MANKATO — The creation of a new transportation planning group may mean $300,000 per year in new federal planning money for the Mankato area, but some elected officials are wary.
The federal government is requiring the Mankato area to form a Metropolitan Planning Organization because it passed the 50,000 population threshold this spring.
At a recent meeting, Mankato Mayor Eric Anderson worried the staff at the new MPO would be underworked. After all, he said, the city and county already employ transportation planners.
At another meeting Blue Earth County Commissioner Kip Bruender said he was “a little frustrated” about the double standard for federal and local taxpayer money. In other words, the federal government is spending money where locals don’t see a need. Commissioner Drew Campbell agreed: “It’s all coming out of somebody’s pocket.”
Local government staff appears to have taken these concerns to heart. They’ve spent the last few months deciding how the new agency will be governed, where it will be hosted and how big it will be. Elected officials were briefed early on, but staff came up with the specifics. City Councils and County Boards in the area will be reviewing their work in coming weeks.
Al Forsberg, public works director for Blue Earth County, said the agency will preserve the authority of local governments. The MPO is required to build a five-year plan, for example, but it looks like it will only be a compilation of the five-year plans cities and counties already create, Forsberg said. The idea is that a decentralized MPO won’t have the authority to override other plans.
The agency will be small: one or two staff members, not three or four, Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges said. It will be located within an existing government — which saves building costs — probably the city of Mankato’s community development department. The city was seen as an ideal host because of its expertise in transportation and the area in general, Forsberg said.
Part of the reason for a small MPO is a hedge against a federal cut; if that happens, an MPO that spends more on consultants than staff will be easier to trim.
Forsberg also said the MPO would spend some money on planning studies that local governments would be doing regardless, such as the county’s study on County Road 17 (called Madison Avenue in the city). This partially mollified Bruender, given that it’s an offset of local spending rather than a net increase.
The preference for slim MPOs is not the case everywhere. The Metropolitan Council — the Twin Cities area’s MPO — employs about 3,700 people and operates the buses and trains of Metro Transit. The seven-county metro area has about 56 times the population of the Mankato area, but the local MPO would still have to have about 76 employees to match the per-capita employment of the Met Council.
Local planners say they’ve adopted a plan similar to that of the Janesville area’s MPO. It has a population of about 63,000 and one full-time staff person, coordinator Terry Nolan, though others bill part of their time to the MPO. It’s based in Janesville, Wis.
It adopts a similar attitude with autonomy, in this case with Rock County, the smaller city of Milton and area townships.
“I send out a request for projects in the summer and everybody responds to me and lets me know what their projects are going to be,” she said. “Janesville doesn’t step in and say, ‘No, no, you can’t do that.’”
While MPOs typically get funding for planning — not actual road construction — there are a few areas where the Mankato-area MPO will have some of its own authority.
“The only time there’s competition or conflict is there are certain pots of money we compete over,” she said. “Mankato will have to deal with that.”
For example, Nolan said the Janesville MPO has to decide how to spend money from the federal government’s surface transportation program. They typically do one large street reconstruction project every two years.
She said the Janesville MPO receives about $90,000 from the state and federal governments. She wasn’t sure why the projections for state and federal grants to Mankato’s MPO — an estimated $307,812 annually — are so much higher, even though Janesville has more people.
Given that its planning will be in part a compilation of everyone else’s plans, it might seem like Mankato’s MPO wouldn’t have much to do. But Nolan said the rule-bound nature of the MPO can actually be more help than hindrance.
For example, they have to collect a lot of data. And they did a study on local streets last year and have been able to improve their predictions for repairs.
The Mankato-area MPO is proposed to be led by a seven-member governing board with one member each from the cities of Mankato and North Mankato and the counties of Blue Earth and Nicollet. One member will come from the smaller cities — Eagle Lake and Skyline — and another from the townships of Mankato, Lime, South Bend, LeRay and Belgrade. The seventh member will represent mass transit, though it won’t be a voting position.
Under this proposal a technical advisory board, comprised mostly of local government staff, would make recommendations to the governing board.
The governments will have to pay an estimated $28,865 of their own money — called a local match — to accept the federal funding. Only the larger cities and the counties would pay, though.
The Mankato area has until late March to form its MPO, though it will have to submit its plans to the state for approval much earlier than that, perhaps later this year.