The MPO — which is similar to the Atlanta Regional Commission, but on a smaller scale — will encompass all of Bartow County and include the seven municipalities within it.
Forming an MPO is required under federal law once an urbanized area acquires more than 50,000 residents after a census. As Cartersville has approximately 52,477 residents as of the 2010 census, it was required to start laying the groundwork to form an MPO.
Once approved by Gov. Nathan Deal next year, the Bartow County MPO will be the 16th in the state.
Although an MPO is based around the urbanized area that hit 50,000 in population, with its boundaries extended to areas where the city is predicted to expand in 20 years, Bartow County and local officials decided to make the county lines the borders for the MPO.
Radney Simpson, the assistant state transportation planning administrator, said it was a good idea to think ahead and make the entire county the MPO.
“Making a decision to go countywide is a great decision for the process — [the] travel demand modeling process. A lot of our data exists at the countywide level, so there won’t be a great deal of speculation that needs to be done,” he said.
Simpson and two other GDOT officials met with representatives from Adairsville, Bartow County, Euharlee, Emerson and Cartersville Oct. 9 at the Frank Moore Administrative and Judicial Center to give a briefing on what an MPO meant for their communities.
While an MPO is required under federal law, Simpson and his colleagues emphasized the benefits it would bring to Bartow County, such as getting city, county and GDOT officials in one room in order to plan out needed road projects, acquire additional planning funding for cities and the county and ensure clear communication of transportation goals between the public, the cities and the county.
“That’s the beauty of an MPO,” Simpson said. “To get all the decision-makers at one table and one MPO planning process, if you will, and everybody is moving forward on the same sheet.”
However, Bartow County Commissioner Clarence Brown questioned the need for an MPO, citing the ease with which the county and cities have worked together in the past.
“See, we had all that. We had all that going forwards. The GDOT commissioner bragged about us working together. He just said we were the best and made it easy for him. But it’s still moving like a turtle,” Brown said.
Simpson recognized that even if a project hit all of its planning targets perfectly it would still take seven to eight years to get under way. However, he reminded Brown that an MPO is federally mandated and the only way to attain Federal Department of Transportation funding once an urbanized area hits the 50,000 benchmark is to form an MPO.
County Administrator Steve Bradley added the planning funds would be useful for the county as well.
“I think the biggest advantage to it, commissioner, is that we get that planning funding that would be dedicated strictly to transportation planning that we haven’t had before,” he said.
The transportation planning dollars acquired by an MPO can be used to fund any new positions created by the new planning organization. Those planning funds allow the county and cities to operate the MPO at a minimum cost to their local taxpayers.
One major advantage the MPO would bring to Bartow County is the ability for transportation decisions to be made at a local level rather than in Atlanta.
“Presently our road projects that are funded through GDOT are reviewed by the Atlanta Regional Commission,” said Cartersville City Manager Sam Grove. “They’d still continue to do some of that in the southern part of the county, but this would put us in the driver’s seat on that. That never really made sense in terms of having ARC review our projects when we weren’t part of it.”
While the ARC does cover approximately 20 counties, Bartow County was never an official part of its commission. However, under the 20-year projection rule, half of Emerson is part of ARC. That will change in 2016 once the county submits its first Transportation Improvement Program — a four-year investment plan — to the state.
Emerson Assistant City Manager Todd Heath believed having all of Emerson in a Bartow County planning organization would be a benefit for his city.
“In general, it allows us access to planning funds, which were previously going to ARC, so it would be more localized funds going to Bartow County to improve transportation, so we feel that would be a benefit for the community and the local area,” he said.
Heath also hoped the MPO could revive some of the projects Emerson and Bartow County submitted under the defeated Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, such as Emerson’s plans to improve Old Alabama Road.
Even for cities that have yet to lay out any solid road importment plans, like Euharlee, they expect the MPO to be a useful organization.
“I’ll recommend it to the council because it will give us more exposure, more control over planning for our roads and more control over the process of our planning,” said Euharlee City Manager Trish Sullivan. “It will also give us the opportunity for some exposure to some individuals that have expertise in that area that we ordinarily wouldn’t have on our payroll.”
Adairsville City Manager Pat Crook also looked toward the future, saying the benefits of a Bartow County MPO would be better planning for road projects as Adairsville continues to grow and becomes more urbanized.
“In the long term, like they mentioned today, the urbanized area is in Cartersville. However, the 20-year projection is what they’re looking at and that will highly likely end up here too,” she said.
Agreements to participate in the MPO will be sent out in the coming months to the various city councils in Bartow County. Even if one city were to reject the offer, the MPO would still go into effect, as only 75 percent of the planned MPO’s population is required to approve the measure. With Bartow County and Cartersville easily making up that percentage, Bradley said, the proposal will likely pass.
Bartow County and the cities have until the end of the year to sign the agreements and send them to the governor in order to start the approval process.