Congressional bill imperils local transportation planning
by Brian Anderson
banderson@annistonstar.com
Mar 17, 2012 | 4427 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Motorists drive on Hillyer Robinson Parkway in Anniston Friday near where crews are working on the road. Local road projects could be harder to see completed in the future if the U.S. House of Representatives approves a bill already passed by the U.S. Senate that reclassifies Metropolitan Planning Organizations. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
Motorists drive on Hillyer Robinson Parkway in Anniston Friday near where crews are working on the road. Local road projects could be harder to see completed in the future if the U.S. House of Representatives approves a bill already passed by the U.S. Senate that reclassifies Metropolitan Planning Organizations. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
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While work has temporarily halted on the Veterans Memorial Parkway, the bypass that will one day connect Interstate 20 to Alabama 21 in northern Anniston, Bill Curtis said the unfinished road is one of the most important projects for Anniston’s future.

At a recent meeting, the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission executive director called the bypass the pivotal project that would drive the engine of the economy for McClellan. But there’s a good chance that without the input from local officials in the Metropolitan Planning Organization, that project would have never have come to fruition to start with.

“That bypass was started as a result of the MPO planning process,” Curtis said. “It would have never have gotten off the ground without the MPO identifying the need for it.”

That’s why he and other officials throughout the state are concerned about federal legislation that would effectively erase most of the state’s MPOs were it to pass through Congress. The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century bill, or MAP-21, a two-year, $109 million surface transportation reauthorization act, passed the Senate with a 74-22 vote on Wednesday.

If the House of Representatives also passes the bill, the Calhoun County MPO, which handles almost all road and transportation projects for the area, would no longer exist.

The bill states organizations in urban areas with more than 1 million residents will be classified “Tier I” MPOs. Urban areas between 200,000 and one million residents will be “Tier II.” MPOs in urban areas with fewer than 200,000 residents would need support of the state governor “to request” to be designated as Tier II. Otherwise, the MPO would be eliminated, with all responsibilities given to the state or “to a planning organization designated by the State.”

In other words, local projects like the parkway in Anniston, or resurfacing of the Chief Ladiga Trail, would compete for the attention of the Alabama Department of Transportation with projects in communities all over the rest of the state.

And the problem would hardly just affect Anniston and Calhoun County. Under the legislation, metropolitan planning organizations in Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Decatur and Gadsden would be wiped out as well. Just Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville would fulfill the Tier II requirements to remain in place.

“We’ve been telling our local congressman about this for a year,” said Meinrad Tabengwa, chairman of the Gadsden MPO. “We’re just asking them to look at our local interests.”

At its monthly meeting Thursday, the Calhoun County MPO voted to draft a letter to Washington outlining members’ concerns, and encouraged municipal leaders to do the same. The motion was greeted with a loud “amen” from Jacksonville Councilman Derek Raulerson.

“It’s kind of making me pull my hair,” said Raulerson, who has served as a voting member of the MPO since 2008. “We have a local budget in place to address local needs, so why in the world would we want to regionalize that process?”

Raulerson said the biggest problem with the new legislation would be the logjam of projects at the state level that may never find funding if they are not prioritized with local interests.

“Sure, we’d have a seat at the table,” Raulerson said. “But we’d have to compete on a regional level to get stuff done and complete projects.”

Curtis said he doesn’t know how the House will vote on the bill, but suggested MAP-21 is merely “kicking the can for a few months” with its two-year limit and Congress will be pressured to create a longer transportation bill to take care of many concerns coming from local governments.

“I think in the house they’ll be more focused on some issues we’ve been talking about,” Curtis said. “Hopefully they’ll look a little closer at the future of MPOs.”

Attempts by The Star late Friday afternoon to reach a spokesperson with the state Department of Transportation were unsuccessful.

Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star
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