Richard Ullo knows the ins and outs of the Eastern Shore’s traffic infrastructure needs. As a resident of Spanish Fort for the past 10 years and a member of the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (MPO) Citizen Advisory Committee since shortly after its inception in 2012, he’s seen and studied the growth first-hand.
“The volume of traffic has increased a lot,” he said last week. “It’s at least doubled since we have been here.”
Authorized by the Federal Highway Administration, the Eastern Shore MPO is a policy board which, “encourages and facilitates teamwork among local governments on the Eastern Shore in matters relating to transportation planning.”
Along with the citizens advisory committee, the MPO also comprises members of a technical advisory committee, bike and pedestrian committee and policy board committee who coordinate planning for highways, public transit, bicycles and pedestrians, freight and other modes of transportation in designated “urbanized areas” as defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Together, they have “completed or are currently working on several transportation planning documents” including a 20-plus-year transportation improvement plan, a short-term four-year transportation improvement program, bike and pedestrian concepts, plus a plan outlining “how citizens can be involved in the transportation planning process.”
Examples of MPO policy that has been implemented include an “intelligent lighting system” coordinating signals for efficient traffic flow on U.S. Route 98, the diverging diamond intersection soon to be constructed at Interstate 10 and State Route 181, and the widening of both U.S. Route 31 in Spanish Fort and State Route 181 between County Road 64 and State Route 104.
But needs remain great. Its 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan, adopted in 2015, warns that within the next 25 years, “nearly every road in the travel network will be over capacity … rapid growth exacerbates the congestion problems already encumbering certain corridors within the Eastern Shore.”
Using computer modeling, the plan goes on to detail current and expected travel times between two points in the network, noting, “even if the MPO constructed all visionary projects by 2020, total vehicle miles traveled and vehicle hours traveled will increase significantly between 2010 and 2040. Average speed will decrease significantly, due to the substantial increase in traffic caused by the expected increase in population and employment within the ESMPO study area in the next 25 years.”
The plan then lists some $539 million worth of “visionary projects” that “lack an identified source of funding,” which could help ease existing traffic and alleviate some of the congestion anticipated in the future.
So when Gov. Kay Ivey signed legislation authorizing a 10-cent gas tax increase last week, the Eastern Shore MPO and others like it around the state took notice. It’s expected to generate up to $300 million in annual revenue.
When the first six cents of the tax is collected and distributed later this year, “it’ll be very good for Baldwin County,” said State Sen. Chris Elliott, chairman of the MPO’s policy board when he was a Baldwin County Commissioner. “[The] distribution [to counties] is based on population estimates and starts immediately.”
Disputing a report the distribution formula would “shortchange” the state’s fastest growing counties in its first three years by relying upon outdated 2010 Census information, Elliott urged a simple reading of the Act.
First , the Alabama Department of Transportation will be awarded roughly 66 percent of the proceeds to be deposited into the newly created “Rebuild Alabama Fund.” Second, counties are entitled to 25 percent of the proceeds annually. Each county will receive $400,000, plus an amount based upon “the ration of the population of the state according to population projections from the U.S. Census Bureau Population and Housing Estimates Program or any special federal census heretofore held in any county. Beginning in 2020, the ratio of the population of each county to the total population of the state shall be updated every five years.”
A portion of the 8.33 percent of the tax allocated to individual municipalities will also be based on the same population projections, according to the bill.
A request for clarification and estimates from the Legislative Services Agency and Legislative Fiscal Office had not been received by press time. But simply put, Elliott said, “I would not have supported this bill unless we got our fair share and I believe we got it.”
How it may affect the MPO’s Long Range Transportation Plan has also yet to be discussed, but Elliott said drivers should expect to see the widening of the county’s major east-west corridors prioritized.
“I think you’re going to see additional capacity on 181 and 104 … we’d like to four lane U.S. 98 to the Florida line — basically anywhere we have a state route in Baldwin County could be looked at for improvement.”
Ullo said while it’s not his role to consider the financial feasibility of the MPO’s proposed projects, he believes the gas tax will probably have a positive affect.
“[The bill] was on a short timeframe, so we really didn’t have an opportunity to discuss it,” he said. “But it was a long time coming and obviously on the top of the agenda for the governor and those who support her … I think we’ll get used to it. If it’s used strictly for roads and bridges it could be a very good thing.”
At the same time, Ullo said in his experience, regardless of the amount of funding and planning put toward transportation infrastructure, “nothing happens quickly.”
“Hardly anything happens in less than six months and sometimes things don’t happen for years,” he said.
Elliott was equally pleased with a corresponding act that establishes a “Permanent Joint Legislative Transportation Committee” to have oversight over ALDOT and gas tax expenditures.
“It’s a great opportunity to ensure the state is sending that revenue in certain directions,” he said. “While those appointments have not been made yet, I feel very good about who is going to be on that committee and their ability to steer those dollars where they need to be.”
The Eastern Shore MPO’s Long Range Transportation Plan accompanies this article on lagniappemobile.com.
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