On March 27, census data showed the Mankato area passed a population of 50,000, triggering a federal requirement to organize a new agency to get planning money.
In total, the area could get $300,000 per year in state and federal planning money when it forms a so-called “metropolitan planning organization,” or MPO, said Bobbi Retzlaff, principal transportation planner with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
But that designation is in doubt as Congress considers raising that population threshold, perhaps to 200,000, before the Mankato area can organize under the current rules.
And the decision on that measure is entangled with the larger question of passing a transportation bill. It was last passed in 2005, and is currently on its 9th extension, which expires June 30.
The bill is being discussed in a conference committee with members of both the Senate, which already passed its version 74 to 22, and the House, which hasn’t voted on it. Congressman Tim Walz sponsored a non-binding resolution to encourage that committee to set aside their differences and agree on a bill for a House vote. The resolution passed Wednesday, 386 to 34.
If Congress can’t agree on a bill, an extension is likely. The most recent extension was 90 days; the one before that was six months. In the past, those extensions have involved continuations of the existing rules, including the 50,000-population threshold, Retzlaff said.
Meanwhile, local governments are learning how to organize an MPO. That process, which started with a May 8 meeting, requires cities, counties and regional government to agree on the formation of the MPO. It can be a stand-alone office, or based in a local government. In other cases, the MPO is based in a planning agency like the Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities.
For the state’s most recent MPO, in the Grand Forks area, that city and East Grand Forks host the planning agency together.
In the Mankato area, it’s unclear where the organization will be based. There is a requirement that 75 percent of the population within the area be represented in the MPO. In other words, smaller cities could opt out but larger cities would be required to join.
“Usually, they develop a joint powers agreement to spell out what the responsibilities will be,” Retzlaff said. “MnDOT doesn’t have any say in that, it’s all a local decision.”
The Mankato area already has an organization similar to an MPO. It’s called MATAPS, the Mankato Area Transportation and Planning Study.
The local governments had their second meeting Thursday, and whether they will continue to qualify for the MPO will depend, again, on whether Congress raises the threshold in a new bill.