Within the bounds of civil government, there exists something called a Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO. Created by Congress in 1962, MPOs function to help coordinate transportation policy within geographic regions and across local and state governments, including state transportation authorities.

The idea behind the MPO wasn’t a bad one. The federal government, meaning Congress, hands out billions of dollars a year to the states for transportation projects. It wanted to make sure that the money it gave out would be spent harmoniously and productively -- it didn’t want to allocate a billion dollars or so to a project only to see the project languish while internecine battles raged between lower government units over the details, scope or utility of the project.

An MPO is required for any urbanized area with a population greater than 50,000. The Bloomington area obviously qualifies, and for that reason there exists a local MPO made up with county, city and town elected officials, as well as transportation authorities from an Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) representative to Monroe County’s highway engineer and the head of Indiana University’s bus service.

"The MPO meeting was a wake-up call in the lessons of democracy."

What MPOs do, is plan. And in so planning to make sure that their plans for the region’s transportation infrastructure match the state’s plans for the region’s infrastructure and the federal government’s plans for the region’s infrastructure. MPOs are guided by a prime directive, known as the “3-C” planning process: that existing and future expenditures for transportation projects be based on a continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive set of plans.

If an MPO violates any of the three-Cs, it risks being listed as out of compliance or, worse, de-certified. The federal government can then withhold any federal transportation dollars to the region served by the MPO until it either comes into compliance or is re-certified.

The politics of planning

The highway construction lobby and the state Ministry of Trucking, a.k.a. INDOT, have long desired to build a new-terrain highway through southwestern Indiana -- a state already varicose with existing highways that it cannot afford to maintain. This highway, I-69, is no secret, nor is the fact that the people of Monroe County and Bloomington don’t want it, because of the massive economic and environmental damage that it will cause.

"The MPO and, by representation, the citizens of Bloomington and Monroe County were being openly blackmailed by the federal and state governments."

In fact, the Bloomington City Council has passed a resolution stating opposition to the highway and the current mayor of Bloomington has been more resolute in his opposition to the highway than any other issue. And for their positions on the highway, the Bloomington city electorate has returned the council and the mayor to office with wide margins of victory.

Indianapolis is not unaware of these facts and has sought every clumsy tool at its disposal to mute, block and silence opposition to the highway in every corner of the state, but particularly in Monroe County.

One of those tools is, and has always been, the fait accompli. By dividing the road into separate “Segments of Independent Utility (SIUs),” for example, the state can build small pieces of the road with funding that’s available and then argue for the full funding needed to complete it with the argument that we can’t just leave a bunch of unconnected patches of asphalt unconnected.

So it is, too, with land acquisition for the highway. The state is attempting to purchase up politically significant portions of the highway right-of-way to bolster the arguments that a) It is already “beginning” construction of the highway throughout the region, and b) We can’t just buy up people’s homes and then not build a road through them.

INDOT’s suddenly got a heart

Beginning in 2004 a number of landowners, particularly in Greene and Daviess counties, began to petition INDOT to purchase their properties, which were in the path of the planned highway. Federal and state law allows INDOT’s Division of Land Acquisition to purchase private property outside of Eminent Domain proceedings through INDOT’s “Hardship Acquisition Policy” if the property owner is in health or financial distress or if the property owner has attempted to sell the property but is unable to do so because of the impending project.

"An MPO not being comprehensive and not cooperating? Cut off their money!"

In each and every case, INDOT rejected those requests based, saying either that I-69 was too far in the future to qualify for hardship buyouts or that, simply, the state didn’t now have the money. Both of which were true then, as they are now. And, most certainly, the fact that INDOT can acquire property for much less money by using eminent domain rather than hardship buyouts factored into their decision-making.

Come now to this month where, out of the blue, INDOT suddenly has a hardship case that it cares very, very much for. A Monroe County property owner has a parcel on the southwest corner of State Road 37 and Tapp Road, in the identified I-69 corridor, that she’s been trying to sell for all of six months without success. INDOT would very much like to help her out of her hardship.

Which it, of course, could do. The asking price of a little over a hundred grand is the kind of money INDOT keeps in petty cash. But INDOT doesn’t want to go it alone in its charity.

It wants to spread the love.

A political stunt

Although it was not technically necessary to do so, INDOT placed the purchase into its long-range plan for I-69. Which brings us back to our local MPO. Remember, above, our 3-Cs? That a requirement for MPOs is that planning be continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive? The fact that INDOT had added the purchase to its plans meant that the local MPO also had to have it in its plans -- otherwise INDOT and our MPO wouldn’t be cooperating and our plan wouldn’t be as comprehensive as the state plan.

An MPO not being comprehensive and not cooperating? Cut off their money!

By pulling this stunt, INDOT hoped to get a representative local body, as well as the elected and appointed members on it, to perform an action -- take a vote -- affirming that body’s tacit acceptance, if not outright approval of, the highway. It would be a rend in the fabric of the enemy’s territory.

And political theater

I attended the meeting where INDOT planned to get the local MPO, including Bloomington’s mayor and an elected member of its City Council, to go on record supporting the purchase of land in the county for I-69. Now I’ve been to a lot of public meetings, but nothing in my past prepared me for the spectacle that unfolded.

"The end came fast and it came hard. By a vote of six to three, the MPO said, 'NO!'"

As a side note, for the terminally jaded among us, the MPO meeting was a wake-up call in the lessons of democracy. It was a vivid and graphic demonstration that the fix is not in, that deliberative bodies do indeed deliberate, and that hearts can be won and minds can be changed.

INDOT went into that meeting believing it would prevail -- that the MPO would vote “yes” to add the hardship acquisition to its transportation plan. And they had good reason to believe that.

But as the facts of the case began to emerge, as it was made clear that it was not necessary for INDOT to get the MPO’s blessing to purchase the property and that in fact the purchase was unprecedented in the history of the I-69 project (and thus immediately suspect), minds began to change.

But the real drama came when the chairman of the MPO, IU’s Kent McDaniel, asked the representative from the Federal Highway Administration what would happen, what negative effects on the community, if the MPO voted “no?”

The answer: “A letter will be written.” And the question asked: “What will the letter say?” And the answer came back again, this time in code: “I can’t tell you that.”

Mayor Kruzan came back to the question, stating that he could not cast his vote without understanding the implications of the outcome. Could the feds and state clarify what would be in the letter? “No, “ they repeated and, in doing so clarified.

The room sat in a pregnant silence for a bit as all realized what was happening. The MPO and, by representation, the citizens of Bloomington and Monroe County were being openly blackmailed by the federal and state governments. If they did not act just as INDOT had acted, they would be found by the federal government to be non-cooperative. Just as Henry Ford had said, you could get a Model-T in any color so long as it was black, the state and feds were saying the MPO was free to vote any way it wanted, so long as it voted “yes.”

Otherwise, a letter will be written. And everyone knew what the letter would say: This MPO is decertified and we will starve you.

The minds that had begun to change were now angry. The end came fast and it came hard. By a vote of six to three, the MPO said, 'NO!'”

Way to go, MPO.

Gregory Travis can be reached at greg@littlebear.com.