Photograph by Steven Higgs
INDOT's Jim Stark listens as Mayor Mark Kruzan and County Commissioner Mark Stoops expose the vindictive political tactics and unabashed hypocrisy of Gov. Mitch Daniels and his highway department. Kruzan, Stoops and six other local leaders told Daniels "No I-69 in Bloomington" in clear and unambiguous terms on 9/11.
After accusing the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) of "hijacking" city and county highway funds and holding both governments "hostage," Mayor Mark Kruzan rendered moot the issue of a “hardship buyout” of I-69 property at Tapp Road and State Road 37.
"To address the problem which INDOT feels is a genuine one, the City of Bloomington today intends to make an offer to purchase this property," Kruzan announced as the Bloomington/Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) took up the matter on Sept. 11. Where the state wants to put an interchange for I-69, the city will develop an affordable housing project, he said.
After the meeting, INDOT representative Jim Stark said INDOT will be satisfied as long as the property owner is. "I know that I am really happy that this lady is going to get her property purchased," he said. "That was the intent of us asking for the amendment to go through."
The property owner will have to accept the city's offer, and the City Council will have to approve the deal, Kruzan said. Council President Andy Ruff said he will put it on the council's agenda at the earliest opportunity.
The MPO then voted 8-5 to postpone action on INDOT's request. Ruff said the five who voted "No," including Stark, demonstrated that they were only concerned with advancing I-69 and had no genuine interest in the property owner's best interests.
Voting against the measure were Lynn Coyne from Indiana University, Bill Williams from the Monroe County Highway Department, Bill Stuebe from the Bloomington Plan Commission and Mike Farmer from the Town of Ellettsville.
Voting with Kruzan and Stoops were Ruff, Julie Thomas from the Monroe County Council, Kent McDaniel from the Bloomington Public Transit Corp., Susie Johnson from Bloomington Public Works, Richard Martin from the Bloomington Plan Commission and Jack Baker from the MPO Citizen Advisory Committee.
At the Friday afternoon meeting in the City Council Chambers, INDOT representatives finally came clean on the details behind the “hardship buyout” and their I-69 strategy.
INDOT’s Jay Mitchell said the landowner at State Road 37 and Tapp Road cannot sell the property because it is in the I-69 right-of-way. Due to her failure to sell, the woman asked INDOT to purchase the property under its Hardship Acquisition Program (HAP).
Referring to the legal justification for the HAP buyout, Stark reiterated the fact that it is I-69-related. The property, he said, “is considered to be tied to a regionally significant project, I-69.”
That explanation contradicted what Federal Highway Administrator Robert F. Tally Jr. wrote to MPO members in June about the same purchase. "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."
The 9/11 MPO vote was the second time the 13 voting members have rejected INDOT’s request. And in his letter, Tally repeatedly insisted that highway planning by law must be cooperative. “FHWA expects that the continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive planning requirements for States and Metropolitan areas are met,” he said.
But INDOT consultant Mary Jo Hamman told MPO members the backstory to the agency’s insistence that the MPO approve the Tapp Road buyout. And her sequence of events painted a picture of an INDOT with no interest in cooperation, the law or the Bloomington community.
When INDOT agreed to purchase the property, it was a done deal, Hamman told the MPO. “Once she had applied and it was accepted, INDOT was obligated to buy the property.”
Under state law, property purchased as a hardship acquisition must be included in the Indiana State Transportation Improvement Plan (INSTIP), she said. And for that to happen, it likewise had to be in the local TIP, “which is why we have come to this body to request it to begin with.”
INDOT committed itself to buying property in the MPO’s jurisdiction, without cooperating with the MPO, the City of Bloomington or Monroe County, all of whom share jurisdiction over land use and highway planning at Tapp and 37.
In his June letter, Tally also made clear that Gov. Mitch Daniels and INDOT have the legal authority to assume control of highway investment and planning in Monroe County. And at the 9/11 meeting, Stark said he believed the state was prepared to cut off $38 million in highway funds if the MPO again rejected the Tapp Road buyout.
When McDaniel asked him to clarify what INDOT would do if the MPO voted “No,” Stark said it could cut the local funding. When Stoops asked if the state would cut the funds, Stark said: “Well, it wouldn’t be my decision, but the answer would be, ‘Yes we would.’”
Kruzan and Stoops cited multiple examples of INDOT resorting to low-brow, bush-league retaliation against them for opposing the hardship buyout.
Kruzan cited the Jackson Creek Trail project. Despite the city having completed all the necessary paperwork and INDOT requirements, an application that normally would have been processed expeditiously has been inexplicably held up. City officials learned of the delay on the INDOT Web site and in the newspaper.
“Perhaps it’s a message to the community,” Kruzan said, adding that Monroe County has had similar experiences.
Stoops said the county has had several projects held up by INDOT, some of which aren’t even in the MPO jurisdiction. “INDOT told us last week,” he said, “we asked why these projects were delayed, how long they would be delayed, and their answer was it depends on our vote on Friday.”
Martin echoed other MPO members when he lambasted INDOT for cutting off communications with local officials at all levels. “It is very hard for us as a body to participate in a process that is 'continuing' and 'cooperating' and 'comprehensive' without participation on the part of INDOT,” he said, citing two MPO requests of INDOT for “information we consider crucial to our ability to plan. We’re not getting the information we need.”
After the meeting, Ruff, Kruzan and Stoops responded to requests for comments.
Ruff: “My main comment addresses a comment made at the end by another committee member. What’s convoluted about this is INDOT’s and Federal Highway’s assertion that this project is somehow fiscally constrained and deserves being discussed at all. There’s is no identified source of funding for this. The whole thing is a charade. And this outcome I think is ideal because we’ll get affordable housing use out of it, and then, by the time (I-69) comes to the next stage, which will never come, it will be over.”
Kruzan: “We’ll find out whether INDOT was sincere when they said this was all about the hardship case. That literally is my only thought. Lisa Abbot and Susie Johnson went out and looked at it and felt that they could, through redevelopment commission or other monies. We’ve been talking about acquiring houses as well as apartments, and they feel that they can do a pilot project there. I’m not going to pretend that I know all that they’re going to do.
“We were quite honestly looking at whether the county could eminent domain this property. It’s not in the city limits, and Susie Johnson said, ‘Why don’t we just buy it?’ And then she talked to Lisa, they went out and looked at it and talked to the realtor. It’s not a done deal, even from the seller, but also the council has to approve it.”
Stoops: "I think this was an easy solution, but I don’t think it’s over. I don’t think anybody ever believed that this hardship acquisition was really the whole point of the exercise. It was their kind of thinly veiled attempt, and they’ve really put their threats and their blackmail behind it, to kind of coerce us into doing this. It’s absolutely incredible. … Can you imagine? It’s got to be illegal. It has to be illegal. ‘You vote the way we want you to vote, and you’ll get your funds.’”
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.