Thursday, December 04, 2008

SAMPO pushes to assimilate Comal County and New Braunfels

City, county tepid on joining MPO


The Herald-Zeitung (New Braunfels & Comal County)
By Chris Cobb
Copyright 2008

The San Antonio/Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization has begun formal efforts to persuade Comal County and New Braunfels to join the transportation authority.

Both County Judge Danny Scheel and Mayor Bruce Boyer received official invitations in late November to come under San Antonio’s highway planning umbrella from Sheila McNeil, chair of the MPO’s transportation policy board.

The move would make them members of one of the largest transportation planning organizations in Texas, but the local leaders say they would prefer that the city and county be free to fend for themselves for the time being.

“We’re in the middle of our own planning,” Boyer said. “Until federal regulations require that we set up our own MPO or join another one, I think we need to keep our own interests first.”

MPOs are federally mandated entities required to map out urban growth. They lobby for and allocate federal and state transportation money in cities with at least 50,000 residents.

Although New Braunfels’ population is already above that plateau, it won’t be official until the results of the 2010 census are available, which could come as late as 2012. Since both local governments have to consent to join, neither would be required to form a new MPO or merge into San Antonio’s until then.

Much of the apprehension about the area’s inclusion stems from fears that it would hurt the county’s chances to receive transportation dollars for local projects.

“We would have one member on a 20-seat board,” Scheel said. “When we’re competing against projects in Bexar County, how much money do you think we’re going to receive?”

Scheel said he also is afraid that joining San Antonio’s MPO would leave local governments powerless to fight possible toll roads running through Comal County.

“We worked long and hard with the Texas Department of Transportation not to have toll roads in Comal County, and I want to keep it that way,” he said.

San Antonio MPO Director Isidro “Sid” Martinez said the organization is not looking to “expand and toll” but is primarily looking to grow because its boundaries are currently too small to meet federal standards and should already include New Braunfels and much of Comal County.

He added that the absorption would open up new funding sources to the city and county and help everyone solve transportation issues from a regional perspective.

“Our problems don’t stop at the county line,” Martinez said. “People live and work between these two areas, so if we’re looking at transportation from a holistic view, then we should be talking to each other and sitting at the same table.”

The possible expansion also would seek to include Guadalupe County and the city of Seguin. Guadalupe County Judge Mike Wiggins echoed Scheel’s reservations about joining up with San Antonio.

“We’re the little fish in a big pond over there,” he said. “I’m not going to say that we would never consider joining up with them, but it’s not my first choice.”

Both he and Scheel said they’d prefer to form their own MPOs in the future or join counties to form an MPO separate from San Antonio.

Doing that could be difficult, said Martinez, as both the state and federal governments typically don’t approve of MPOs that are so close to one another. He cited Austin’s MPO as a good example, which includes Round Rock and the city of San Marcos.

The SAMPO’s transportation board voted to approach local governments about an expansion in October. After notifying local officials, the next step in the process would be a formal presentation to city and county boards and a vote on whether to join.

“We would love for them to be part of the group,” Martinez said. “If they say no, then that’s the answer.”

© 2008 Herald Zeitung:

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