The second stimulus, I-69, and the battle for local control

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(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation)  Along with the proposal to jump-start a six-year transportation authorization with $50 Billion in funding, President Obama on Monday also suggested changes in the way such federal dollars are spent. His Administration's promotion of a National Infrastructure Bank and other reforms are early, tentative steps towards what could be a major reworking of the way we decide which projects to construct.

But deciding how to decide won't be easy. Anyone looking for an object lesson in the difficult issues ahead would do well to study the Interstate 69 controversy in Bloomington, Indiana, where the state and the city have locked horns over the biggest highway project in years.

At Eastern Greene Middle School in southern Indiana, citizens peruse maps of the state's route for Interstate 69

The proposed 1400-mile extension of Interstate 69 into a Canada-to Mexico "NAFTA" highway has been on the books for twenty years. It was one of the high-priority corridors designated in the 1991 transportation reauthorization—a notable exception in a bill that was otherwise hyped as the beginning of post-interstate multimodalism and increased local control over planning.

Forgive the onslaught of acronyms, but they’ll come in handy.

This Friday, September 10th, the policy committee of the Bloomington/Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is scheduled to vote on an amendment to its Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) that would allow for engineering work, right-of-way acquisition, and construction of the proposed I-69, pieces of which are already under construction further south in Indiana. The amendment, requested by the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) would normally be a routine matter, except that Interstate 69 is anathema in Bloomington. In 2003, Governor Frank O’Bannon elected to route the highway over new terrain through Bloomington rather than use existing highways to the west, and the town has never ceased its protest. The Bloomington City Council and the Monroe County Commission have both passed resolutions against the project, and local public meetings on the highway have been orgies of outrage.

A hearing on August 26th was no different. In the packed gymnasium at Eastern Greene County Middle School, INDOT’s consultants presented the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for “Section 4” of Interstate 69, the piece that enters the southwestern corner of Monroe County. Almost two hours of public comment followed. Each speaker was given two minutes, and time was kept by a traffic light—yellow meant thirty seconds remained, red meant that time had elapsed.

A few people rose in support of I-69, most notably Don Bowling, the 82-year old mayor of Loogootee, who insisted that “the times dictate that we have to have this road.” “We have to be ready to move into the 21st century,” he said. “We're living in an age of progress."

But the overwhelming majority, having other notions of progress, spoke in opposition. Zilia Estrada, a transplant from Queens, New York, pointed out that the US Department of Transportation had turned its eye toward sustainability and livability and a more balanced transportation system. “We're not trying to put you out of jobs. We're trying to help you envision a new future. This project is outdated,” she told the INDOT representatives. “Don't be an embarrassment to the rest of the state DOTs around the country for being the ones who have not adopted sustainability and sensible design."

Thomas Tokarski, who with his wife, Sandra, co-founded Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads in 1990 to fight I-69, delivered nine feet of papers he had been keeping in his garage—petitions and letters opposing the highway. “For twenty years, INDOT has not listened to the citizens of this state. It is not listening now,” he said. “In a democracy, the bureaucrats are supposed to serve the people.”

At a public hearing on Interstate 69, longtime opponent Thomas Tokarski introduces a nine-foot stack of petitions and letters opposing I-69.

Listen to part of Thomas Tokarski's testimony:

Listen to Sandra Tokarski describe her disenchantment with the planning process:

The Tokarskis’ property sits squarely in the path of section four, but opponents in Bloomington are by no means limited to those who stand to lose their homes. Most simply question the wisdom of building more highways, have more holistic transportation improvements in mind, and/or value the environment and the town’s strong local flavor. Just last year, in keeping with the wishes of local citizens, the MPO thwarted an attempt by INDOT to insinuate I-69 into the TIP despite considerable pressure.

Andy Ruff, a city council member who sits on the MPO policy committee, says the state punished the MPO by withholding funds for several unrelated projects that had already been approved—including the “B-line,” a rail right-of-way that the city is converting into a bike and pedestrian path. “It’s a tremendous economic asset, a tremendous health and quality of life asset, and the thing was stopped in its tracks for a while," Ruff told me the afternoon after the public hearing. "It was literally coercion from the state.”

The B-line in Bloomington, a rail right of way that the city is converting into a pedestrian and bike path.

“The state is bullying the MPO and even blackmailing us, in a way, to do what we as a community have decided is completely wrongheaded policy,” Ruff said. “And the federal—Ray Lahood, the Secretary of Transportation—they are starting to look at livability of communities as a top priority.”

