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Compromise results in cuts to street projects

MPO distributes trails, transportation funding to Tiffin, North Liberty

NORTH LIBERTY– It wasn’t exactly an April Fool’s joke when the leaders of two of the county’s three largest communities were hit with a punch line last Wednesday that resulted in a significant financial cut.
Staff from the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County (MPOJC) delivered generally good news to government representatives at their Urbanized Area Policy Board (UAPB) meeting April 1.
Elected officials from North Liberty, Coralville, Iowa City, Tiffin, the University Heights, the Iowa City school district, University of Iowa and Johnson County sit on the UAPB, which is charged with approving MPOJC’s recommendations for transportation, transit and county-wide human service initiatives.
Included in the good news was the intent to fully fund Tiffin’s request for $102,000 to help finish Phase 6 of Tiffin Trail. The project will complete a missing section in order to connect two segments of an extended trail that will eventually run from Coralville to Kent Park west of Tiffin. Phase 6 of the trail will be a 10-foot wide concrete section adjacent to Tiffin City Park and close to a trail head parking lot.
In order to meet eligibility requirements for the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) grant money, cities must commit a local financial match. In this case, Tiffin promised to match 52 percent of the total $212,865 project cost.
It was a large commitment of local funding, noted Iowa City council member Susan Mims.
Tiffin Mayor Steve Berner explained that the application was done quickly because of the unexpected resignation of former City Administrator Michon Jackson.
“Our engineers had a week’s notice to get this done, so we just said go with higher local funding contribution so we could get our score up where we could qualify,” Berner said.
Construction on this phase of Tiffin’s trail is planned for July 2019 through May 2020. Other trails projects approved for funding included $462,000 for Iowa City’s Highway 1 trail from Sunset to Mormon Trek and half a million to Coralville to complete a segment of the Iowa River Trail.
However, it was a similarly high local match that caused the cities of Coralville, Iowa City and North Liberty, as well as officials from the other UAPB entities, to wrestle over Surface Transportation Program (STP) dollars later in the meeting.
MPOJC, a county-wide planning organization, is tasked with disbursing state and federal transportation dollars to the entities that submit eligible projects each year. In an attempt to eliminate arbitrariness, MPOJC staff holds Transportation Technical Advisory Committee (TTAC) meetings with municipal staff and representatives of the state and federal transportation departments to discuss the projects, eventually using a scoring rubric to make final funding recommendations to the UAPB. Points are assigned to signify how well each project meets certain criteria– including the level of financial commitment offered by the submitting entity.
The policy board is left to approve the recommendations, amend them, or send them back to the drawing board.
The MPOJC had $5.43 million in STP funds to distribute this year, and apportioned it to the four project applications it received: two from Iowa City, one from Coralville and one from North Liberty.
North Liberty asked for just over $1 million to add traffic lanes and a sidewalk, on Penn Street from Cameron Way to Jones Boulevard, to alleviate congestion for vehicles traveling to and from Interstate 380. MPOJC recommended a $900,000 allocation for the project.
North Liberty’s request didn’t raise any eyebrows, but the partial funding of Iowa City’s requests for $2.5 million and another $1.5 million did.
Mims noted that Iowa City committed a 67 percent match for reconstruction on American Legion Road and 27 percent for improvements to IMV Road, and while one project scored particularly high, neither was recommended for full funding.
“I feel that we have a project with that much higher local funding, and with that much higher of a score, inherently is not fair,” Mims said.
Berner said he was at the TTAC meeting when the projects were discussed, and the match suggestion came from Iowa City’s own engineers.
“This comes to the level of the policy makers versus staff,” Mims said. “I think our staff is giving away too much. As a representative of the taxpayers of Iowa City, I don’t feel comfortable asking them to fund a match of 67 percent when the other projects vary from 21 to 30 percent.”
Mims said on a per capita basis, Iowa City’s transportations projects have historically been underfunded compared to other cities.
During lengthy discussion about the fairness of the scoring process, the discrepancies in local matches and whether or not to politicize the UAPB’s role in decision making, Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig suggested they seek a mathematical compromise that would result in everyone giving and taking a little.
Instead, Mims did some calculations and moved to take $500,000 from Coralville’s First Avenue improvement project– a $3.9 million project that was recommended for $1.5 million– and allocate it to American Legion Road instead.
Rettig said it wasn’t much of a happy medium.
“Then Coralville would be getting 25 percent of their requested amount, and Iowa City would be getting 100 percent of theirs,” Rettig said. “I think we’d be better off for our long term relationship if we come up with a compromise, but I’m not sure that’s a compromise. It sets up a paradigm that comes back to haunt us for years.”
Coralville City Council member Tom Gill argued that the First Avenue project– which would add a center turn lane, four through-lanes, intersection improvements and 10-foot sidewalks from 6th Street to 9th Street– is a regional project with greater impact.
“It’s a huge arterial. To not fund a major arterial off an interstate and (instead) fund a road to West Liberty, I just don’t see it,” said Gill. “You can talk about percentages all you want, but when you have bumper-to-bumper traffic coming from the interstate every day, I do not see how you can compare (American Legion Road) to what we are doing out there.”
Arguments for and against Mims’ motion continued until North Liberty councilor Terry Donahue called for the vote, which failed Mims’ motion 6-9.
More talk of a compromise led to more math and the suggestion to take seven percent of recommended funding away from the three other applications– including Iowa City’s IWV Road– and shifting it all to American Legion Road.
“I can support that,” Mims said.
So did a majority of the board. With a 10-5 vote, the motion passed and gave Coralville $1,43 million for First Avenue, $930,000 for IWV Road and $837,000 for North Liberty’s Penn Street project, leaving $2,240,660 for American Legion Road.
After the meeting, Donahue said he understood Mims’ concerns, but voted against the reallocation.
“In my opinion, if you have a low scoring project, maybe you should up the ante as far as how much participation you are going to kick in order to make it go, instead of penalizing everybody else,” said Donahue. “The TTAC people work hard to find that compromise. Iowa City maybe should communicate better with their own staff.”