Michael Medina knew he would be taking heat when he became executive director of the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization last year, but he never expected the kind of attention the agency has been getting lately.
The MPO is better known for the long and tedious meetings of its 31-member Transportation Policy Board once a month that sometimes receive media coverage.
Medina followed Roy Gilliard, a retired El Paso planning director, who succumbed to the internal pressures as head at the MPO and retired after a dozen or so years.
“Taking the job, I knew there was no way out of the lion’s den,” Medina said.
At the time, he was thinking about meetings with the policy board whose members represent the often-competing interests of the city of El Paso and other cities, towns, villages, transportation agencies and two counties in two states.
Medina is an Ysleta High School graduate and former Marine who took part in Desert Storm and returned to earn a degree in city and regional planning from New Mexico State University in 2005.
While at NMSU, he landed an internship at the El Paso MPO.
“My goal was to do the internship and never look back,” he said. “If you had told me in 2004 that 10 years later I’d be the director, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
His only other job since graduating was a year at the Texas Department of Transportation in travel-demand forecasting. There, he had a hand in some of the early work on El Paso’s Cesar Chavez Highway, now a toll road, and the Border Highway East and West.
“I was always interested in planning, logistics and things of that nature,” he said. “I understood what we can do.”
Growing up in Ysleta, he spent a lot of time with his grandmother who lived in the low-income Kennedy Brothers apartments, where one problem started him thinking about transportation.
“Whenever there was rain or snow, my brother and I would have to jump the wall, cross the canal and maneuver all the way to Capistrano Elementary,” he said. “There was no sidewalk and the only paved road was hundreds of yards away, so it was better to go through the mud.
“When you have those personal experiences, you think there’s got to be a better way of doing it. I wondered why couldn’t the school district have the capability to help students get to school.”
Medina, 43, spoke with El Paso Inc. at the MPO’s new Downtown offices. It moved earlier this year from its longtime Eastside location to leased quarters in a freshly restored historic building at 211 Florence behind the Mulligan Building, which serves as City Hall 2.
Given all the recent publicity, Medina figured many El Pasoans don’t know much about the MPO and that this is a good time to talk about what it does, who runs it, how it’s changed and how it hasn’t.
Q: The Metropolitan Planning Organization has certainly been in the news a lot. What is the MPO and what is its role in this community?
The role of the MPO is to provide regional transportation planning activities and in a continuous, cooperative and comprehensive fashion. That’s straight out of the federal rules.
Essentially, the role of the MPO is to identify transportation projects and programs for the long and the short term. From there, the Transportation Policy Board prioritizes those projects and assigns funding for them. From the planning stage, projects move to the construction phase. The agency (a city, county or regional mobility authority) that has a project coordinates with a state department of transportation (DOT) along with the MPO to inform the public that a project is under construction. They have public meetings and public hearings.
Q: The face of the MPO is really the Transportation Policy Board, which most people actually call the MPO. What is it and who’s on it?
The role of the policy board is to make the local decisions on regional transportation activities. It’s made up of elected and appointed officials, who set policy and identify transportation priorities for the entire region. Our region is El Paso County and Southern New Mexico – southern Doña County and a sliver of Otero County.
Q: How much transportation money flows through the MPO a year?
I think every year we are on the order of $100 million to $150 million. We also get New Mexico funds, but that’s very limited.
Q: How many employees does the MPO have, what’s the budget and where does the money for salaries and operations come from?
The MPO has about 14 employees. We’re very small. It’s almost like a squad. We have a travel-demand modeling and a geographic information system. This is the group that develops all the travel forecasts, what the population will be, what the traffic expectation will be.
We have an air quality and mass transit section with a full-time air-quality planner who looks at the rules, regulations and the strategy we are developing to see what pollution we are generating and what is international. The idea is to understand what is affecting us, what we are generating and what is being transported through our air shed.
Then, we have the transit section. They look at the human element along with the public transportation that is available. Essentially, what they do is identify what the transportation needs are, looking at Sun Metro, the county, Doña Ana County and even Juárez to determine what sort of routes are needed.
The other element deals with planning. This is the group that looks at the daily balances of transportation, revenue that’s coming through and what we can afford. They are the guys that are tracking all these projects. So, there’s three sections, and all of that is vetted every day.
Q: What’s your budget and how are you funded?
The budget is about $1.4 million. We’re funded through the federal government. Federal aid is given to the MPO, distributed through TxDOT through planning grants, and this is usually how all the MPOs operate in Texas and New Mexico.
Q: What’s the biggest project coming up?
When we think about projects, there’s also studies. TxDOT is looking at having a study of Interstate 10 from the New Mexico state line to the Hudspeth County line.
We need a way to fund improvements for I-10. The numbers I’ve heard are quite expensive, so we need to see how we can afford that. We need a study to determine the area that has the greatest need, and we can go from there.
Q: What are your hopes or plans for the organization?
I plan to turn this organization into a model MPO. In Texas, there are 25 MPOs. In New Mexico, there’s five. Every MPO is unique and has its opportunities and challenges. But we’re very unique because we’re the only MPO in New Mexico that is bistate. In Texas, we’re one of two. The other one is Texarkana.
What makes us unique is we have a very big neighbor – Mexico. So, I would argue we are tristate. We work in a transportation laboratory. There’s not enough money, so we need to be smart in how we invest in those projects.
