In theory, Richmond Hill could have turned down membership in the Coastal Region Metropolitan Planning Organization. In reality, that wasn’t an option.
“Not if we want federal highway money, it isn’t,” Mayor Harold Fowler said.
As a result, the Richmond Hill City Council voted last week to include the city limits in the MPO, one of 14 such planning groups in the state.
In doing so, Richmond Hill joins a “small portion” of Effingham County in becoming a part of the Chatham County-based MPO, which has been in existence since the early 1970s but has seen its territory – and name – transform.
Once known as CUTS, short for Chatham Urban Transportation Study, the name was changed in 2009.
“That was done at least partially because we knew we’d be expanding into other counties and even though the majority of the population is in Chatham County, we didn’t want the name of it to be Chatham-centric,” said the MPO’s executive director, Tom Thomson. “We didn’t want to exclude people in Bryan and Effingham County.”
Richmond Hill fell into the CORE MPO’s boundaries thanks to the 2010 census lumping densely populated areas in South Bryan, most within the city limits, into what the federal government calls the Savannah Urbanized Area, which is also classified as a Federal Highway Administration Transportation Management Area.
Without membership in the MPO, the city ran the risk of seeing future projects fail or be delayed for lack of funding, officials said.
“A lot of federal transportation money is funneled through MPOs,” said the city’s planning and zoning director, Scott Allison, who sees other benefits to belonging to CORE MPO, including eligibility for federal grants which require only a 20-percent local match.
“It allows us to tap into some federal funding for projects we wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.”
In addition, MPO planners will be available to help the city work on future transportation projects.
“How does this benefit Richmond Hill? The city gets to join a regional collaborative body to help make important transportation decisions for our region,” Thomson said. “That includes putting priorities on what studies to conduct and where to put funding.”
Fowler initially expressed reservations about joining the MPO due to worries about the city being outnumbered by Chatham County and Savannah.
“I feel better about it than I did,” he said. “We’ll have representation. We’ll have a seat on the board.”
Current projects within the city won’t be impacted, Fowler said. The light at Timber Trail is still scheduled to go live in May, though it could be backed up due to weather, and work on the dedicated right turn lane from Highway 144 onto 17 South is expected to get under way at some point this spring or summer.
What’s more, both the widening of 144 and the interchange at I-95 and Belfast Siding Road are outside the boundaries of the MPO, which also looks at areas expected to become urbanized within the next 20 years.
As for membership, the group currently has 22 members, including two representatives from Chatham County and two from Savannah. Those entities have nearly half the region’s estimated 270,000 residents, Thomson said.
Also in the MPO are Tybee Island, Thunderbolt, Vernonburg, Pooler, Bloomingdale, Garden City, a portion of Effingham County, the Savannah Chamber of Commerce, the Chatham Economic Development Authority, Hunter Army Airfield, Chatham Area Transit, the Savannah port and the airport, along with a citizen’s advisory council.
The Richmond Hill City Council vote is just the first in a series of steps that must take place. Officials still have to hammer out bylaws and put together a reapportionment package to give to the Georgia Department of Transportation and the governor, Thomson said.
Richmond Hill chose to include in the MPO its corporate limits rather than just its population areas falling within the Savannah Urbanized Area for a number of reasons, including “the sake of clarity,” Allison said.
“When you base these maps off census blocks, it’s like drawing an arbitrary line in the sand. And over three-quarters of the city limits is already in it anyway, so it was easier to include the entire city limits in it.”
Another apparent aim is to show the city’s support of the MPO and its goals.
“We’re going to become part of an organization, we want to go in and be part of the team and part of their efforts,” Allison said. “We didn’t want to say we’ll just do the bare minimum.”
If past growth is any indicator of future increases in population, urbanized areas in 20 years could include much more of South Bryan.
The county grew by nearly 30 percent from 2000 to 2010, most of it within Richmond Hill. The city now has with a population approaching 10,000.