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The Roanoke Valley Area Metropolitan Planning Organization wants to create a civil process.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
For a Roanoke Valley organization newly charged with divvying millions of federal dollars for regional transportation projects, the goal Thursday was simple: Chain the political beast now, because it’ll get hungry later.
Late last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation designated the Roanoke Valley as a “transportation management area.” In laymen’s terms: The urbanized area here is now considered large enough to get federal funding to be spent on federally approved projects.
How much money? An expected $28.23 million between now and 2019. And who gets to decide how to spend it? The Roanoke Valley Area Metropolitan Planning Organization — referred to in short as an MPO.
The new designation fundamentally alters the role of the organization, a 17-member board now tasked with deciding which projects will get a cut of the $28 million and which will be turned away. Relationships on the commission were congenial when there was little to no money to spend, but as representatives begin to consider competing projects, personal preferences could put members at odds.
On Thursday, the board set out to approve policy for how projects will be weighed, ensuring that each proposal goes through measured and objective debate.
“Somewhere along the way, people are going to remain human and political,” said Carl Palmer, general manager for Valley Metro.
Local organizations watching from the sidelines already have started jockeying for a cut of the money, and even a few board members have publicly mused about possible projects they favor. And while the money likely wouldn’t go far if applied to major roadway proposals, smaller-ticket projects could reap the benefits, said Mark McCaskill, a staffer and senior planner with the MPO.
Liz Belcher belongs to one of those organizations. As the Roanoke Valley Greenways coordinator, Belcher said she’s always pushing her organization’s message, working behind the scenes and chatting up local commissions and government figures alike. She already has a strong ally on the board in former city councilman Rupert Cutler, who represents one of Roanoke’s two votes.
“I will be pressing to use that TMA money on the greenways,” Cutler said in an interview. “It’s a bona fide regional project. It’s something all of us in the region can agree on because it helps all of us.”
To add credence to her cause, Belcher highlighted the Roanoke River Greenway in Roanoke’s Wasena neighborhood, and its role in jump-starting the multimillion-dollar development of the River House and Wasena Tap Room nearby. She said her organization likely will file a request for funding with the MPO, though a final dollar amount has yet to be decided upon. She estimated the request will stand at about $10 million.
Cutler also said he was interested in a Montgomery County intermodal center proposal as a possible contender for funding, though specific details about that project, how much money it would cost and just what it would entail remain unclear. Several members of the board voiced interest in further exploring that.
Representing Botetourt County, Billy Martin Sr. said some of the money could be used at the Exit 150 truck stop along Interstate 81.
“We’ve got a lot of problems down there with traffic control, prostitution and drugs,” Martin said. “It’s taken a long time, but they’re trying to address some of those things.”
Until now, the board primarily offered local input on regional projects proposed and executed by the federal government. With more power to approve proposals, the board agreed to measure applications on a numeric scale. Submitted proposals will be ranked for safety, regional impact and cost-benefit consideration, among other things.
“The MPO is a policy board, so they have discretion,” McCaskill said. “It is also possible for us to score something, get it to the MPO, and then they say, ‘You know, that’s nice, but we were thinking this —’ ”
As part of the board’s redesignation, new localities and agencies will gain a seat at the table and a vote. Until Thursday, Michael Todd, of the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation, attended meetings and gave input. Now he can vote, representing the state’s rail interests for the region.
In an interview Wednesday, Todd listed two projects that might be eligible for funding: a capacity study on linking passenger rail between Roanoke and Lynchburg, and improvements to the Norfolk Southern rail yard in downtown Roanoke.
The board will begin to meet monthly starting immediately. Its next scheduled gathering has been set for April 25.
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