First, there was a letter to the editor in Friday's Indy Star. It was written by a consortium of interest groups - the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, Health by Design, Hoosier Environmental Council, Indiana Citizens' Alliance for Transit, Indiana High Speed Rail Association, Hoosier Rails to Trails Council, and AARP. It is nicely written and you very well might want to read it in its entirety. In short, though, it exposes how INDOT pretends to fulfill federal public input requirements for its transportation plans, but in reality makes its meetings as inaccessible to the public as possible, all the while not getting timely information to the public that any hearings are actually being held. By holding public input meetings in out of the way places, at inconvenient times, INDOT reduces real public input to a minimum and can have its parade of special interest groups attend and weigh the 'public input' in a direction that the well connected campaign contributors would want.
The same day (Friday the 13th was certainly shaping up for INDOT), an email announcement from Thomas and Sandra Tokarski of Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads hit mailboxes throughout the State. Once again, the Bloomington/Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) booted I-69 from its long range transportation plan. The email thanked supporters and "Mayor Mark Kruzan, and all the members of the MPO who took this courageous action". And, courageous it was.
Saturday's Bloomington Alternative had an article by reporter Linda Green, illuminating what occurred at that MPO meeting and exposing INDOT's bullying tactics toward the various MPOs throughout the state.
Before I quote that report, let me divert for a second to why the MPO system was set up in the first place. The federal government saw the States putting in transportation improvements with gas tax proceeds that were not what was most needed. This sort of thing has led, for instance, to the huge number of bridges that are in serious need of repair throughout the Country. The US DOT began to require public input and set up the local MPOs so that local needs could be recognized and integrated within local transportation plans. These local plans would be coordinated with the entire state's plans through a cooperative relationship between the MPOs and the state's DOT.
INDOT abuses this relationship and denies access to funds if a local MPO does not do what INDOT wants. INDOT wants to spend money on highways. A pittance of the nearly $1 billion a year of gas tax money goes to much needed and desired mass transit. Another pittance goes to local improvements. The bulk goes to highways, highways, and more highways. Why? Because the highway lobby gives money to political campaigns and owns one Governor after another and one Legislator after another. And, because the gravel industry pulls the wagon at local Chambers of Commerce (including here in Indianapolis).
Green reported on the MPO meeting thusly:
Opponents of Interstate 69 erupted in cheers and applause when Mayor Mark Kruzan and the Bloomington/Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee (MPO) on May 13 voted to exclude I-69 in its Transportation Improvement Program for fiscal years 2012–15.On INDOT's tactics she wrote:
The 8-to-3 vote followed several hours of intense testimony from the public in opposition to I-69. The move includes section 4, which would bisect Monroe County.
“There comes a time when you stand up to a bully,” City Council member Andy Ruff said. “It is time to stand up for ourselves. It is time to stop the bully from adding I-69 to his political trophy case.”
Last November’s vote to include I-69 followed blackmail threats from the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to withhold other state and federal funds from Bloomington and Monroe County in retaliation. MPOs were created to coordinate transportation planning at the federal, state and local levels. If the local and state plans do not match, federal funds can be withheld until an MPO either comes into compliance or is re-certified.Today's Indy Star has an article on the Bloomington/Monroe County action by reporter Chris Sikich and an editorial on INDOT's quackery when it comes to true public input.
State highway officials last fall also warned that Gov. Mitch Daniels had the legal authority to assume responsibility for transportation projects in Bloomington if the MPO denied I-69 in its plan.
INDOT Deputy Commissioner Sam Sarvis told the Bloomington Herald-Times after the latest vote that he had not anticipated the MPO not including I-69 in its plan.
“I haven’t talked to anyone about the consequences of the action,” Sarvis said. “(INDOT) would take a serious look at all discretionary funding within the MPO area.”
Sikich omits the fact that the Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council formally opposes I-69 through Perry Township and that I-69 is only temporarily in the Indianapolis MPO's long range transportation plan. INDOT must return with thorough environmental studies on the impact of the proposed route for I-69 in central Indiana in order to convince our MDC (which acts as our MPO) to include it permanently.
The MPO system struggles with enough autonomy, at least here in Indiana. We citizens need to be aware of the ideal relationship between MPOs and INDOT; where local MPOs spend their portion of the State's funds in ways that help their area. We citizens need to be aware of the perverted relationship between Indiana's MPOs and INDOT that actually exists; where INDOT bullys and insists and threatens and spends the lion's share of the money in politically advantageous ways that benefit the few and well connected. We citizens need to push for more autonomy for the MPOs and more courageous actions for the benefit of the MPOs' regions by those with a vote in these matters.
Congratulations to the Bloomington/Monroe County MPO for standing up for its citizens and for standing up to INDOT. This is what Democracy looks like.