New MPO creation could bring funding
Jay Meisel | Highlands TodayHIGHLANDS COUNTY - With plenty of cow pastures and citrus groves, Highlands County is not often thought of as a metropolitan area like Tampa, Orlando or Miami.
Published: January 22, 2013
Published: January 22, 2013
But, nonetheless, part of Highlands County — the Sebring-Avon Park area — falls under the requirement for a Metropolitan Planning Organization because it has a population of 50,000, Sebring city officials said last week.
"One way or another, we're going to be an MPO in some shape or form," Sebring City Councilman Andrew Fells said at a council meeting last week.
The MPO plans transportation improvement priorities for the area it covers, said Scott Noethlich, city administrator. Creation of an MPO may result in more funding for local road projects, he said.
On the downside, he said, if the county and the cities of Avon Park and Sebring don't form an MPO, they could become ineligible for any federal transportation funding.
One of the main reasons the federal government requires an MPO is to help make sure that road funding is used where it is really needed, rather than, for example, improving a road simply because it benefits a city council member or a county commissioner, he said.
Once an MPO is formed, it would receive about $350,000 in federal funds for planning, Noethlich said.
Another change that would be brought about through creating an MPO is the requirement to form a citizen's advisory board, giving residents increased input into transportation priorities, he said.
Noethlich said three options being considered include: a new MPO that includes the Avon Park-Sebring area of Highlands County; joining an MPO in Polk County; or creating one that includes Highlands, DeSoto, Glades, Hendry and Okeechobee counties.
A disadvantage of the latter, he said, is that federal funds for the MPO could only be used in the Avon Park-Sebring area because those other counties and areas of Highlands County don't qualify for an MPO.
Some officials also questioned the option to merge with a Polk County MPO.
Sebring Councilman John Clark said Highlands County would only be a small part of the MPO.
"We're not going to be the prettiest girl … ," he said. Highlands County would essentially be bringing "a $350,000 dowry," to join the MPO, he said.
One advantage of joining an already existing MPO, is that "obviously, there's some expertise there," Noethlich said.
Chris Benson, administrative projects manager for Highlands County, also noted that Gov. Rick Scott has voiced a desire for a reduction in the number of MPOs, which could be accomplished through consolidation.
Still, there are a lot of differences between Polk and Highlands counties, said Clark, who appeared to favor Highlands County developing its own MPO.
During the next few weeks, Highlands County, Avon Park and Sebring officials are expected to hold more meetings to look at the options.
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