the merger of the MPOs a priority after his election and tasked the legislative delegation with working with him to make it happen. After many meetings with top leaders of the MPOs, we finally started moving forward with the merger. In order to keep the ball rolling, I wrote a commentary on April 2016, calling for the Valley to speak with one voice in order to be on par with the large MPOs.

“Shortly after, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling and Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell skillfully drafted the first version of the re-designation and consolidation agreement. This was no simple task as it was the first MPO merger ever done in Texas.

“Crafting the final product involved many meetings, often on weekends, as well as around-the-clock phone calls and countless rewrites. Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernández, Chair, Hidalgo County MPO, was ‘the hammer’ and leader in getting all stakeholders to close the deal. He worked closely with Brownsville Mayor and MPO Chairman Tony Martínez to consolidate the differences. Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño was the key negotiator for the two Cameron County MPOs. 

“Finally, in the middle of it, all was the Texas Department of Transportation Pharr District Engineer Pete Álvarez. The merger would not have been possible without his guidance and support throughout the process.

“At the end of the day, our local leaders delivered on their commitment to speak with one voice. Future generations will benefit significantly from the work and the decisions made by these key individuals. They all fought tirelessly to get the best deal for their communities with the goal and the vision to have a unified RGV MPO to leverage and provide additional funds for the highway infrastructure that the whole Valley needs to support its amazing growth.

At the agreement signing at the Capitol in mid-June 2019, Gov. Abbott said, “This region plays such an important role in growing the Texas economy and strengthening our international trade partnerships. I look forward to the tremendous new opportunities this agreement will create for the people of the Rio Grande Valley.” 

“Governor, we agree and look forward to the prosperity that this merger will help us achieve for the region. The Rio Grande Valley is a thriving region and as long as we are united and working together, we are a powerful voice.”

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Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who is the Chair of the House Committee on Transportation, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County, which includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr, and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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