NORTH LIBERTY– Every little bit helps.
$1.125 million helps a lot.
That is the amount of funding approved by the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County (MPOJC) Urbanized Area Policy Board to be distributed to North Liberty for improvements to Highway 965 at its intersection with Scales Bend Road.
The board met last Wednesday, July 13, to approve recommendations made by MPOJC’s Transportation Technical Advisory Committee (TTAC). TTAC reviewed 12 Surface Transportation Program (STP) applications submitted by five entities competing for just over $5.7 million in Iowa Department of Transportation dollars given to the MPO and to be distributed to the Iowa City Urbanized Area for road surface projects. Coralville submitted applications for two STP projects, and was approved for $561,747 to widen Coral Ridge Avenue. Iowa City’s requested project to reconstruct and elevate a portion of Dubuque Street near I-80 received $4 million in funding.
Johnson County requested funds to improve Mehaffey Bridge Road, but the project was not approved. The City of Tiffin submitted applications for five different projects, altogether totaling a $6.19 million request, but none of Tiffin’s projects were approved.
Tiffin Mayor Royce Phillips, a member of the Urbanized Area Policy Board, showed his disappointment by walking out of the meeting without comment.
In a phone interview last week, Phillips had plenty to say about what he feels are “grave inequities about how they [the MPO] distribute federal money.”
The MPO is charged with apportioning STP funds, as well as Transportation Enhancement Funds, typically used for things like pedestrian or bicycle trails, handed down from the federal government and placed in the hands of state transportation department. The MPOJC uses a set of scoring criteria to rank STP applications, looking at each project’s impact on safety, compatibility with its community’s comprehensive plan, ability to facilitate multiple modes of transportation, reduction of travel time and the project’s reach over more than one MPO jurisdiction. Also considered is the match for funding each project is expected to receive from the local government.
Phillips said the scoring method is “woefully inadequate”
“And they are woefully reluctant to do much more than tinker with it,” said Phillips, who has served on the board for three and a half years. “On one hand, the TTAC will say the scoring criteria is only one element they use to make a decision, yet that is solely they way they made the choices they did.”
Slight changes were made to scoring criteria that helps MPOJC prioritize its own long range transportation plan, after TTAC agreed that criteria did not allow credit for brand new roads to increase connectivity throughout the county. Those changes did not help Tiffin.
In the four years that Phillips has been mayor of Tiffin, his community has never received any of the federal funds distributed through the MPO, he noted.
Last Wednesday, MPO staff member Kristofer Ackerson, Assistant Transportation Planner, presented the TTAC’s funding recommendations to the board by prefacing that the board was able to vote completely differently than the recommendations before them, and could vote to change scoring on the criteria as well.
Phillips said he remained silent because he has criticized the scoring method several times before, and he knew how the vote would go last week.
“It played out exactly as I expected it would. I am never at an impasse, but I knew where it was going. For me to say anything more,…it was already on record. It’s not like it’s a secret. I think there is a tremendous inequity.”
Phillips said he was asked to help write new scoring criteria, but the lack of support for Tiffin projects has made it seem like a moot point.
Phillips added that he does have some ideas about how to improve Tiffin’s prospects going forward, but he sees four years of being passed over as “a serious threat to regional cooperation,” he said. “They don’t accept Tiffin on an equitable basis, and it’s going to be difficult for me to support other agenda items if they don’t respect what I had hoped was a partner in the process.”
In nearby North Liberty, city councilor and MPO Urbanized Area Policy Board chairman Gerry Kuhl said he was “riding a bubble” after North Liberty’s STP project was approved.
“I am ecstatic about the $1.1 million-plus award for the Highway 965 and Scales Bend project. The size of the award is by far the largest award of federal money for Highway 965,” said Kuhl
Kuhl said the project scored high in the areas of safety, connectivity and especially relevance to the broader community.
“I thank the North Liberty staff who wrote the application so that it scored well,” Kuhl added. “I also appreciate the work and scoring by the MPO staff, and I am pleased to have been a part of the effort to secure the funds for a much needed project. It was also a pleasure to work with fellow city councilors from our neighboring cities and the Johnson County supervisors.”
The City of North Liberty has pledged $2.8 million in local matching funds to the $4.7 million realignment of Scales Bend Road and Highway 965, to add two turn lanes, upgrade the nearby railroad crossing, add an asphalt overlay, flatten the road and reconfigure the intersection to a “T” formation to increase safety.
The funds will be distributed to each of the communities in the 2012-15 federal fiscal years.