Ideally, if we have strong partnerships at the federal, state and local levels along with international, public and private partnerships, we certainly would become a model of how MPOs should be doing their planning.
Q: What changes have you been able to make or help along so far?
Part of the task that I was given by the policy board was to ensure that we meet all of the federal requirements. The federal government passed new transportation rules several years ago and the current one is MAP 21, which is “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century.” What’s new in MAP 21 is that it prescribed performance-based planning.
Q: What does that mean?
Simply that there was always a requirement for a project selection process – how you rank the projects and the decision that the policy board takes. The role of the board is to set the priority. The role of the MPO staff is to ensure there is a prescribed, transparent planning process.
But a couple of years ago, the federal government said we need to introduce performance-based planning for many reasons. The major reason is we don’t have enough federal aid to go around.
More important than that is whether we are making the right investments. And are we spending the money, or are we just holding the money and rolling it over from one year to the next, banking all this federal aid?
That doesn’t sit well if we have all this money on the books and yet we as MPOs or states are still asking the federal government for more aid. They came back and said we’ll honor what you are doing, but we want a demonstration that you’re going to provide a baseline and going to set targets and thresholds based on that.
Q: So did this MPO have projects that were, as you described it, backed up?
Because the legislation allowed us to do that. There was no requirement to make sure the project is on the ground by a certain time. What I was tasked with was to ensure that we’re compliant with all of the federal regulations – look at the flaws, look at the discrepancies this MPO has and ensure that we are on the right path so federal aid is not in jeopardy or removed from this area.
One of the first things I did was to look at the federal audit. The government comes in through partnerships with the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the EPA and state partners and they will audit the MPO.
They tell us if we’re meeting the federal and state requirements. I can certainly tell you that over the last 10 years, we were not.
We developed a project selection process to demonstrate that there was a willingness to ensure that a process existed to rank projects. To further reinforce our commitment, we develop a project readiness report.
What we did is very unique. If you want to bring a project to the MPO, you need to have a purpose and plans all the way down to when you will be able to let, or bid, the project so a vendor can start building it.
If your project is in your short-range plan, you have a certain amount of time to complete it. The practice of all the MPOs is to say we see that you have your problems, so let’s just roll that over to the next fiscal year.
But that’s problematic if you have a project in this fiscal year that’s tying up $20 million and because you’re not really working on it, you’ll just want to roll it over. The problem is the $20 million may not be there once you start moving it across time.
Q: Is that what happened with the Cadwallader Bridge project for which the policy board recently saved $1 million, even though it wasn’t ready to go and apparently couldn’t be built for other reasons as well?
I wouldn’t call that rolling it over. The action that the policy board took Sept. 18 was to deprogram the project. Essentially, that said in the future – and it was very general – we need to set aside $1 million for the Cadwallader project. We understand the directive the policy board has given us, but because it wasn’t proscriptive enough, the question is whether the $1 million is for next year or two years from now or three?
Q: Did that comply with the federal rules?
There is an element of compliance. We removed the project from our planning program. In terms of the reservation of funds, the policy board essentially has the power to do as it wishes.
Again, the role of the MPO staff is to ensure that there’s a process.
Q: As far as the new requirements and the changes you helped make that you were talking about, were they intended to depoliticize the process?
I think that by having performance-based planning, it does depoliticize the process.
Q: Is it working?
I can certainly point to where we have had success. But again, my role is to ensure that the process exists. How effective that is, anybody can judge that. Certainly, our policy board is the decision-making body, and they do what they want to do.
Q: Who hired you?
The policy board. When Roy Gilliard was retiring, they hired a firm and did a national search and the rest is history. I was hired through the policy board.
We have an executive committee made up of seven members appointed by the current chair of the MPO (Mayor Oscar Leeser). The executive committee back in 2013 was given this task to hire a new executive director. They’re the ones that did the hiring at the recommendation to the policy board.
Q: Bob Bielek, TxDOT’s El Paso district engineer, has been complaining since 2012 – and to El Paso city manager Tommy Gonzalez since his arrival last year –about problems with city projects not being ready for bidding on time and about errors in funding applications.
Gonzalez seems to be trying to address the problem at City Hall. What have the MPO and its Transportation Policy Board done to address those kinds of deficiencies?
I think the experience we have is that we want to provide a cooperative effort by having the MPO look at the application of projects when they’re being submitted to the MPO – prior to the policy board or one of its committees looking at it.
What we have in place now that wasn’t there before is that we require member agencies that are applying for federal aid to meet with us.
Simplistically, if you give us an application, we’ll walk through it to ensure that it’s whole and that it meets all federal requirements. So, the idea is that we give this application to the policy board to say we vetted it with the member agency (city or county).
They understand there are certain expectations in terms of project readiness, and if the project is not ready in this set fiscal year, the MPO can now make a recommendation to actually schedule it in the year when it’ll be ready. The policy board has passed that policy.
Q: So, if a project is not ready on time, you can do one of two things – deprogram it or put it into next year’s schedule – and that’s not deprogramming?
Right. We reprogram it into another fiscal year simply so it meets a schedule.
Q: Does that reserve the funds for later?
No, it doesn’t reserve the funds.
Q: Have you been doing much of that in the last year?
Essentially, a lot of the work is to deprogram now. A lot of the recommendations were to deprogram it.
Q: What exactly does deprogram mean?
It essentially says the project is removed from our planning documents. So, they would have to reapply for federal aid and demonstrate that it meets all our criteria.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.