Listen to Andy Ruff describe Bloomington MPO's predicament:

Livability is a priority for Bloomington as well, Ruff say. Last year, before the first battle over the TIP amendment, the Bloomington MPO adopted a “complete streets” policy requiring all new local road projects using federal funding to pursue designs that “will result in better accommodations for all users of a transportation corridor,” including pedestrians and bicyclists.

It is confounding to Ruff and others that a Federal and local government could be so in sync on transportation philosophy, and yet have their collective wishes ignored or even jeopardized by a state intent on building a massive new interstate. INDOT, he said, was playing hardball, threatening to de-certify the MPO and “stop money for totally unrelated projects from coming to Bloomington if we don’t do what they say on I-69.”

Sam Sarvis, a deputy director and INDOT who is charged with building I-69, refused to confirm what cards the state was playing in trying to convince the MPO to amend its TIP. He would only say that “the state has a number of options” if the MPO votes no, and that he is “confident” that the MPO will cooperate.

Listen to an excerpt of my interview with Sarvis:

Sarvis has been in close contact with Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan (an MPO policy committee member) who seems ready to approve the amendment, despite the fact that he led the effort last year to defeat it. “A ‘no’ vote by the MPO may carry with it a cost in the form of federal funding cuts,” he wrote last March in the Bloomington Alternative, “but a ‘yes’ vote would have furthered an I-69-caused erosion of community spirit and economy and carried with it a much greater moral and practical cost to the community.”

Kruzan declined to be interviewed, but Ruff explained his difficult position. “The mayor is and always has been extremely opposed. He’s a vehement opponent of I-69. He thinks it will be very bad for Bloomington, bad for the nation, bad for the planet,” Ruff told me. “I can’t speak directly for him, but i think its pretty obvious—if he were to vote yes, it would be based on fear that the state would take action to harm Bloomington and Monroe County in any way they can.”

Sarvis has implied—to the MPO members and publicly—that the MPO is required by law to include in its TIP any project the state puts in its program. “Those two programs are not in line, and as long as they’re not in line, I don’t believe the state will be spending any capital transportation dollars in the MPO area,” Sarvis told the Bloomington Herald-Times editorial board last November.

But Sarvis’ insinuation has it backwards. In fact, an INDOT document released as part of the state’s own Transportation Improvement Program in 2007 explains: "Projects are selected for federal aid by the MPOs via an established process of their own,” it read. “INDOT does not select, or approve, these projects." In order for a transportation project located in a Metropolitan Planning Area to receive federal funds, that project “must appear in that MPO’s approved TIP first.”

Delena Hardy, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations told me that Federal law was very clear. “The TIP is supposed to be accepted by the state without amendment,” she said. “We try to work with our state partners, but the states and the MPOs do play games with each other.” The state cannot de-certify an MPO—that is the prerogative of the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit administration, but there are “options,” as Sarvis said. A disagreeable state DOT might use state funds rather than federal funds for a project, it might withhold discretionary monies, or it might refuse to approve an MPO’s TIP—a move that Hardy calls “going nuclear.”

The larger question here—the one that the Obama Administration, Congress, the states and MPOs must grapple with as they dole out whatever funding they can summon—is what level of government should get to decide which projects are built. MPOs were created for the purpose of providing local control over planning, but the established pathways for funding often render their powers useless.

This fact was lamented in a column for by William H. Hudnut, a longtime mayor of Indianapolis who now occupies the Joseph C. Canizaro Chair for Public Policy at the Urban Land Institute. “[MPOs] largely lack power to implement the transportation improvement plans (TIPs) they recommend. That’s why we can think of them as ‘sleeping giants,’” he wrote. “They can propose, but not dispose. They can veto federally funded projects allocated under state plans, but not rewrite them. So they have few if any teeth. They are good for jawboning and horse-trading amongst a selected group of interested officials, but they have difficulty walking their talk.”

Ruff understands that his Indiana town is on the front lines of transportation progressivism, and he refused to predict which way this week’s vote might go. “It remains to be seen,” he said, “whether or not there is a strong enough feeling on the part of the MPO policy committee to stand up to INDOT and say, ‘No, we are not going to just go along and be manipulated and coerced and blackmailed into approving a project in our local plans that we as a community have agreed is antithetical to our values, our priorities, our goals, and the health and well-being of our community.’”

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

Recordings from the public meeting were provided by WFHB community radio in Bloomington.