By Cliff Hightower
Kim Harpe, coordinator for the Southeast Tennessee Rural Planning Organization, said last week that the RPO has helped depoliticize road building in Tennessee, and her hope is that one day the Tennessee General Assembly will recognize the group as a viable planning component.
Q: The RPO has been in existence for two years?
A: That's right. Jan. 1, 2006, was when our contract with TDOT (Tennessee Department of Transportation) started. It was an 18-month contract picked up by TDOT and the Federal Highway Administration. There was no local match provided.
So, we've passed that 18 months. Our new contract started July 1 and runs through the 2007-2008 fiscal year, and we now have a 10 percent match in this contract period and the (Southeast Tennessee Development District) is providing that through cash. We didn't feel like asking our local governments to absorb that match early on would be beneficial. We wanted something to show and that the process was viable. TDOT puts in 10 percent, Federal Highway puts in 80 (percent) and we provide 10 (percent). We think TDOT will pull their 10 percent next time.
Q: How has the transportation planning been over those two years?
A: We know that locals will always propose their local projects; for instance, bypasses around cities or links widening the major thoroughfares and major arteries to county seats. But they also know funding is limited.
(Part of TDOT's 25-year plan) was a 10-year investment plan, and the agency leaned heavily on corridor planning.
And our folks (RPO members) just happened to get it early on, that if we wanted to be competitive in the choice of projects considered for funding, we needed to think on a regional basis. State Route 30 and Corridor K (U.S. Highway 64) have benefit to us regionally and so far have broad support from north and south counties, east and west counties and cities and counties alike.
Q: What is upcoming with the RPO?
A: We really need to look with our counties and cities at their major thoroughfare plans and link their plans with land use. If a county knows they have plan for a 4,000-acre industrial park, what kind of transportation infrastructure are they going to need to make that park viable?
TDOT will continue to come to the RPO and ask for two things. One is our request for study for what could be a new project, and the other is requests for funding and prioritizing what we'd like to see in TDOT's work plan. We'll always do that. That's the crux of the RPO.
It took us a time explaining last year why TDOT reached down to the middle of our prioritized list and picked out projects that weren't at the top. But they were the ones that were the farthest (developed) and ready to go. We have to learn (how to manage) elected officials' expectations of what this project can do for them, and managing what TDOT will come forth with.
Q: Has transportation planning been depoliticized since the start of the RPO?
A: To a large degree, it has happened. Now TDOT tells us all the time on any given day there is one or more elected officials who have audience with Commissioner Gerald Nicely about a road project. Invariably, after he has listened, he asks, 'What does your RPO say?'
Q: What would you like to see in the next two years for the RPO?
A: I'd like to see some enabling legislation that puts some teeth in the RPO process so that the legislature recognizes the RPO process. TDOT has to do it. But I would like to see the General Assembly recognize the RPOs.
We don't know if we will ever get funding like the MPOs, but (we hope for) legislation like Vermont or North Carolina that gives the RPO some stature (and acknowledgement) that it is a viable structure for transportation planning. The whole code for transportation and highways is already there and it would only take a paragraph to give us some stature.
E-mail Cliff Hightower at firstname.lastname@example.org