A moment of truth on the Interstate 69/NAFTA Highway has been put off until Sept. 11, when citizens will have a better idea who will determine their transportation future -- the community or Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Mayor Mark Kruzan asked the Bloomington-Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee (MPO) on Friday to delay a second vote on a request from the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) for a "hardship" purchase of property at Tapp Road and State Road 37. The property is in the proposed I-69 right-of-way, and the 13-member MPO had voted 8-2 against the request on March 13.

INDOT asked the MPO to reconsider the request again this month, without giving any reason why, Kruzan said in a June 24 e-mail. "We (the City) asked INDOT to not put this item back on the agenda," he wrote. "But it is their right as an MPO member to make that request and have it be done."


Read the full text of the Federal Highway Administration's letter to the MPO

When the item came up at Friday's MPO meeting, the mayor asked for more time to review a 4½-page letter the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) sent a mere two days before the meeting. The board unanimously approved his request.

In multiple places throughout the letter, the FWHA adds bold-faced emphasis on the legal requirements that MPOs and the state work cooperatively on major transportation projects.

***

This showdown over I-69 involves a June 2008 request from a landowner with property on the southwest corner of Tapp and 37 to have INDOT purchase the land under its Hardship Acquisition Program (HAP). The letter says the property is eligible for such a purchase as part of a "Regionally Significant" transportation project.

"Highway opponents argue that the INDOT request is an effort to get a foothold in Monroe County to help negate future challenges to I-69 being built here."

"For clarification, the stipulations above apply to the 'project' which for this situation is defined as the project to acquire a single parcel of property under the HAP and not the 1-69 project as was alluded to during the last MPO Policy Board meeting," FWHA Division Administrator Robert F. Tally Jr. wrote.

The letter never specifies what "project" FWHA refers to, but in the definition of "Regionally Significant" Tally adds emphasis to this phrase from federal law: "At a minimum, this includes all principal arterial highways ... that offer a significant alternative to regional highway travel."

Because the project is included in the MPO's four-year Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), the only way INDOT can make the hardship purchase is for the local body to amend its TIP to allow it, Tally wrote.

TIPs are prioritized listings of highway projects that qualify for federal funding.

***

Highway opponents argue that the INDOT request is an effort to get a foothold in Monroe County to help negate future challenges to I-69 being built here. The more money INDOT spends on the highway, the stronger its case down the road will be. Monroe, they note, is the only county on the proposed route from Evansville to Bloomington in which INDOT does not already own some property in the right-of-way.

"Tally's letter outlines the 'ramifications' that could result from the MPO refusing to approve the INDOT request."

The opposition also questions INDOT's professed concern for the landowners' plight. One citizen was prepared to tell the MPO on Friday that INDOT has ignored for years his family's hardship request for a land purchase.

Tally's letter outlines the "ramifications" that could result from the MPO refusing to approve the INDOT request. "The FHWA is neither an advocate for nor against this or any other proposed project," Tally wrote, "however, FHWA expects that the continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive planning requirements for States and Metropolitan areas are met."

Tally notes that federal law gives the governor "approval authority" over the MPO's overall TIP, which includes all federally funded highway projects funding within its jurisdiction.

And because Bloomington's population is under 200,000, it is categorized as a non-Transportation Management Area (non-TMA), which means federally funded projects within its area "shall be selected by the State," Tally wrote, giving the phrase emphasis.

"Funding to non-TMAs is made through the State to the non-TMAs at the discretion of the State of Indiana," he wrote. "It is therefore important that metropolitan and state agencies communicate well and understand the roles of each other as they work together."

At least one MPO member and elected official is unphased by that threat. "The cost of the damage caused by I-69 would be a lot more than the lost funding for road projects in our area," Monroe County Commissioner Mark Stoops wrote in an e-mail after Friday's meeting.

Thomas Tokarski from Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads posed a question for the feds that many are asking.

"Based on this letter, a fair and obvious question to the FHWA is: Is this a threat to decertify the Bloomington/Monroe Co. MPO if it does not amend the TIP to include the 'hardship' buyout of the property on Tapp Rd. for I-69?" he wrote in an e-mail after reading the letter. "This community has a right to a clear, concise answer. Please, no BS."

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.