Law requires area to form transportation planning agency

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— A new bi-state agency is being formed to help shape transit plans for this area.

Required by federal law, the Metropolitan Planning Organization is intended to aid coordination for planning transportation projects between local governments in the Walla Walla-College Place-Milton Freewater area. Formation of the agency was triggered when the urbanized area between the three cities surpassing the 50,000 population mark according to the 2010 U.S. Census, said Judith Lorenzo, Transportation Planning Office manager of the Washington state Department of Transportation.

At a July 24 meeting of local, state and federal officials to discuss the issue, Lorenzo described the MPO as “a forum where key leaders get together ... and make critical decisions on surface transportation planning issues.”

But although creation of the MPO is mandatory, several of those at the July meeting expressed the view that the new agency will be an additional layer of government that will be a drain on local resources. “This is a bunch of (deleted), and you can quote me on that,” said Walla Walla City Council member Jerry Cummins.

However Walla Walla County Commissioner Jim Johnson said that despite the difficulties of forming the new organization, the reward will be retaining local control of how federal transportation dollars are allocated.

“The end result is good,” he said. “The painful part is the formation. It’s like a baby learning to walk.”

The local governments and groups involved have until March 2013 to finish the groundwork and send requests to the governors of Oregon and Washington to establish the new organization.

The July meeting was the second on the work needed to create an MPO. A third meeting will be held at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the Milton-Freewater Public Library.

According to federal law, the members of the MPO will consist of “local elected officials, officials of public agencies that administer or operate major modes of transportation in the metropolitan area and appropriate state officials.”

The primary members would be the cities of Walla Walla, College Place and Milton-Freewater, Walla Walla and Umatilla counties, Valley Transit, local school districts, local Port districts, WSDOT and the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Others who might participate would include the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

But how the MPO’s board of directors will be structured and how to proportion contributions toward operating costs “may be a political hot potato,” said Pat Reay, College Place city administrator. “It’s going to be an interesting political process.”

Former Walla Walla County Commissioner Gregg Loney expressed similar concerns. “There is no agreement among the identified parties that they will participate and if they do, what will they pay?” he said.

But Reay said the legal requirement to form an MPO can’t be avoided, so the best course of action is to get it done.

“It’s a federal mandate ... You may as well enforce it and move on,” he said.

At the July meeting, Lorenzo said the next step is a resolution from each government body stating its desire to join the planning process and designation of the interim lead agency. Participants at the July 24 meeting agreed to request the Walla Walla Joint Community Planning Agency become the interim lead agency.

At a special meeting Friday, a quorum of the joint agency’s board of directors discussed the issue of funding, or “seed money,” with Lorenzo. The money would allow the joint agency staff to move ahead with starting to form the new organization.

Lorenzo said money from WSDOT and ODOT is available, but how much is still to be determined. It is anticipated there will be no direct expense to the WWJCDA because it would be reimbursed for work done under its agreement with WSDOT to act as the interim agency.

Following the discussion, the board voted to authorize the joint agency to take on the job of acting as the interim lead agency.

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