Changes down road for transportation planning group?: Metropolitan Planning Organization weighs merger

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The prospect of urban sprawl might swallow up even those agencies tasked with planning for sprawl’s consequences.

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization is exploring a merger with Anderson’s MPO, according to the Indianapolis agency’s 2008 Unified Planning Work Program report.

“The rapid growth of the Northeast Corridor has blurred the boundaries between the Anderson and Indianapolis MPOs; a joint committee is currently exploring whether consolidation is warranted,” states the report.

MPOs are virtually invisible agencies to the public even though some, like the Indianapolis MPO, cover huge territories. It covers 1,300 square miles and 1.3 million people.

The Indianapolis and Anderson MPOs have increasingly been working on common transportation issues involving the booming northeastern suburbs and on the same air-quality-attainment issues, said Philip Roth, assistant manager of the Indianapolis MPO.

“It looks very promising that the Anderson urbanized area will merge with the Indianapolis urbanized area. The merger of MPOs seems logical,” said Mike Dearing, manager and master planner at the Indianapolis agency.

Both agencies have been studying models for MPOs in other areas of the country, such as San Diego.

There are differences between the two area planning agencies. Anderson conducts more land-planning work than Indianapolis, for example.

“We’d have to determine what kind of organization we want to be,” Roth said.

Would it become a municipal, not-forprofit or regional planning commission?

“Rebranding the MPO would be required once these questions are resolved,” states the IMPO’s 2008 report.

Funding is one issue likely to complicate merger talks. The Indianapolis MPO receives 80 percent of its funding from the federal government. The balance is local funding, most of which comes from the city of Indianapolis.

Anderson also receives a mix of federal and local funding, but its local funding comes from multiple entities. Anderson, Alexandria, Elwood, Pendleton and Madison County would all have to sign off on it.

One possible benefit of a merger would be a larger staff for the combined entity. The IMPO says it is “critically short-staffed” by as much as 50 percent compared with counterparts in similar-size metro areas. The agency has nine staff members and hopes to boost that to 15 people by 2009.

“I’d say probably one-quarter of my time is now spent dealing with air-quality regulations,” Roth said.

The Indianapolis MPO is perhaps best known of late for its studies of a proposed rapid transit system between downtown and the Noblesville area.

Officials hope by the end of the year to wrap up the recommended route for a starter system, a process delayed by completion of a ridership forecast required by federal transit officials.

The MPO also is working with about 40 communities in the nine-county region to get their input. A region-wide tax may be required to foot part of the system’s estimated $1 billion to $2 billion cost.

In the meantime, IMPO is launching several highway studies in 2008. One, for which it plans to pay a consultant $50,000, is to further look at a possible north-south connection on the east side between interstates 69 and 74. The highway would be centered near the current primary northsouth road, Mount Comfort Road.

The Indianapolis agency also is looking at the feasibility of a new primary artery in the Geist area of Lawrence and new thoroughfares through Danville and through portions of Johnson County.

Identifying thoroughfares is pertinent to public land use planning and essentially puts developers on notice of future potential road building.

Another study, at an estimated cost of $80,000, will look at citywide traffic signal coordination. Currently, traffic lights at a number of streets-particularly northsouth streets out of downtown–are timed. But IMPO wants to look at the potential of a system that could better assess traffic conditions to accommodate unexpected changes in normal flow, whether caused by wrecks or football game traffic, for example. One goal of the study is to determine which areas of the county are most promising for improved coordination.

IMPO also plans to support further study into a Johnson County east-west corridor study. The $150,000 funding for that study is coming from a congressional earmark, not from MPO’s budget. Such a corridor has been batted around for at least a decade.

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