Two Mobile City councilors representing areas east of Interstate 65 presented advisers to the Metropolitan Planning Organization May 17 with their concerns over a disparity of the number of projects the group has planned over the next 20 years.
Councilmen Fred Richardson and Levon Manzie told members of the Technical Coordinating Citizens’ Committee of the MPO they had concerns over fairness in the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission’s 2040 Long-Range Transportation Plan.
“There are 200,000 people in this city,” Richardson said. “There are 100,000 each east and west of Interstate 65. Those east of I-65 are just as deserving as those west.”
At issue is a big disparity in MPO spending on either side of I-65. As Manzie pointed out using MPO numbers, since 1993 some 81 projects have been planned west of I-65, using roughly $107 million, while only five projects east of I-65 were planned, using roughly $5 million.
Similarly, Richardson told TCC members that highways 98, 90 and 31 — west of I-65 — had all been expanded to four lanes, while Highway 45 — east of I-65 — remains two lanes.
The councilors suggested the board change the parameters for federal funding and open up more projects for those roads and streets east of I-65. Manzie said the standards the board uses to determine what roads and streets should be updated were put in place initially in the late 1960s.
Kevin Harrison, director of transportation planning for the SARPC, told TCC members that while the current federal model — based on traffic demand — for picking road expansion projects began in 1968, they get updated every time there’s a new transportation budget. The most recent one was announced in 2016, he said.
Further, Harrison argued the majority of projects east of I-65 — the city’s oldest section — are maintenance issues. Currently the MPO doesn’t consider maintenance projects, only additional capacity projects. Many roadways east of I-65, such as Broad Street, are being considered for fewer lanes and pedestrian and cycling upgrades, while expansion projects for vehicular traffic are happening to the west.
The model does not take population into account, Harrison said. The MPO is also prohibited from taking geography into account, he added.
For 2017, Harrison said, the MPO is looking at spending $25 million, $15 million of which will be used to widen Zeigler Boulevard.
“Projects currently on the books have been there for a long time,” he said. “Zeigler has been on the books for 25 years.”
Harrison said the MPO could redirect a small portion of funding to maintenance issues, but projects then could get “caught in the weeds” and become political.
A majority of board members agreed maintenance issues, like the ones described by Manzie and Richardson, should be handled on a local level, either through the city or county.
Afterward, members of the TCC voted to send a letter to councilors detailing their reasons for not changing the standards they use.