Will broader MPO unduly influence city?

By Burk Krohe

The federal government has officially classified Manhattan as an urbanized area due to population data from the most recent census. The designation carries a requirement to form a metropolitan planning organization and now local officials are wrestling with the details of creating the new entity.

While recent discussions have focused on planning boundaries and membership on the board, less attention has been given to whether the decisions made on those issues have a bearing on the MPO’s mission, which will be to prioritize transportation projects. Local officials differ on that question as well.

City commissioner John Matta, who has advocated for a relatively small MPO consisting largely of the Manhattan urban area plus Ogden, feels the practical effects have more to do with policy and direction than completing a specific transportation project. Matta said the organization has the potential to impact fiscal and land use issues, and favors the smaller map in part to provide for greater city control on those topics. On the other hand, Commissioner Jim Sherow, who has favored a broader map that takes in Fort Riley and Junction City, believes that approach will facilitate what he views as the federal government’s reason for creating the MPO, better planning.

The new organization is meant to ensure that federal transportation funds are spent responsibly through regional collaboration. It will be overseen by a policy board made up of local officials and a Kansas Department of Transportation official, with a decision possible as soon as early October.

City commissioners, who are tasked with making the call on boundaries, appear to favor the broader approach. Mayor Loren Pepperd joins Sherow in supporting that approach, and commissioner Rich Jankovich has said he is leaning that way.

The makeup of the board is important in that it will develop several documents that will guide the organization. A “metropolitan transportation plan” will outline the region’s transportation system goals and priorities over the next 20 years. It identifies the current state of the region, where it should be in the future and how to get there. It will be updated every five years. But the “transportation improvement program,” which implements immediate projects identified in a broader plan, might be the most significant of the documents. It lists all federally funded and regionally significant projects and implements the immediate projects. It is to be updated every four years.

Stephanie Watts, of the Kansas Department of Transportation, said Manhattan and the other communities involved in the organization will still be eligible for the same federally funded projects they had been in the past no matter how the lines are drawn. Watts said essentially the organization will take over much of the responsibilities KDOT had handled in prioritizing those projects. She said it puts local officials in “the driver’s seat.”

Matta fears the process could cost the city additional funds, and thinks that likelihood could be enhanced by using the broader boundaries.

“Say the MPO plan sets goals for such things as bike lane miles, bus service ridership, and green space along road ways,” Matta said. “Funding becomes available for bike lanes but it is not Manhattan’s priority at the time but to stay on pace with the plan we feel obligated to pick some of the projects and spend the matching funds dollars we really do not want to.”

Butler anticipates similar consequences. He pointed to preliminary budgets prepared by the city. The organization will receive a roughly $166,000 grant to implement the program and help fund a staff member. A minimum 20 percent local match is required but will likely take more funding.

The city estimates Manhattan will contribute around $20,000 in some years, but as much as $90,000 in others. Butler said the numbers are “wild guesses.” He believes the numbers the city came up with are low and the budget will be much higher than presented. He said the MPO will be a “money suck.”

Sherow believes the budget will come in close to the preliminary estimates. He said the policy board is made up of elected officials, so it seems unlikely they would say “let’s spend as much money as we can.”

“Budgets are always a concern,” Sherow said.

Additionally, Butler believes the larger planning area could lead to an expansion of ATA Bus routes, which would cost the city more money in the long run. There is also the broader political question of increasing the role of government.

“The main argument for the bigger MPO is that we need it for regional cooperation and development,” Matta said.  “That same argument will be used by city commissioners to vote for projects that the MPO wants that Manhattan residents do not want.”

But Sherow thinks the broader organization will be more likely to plan better, something he said the region is in evident need of.

“It’s for more efficient planning, they’re usually butting up against other cities and if they’re competing, you get some pretty bad planning,” Sherow said.

As for Matta’s concern about feeling obligated to finish projects that might not be a great fit for the city, Sherow said the transportation improvement program just prioritizes those. She said the various communities won’t be forced to complete a particular project if they feel the timing isn’t right.

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