In a 2012 vote, the newly-formed Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) selected the Baldwin County Commission to provide planning staff, support services and required cash, in-kind or soft-match funds to assist with transportation planning in Spanish Fort, Daphne, Fairhope and Loxley. But the MPO’s relationship with the county could change soon if a handful of policy board members get their way.
The MPO’s policy board is made up of Eastern Shore mayors, county commissioners, a Daphne city councilman and an Alabama Department of Transportation engineer. Fairhope Mayor Tim Kant is the chairman of the policy board and also serves as the vice chairman of the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission (SARPC).
At the April 22 policy board meeting, SARPC Executive Director Chris Miller said he has been in talks with the county commission about possibly taking over the county’s transportation funding organization.
At the meeting, the policy board adopted its Draft 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan, which outlines $560 million in projects over the next 25 years. MPO Coordinator Matthew Brown said $537 million of the total is labeled as ALDOT projects and also includes funding for the proposed Interstate 10 bridge project over the Mobile River.
The draft plan will be available for public comment online at EasternShoreMPO.org until the final draft is approved. The final version could see a policy board vote in July after a 30-day comment period in June.
Brown said the MPO receives about $1.2 million annually in federal funds and currently has $4.5 million to spend on projects. Some on the policy board expressed concern the MPO would be unable to secure enough funding to tackle the projects in its long-range plan.
County Commissioner Tucker Dorsey pressed Brown, who headed up the “Educate Baldwin Now” campaign against an additional 8 mills in property taxes to fund school construction in March, about whether he would be in favor of raising taxes in this instance to pay for the transportation projects.
Brown said his preferred option would be the passage of the Transportation Empowerment Act, which he said would transfer authority over most federal highway and transit programs to the states and lower the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents to 3.7 cents over a five-year period. The act was introduced by Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) in 2013 but Brown said it has not received much traction.
“This would turn the federal gas tax back to the states,” Brown said. “We all know that part of the problem with the federal government is that red tape significantly delays our projects and drastically increases costs.”
Kant said the MPO’s approval of a draft plan doesn’t mean it is necessarily committed to funding $560 million in projects for the next 25 years.
“Whether we get funding or not, it still has to be listed as something you might want to do, otherwise it won’t be considered through the federal process,” he said.
SARPC represents 28 municipalities in Baldwin and Mobile counties as well as four in Escambia County in transportation planning, community development, economic development, and grant administration and works with federal, state and local entities.
MPO Assistant Coordinator Sarah Hart said Monday any move for another entity to take over the MPO would have to be approved by a majority of the policy board at a future meeting.
Miller said during public comments his organization is willing to help, whether by taking over the MPO or continuing its relationship with the county’s municipalities as designed.
“We were the other entity who applied to run this MPO a few years ago and didn’t get it, and that’s fine,” Miller said. “We represent Baldwin County and all the municipalities that are in the MPO and we will continue to do that. If we were ever asked to do the MPO I think we have a great staff that can handle that. If not, we will work with Matthew and the communities just as always. We are here to serve you, one way or the other.”
Some on the policy board, including the Eastern Shore mayors, are concerned the red tape of the MPO is getting in the way of completing projects in their cities.
Spanish Fort Mayor Mike McMillan said the policy board should see the results from the county’s rejection of the proposed 8-mill property tax increase for schools as a warning.
“I heard the results of the election in March pretty loud and clear from our citizens about making our government more clear, more transparent, and more efficient,” McMillan said. “I’d like to see this board look at proposals from some other organizations about running an MPO, just to see if we can get the best value for our buck.”
Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood shared McMillan’s sentiment. The MPO’s 2040 Long Range Transportation plan not only includes a “wish list” of transportation projects, but also includes information about the county’s infrastructure, racial demographics, traffic issues, environmental justice, spoken languages and more.
“We looked at some phrase in 41 different languages and half of which I don’t think I’ve even heard of before,” Haygood said. “There’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of bureaucracy that occurs and we have got to translate this into getting some progress done in our communities.”
Brown said the paperwork is part of trying to secure the annual $1.2 million in funding from the federal government.
“We readily admit that what we do is basically bureaucracy to give y’all access to an additional $1.2 million,” Brown said. “That was, I thought, the understanding from the beginning.”
Hart said Monday the MPO has a three-year window to spend the money awarded by the federal government, and the 2012 funds will expire at the end of this fiscal year. She also said MPO projects have not moved forward for funding because of the amount of documents, designs and paperwork required in order to receive federal funding.