Members of the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization will meet Sept. 28 to rescind a vote they took Aug. 17 that struck the Coconut Road interchange from its long-range plans.

Or will they?

If they don’t, they could find themselves out of business.

When the MPO voted to remove the Coconut Road interchange from their Traffic Improvement Plan and Long Range Transportation Plan, members pointed to what they called a tainted $10 million earmark in the federal budget. That $10 million, supposedly directed toward widening Interstate 75, was shifted to the interchange sometime between its Congressional approval and the president’s desk, and a federal probe is under way. MPO members and others also have complained the earmark came after a local landowner with property near the proposed interchange organized a local fundraiser for the head of the House Transportation Committee.

But, as its own attorney warned when the vote was taken, the MPO violated its rules in taking the vote, ignoring advertising, public input and committee-review requirements. On Aug. 24, the MPO got word from the Florida Department of Transportation that the vote to return the earmark was out of compliance with federal and state requirements.

To continue to receive federal funding, the agency would have to rescind its vote of a week earlier, the letter said, and it would be best to do so before the federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Dave Burr, director of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, which staffs the MPO, said he’s expecting similar word from the feds.

“They send us a check, I think quarterly,” he said. “We are spending money. If they cut the money, we could be left holding the bag.”

That’s the bag on the $600,000 to $700,000 Burr estimated the federal government pays annually for MPO staff and work. That money won’t be coming until the MPO complies with federal rules, which means rescinding the vote.

The agency can vote again on whether to return the money, as long as members follow the rules this time.

“No one really cares about the changes themselves,” said FDOT spokeswoman Debbie Tower. “We want them to follow the procedure.”

Tower said the transportation agency wants the MPO to take “corrective action.’’

“Federal funding will not be available until corrective action is taken,” she said.

MPO members received word this week that a special meeting was being scheduled for Sept. 28. MPO chair Carla Johnston, Sanibel vice-mayor, says that’s still not certain.

In an e-mail received by Burr and by other MPO members this week, Johnston, who’s traveling, says that according to MPO bylaws, no meeting has been called. Those bylaws say only the chair or vice-chair can call a special meeting.

“It’s a ‘pencil’ date at this point,” Johnston said.

Johnston said she’ll call a special meeting but wants to make sure specific items are on the agenda. Like “the role of a county organization’s procedures in resolving a national organization’s procedures’’ and “understanding the relevant data and track record pertaining to Coconut Road.”

Burr said he’s not sure how the local agency could resolve a matter that’s under federal investigation. He said he hopes Johnston’s questions can be answered and the meeting can take place.

“I don’t know how I could justify to the Regional Planning Council if we’re not sure if we’re going to get the money,” he said. “If the budget’s not approved, I’m going to have some people looking for work. We’re at risk.”

There’s more at risk than MPO funding. With the MPO out of compliance, federal funding for any new projects could be held up. That’s around $13 million just in aviation and transit projects, Tower said. It also includes so-called Federal Emergency Relief Funds, money made available for bridge and road repairs after a disaster–bad news in the middle of hurricane season.

For now the MPO has asked its members to save the date for the Sept. 28 meeting.

Date Title
9/28/07 Congress raises limit again as U.S. debt nears $10 trillion
9/28/07 Coburn targets gun-rights measure
9/27/07 Plan would close drug center
9/27/07 Bush at odds with right wing on NCLB
9/27/07 Congress agrees to raise U.S. credit limit
9/27/07 Coburn Lifts Hold on Suicide Prevention Bill
9/27/07 Congress set to add 4 million people to insurance program despite Bush veto threat
9/26/07 Bill on Gun Restrictions Bogged Down
9/26/07 DeMint Bill Gains Support
9/26/07 DeMint Bill Gains Support
9/26/07 Senate Looks to Fix Travel Rule
9/26/07 Senate Is Next Stop After House Passes Stopgap Funding With Little Debate
9/25/07 GOP: Earmark Rules Too Lax
9/25/07 Coburn Blocks Gun Background-Check Bill, Citing Concerns About Privacy, Spending
9/25/07 CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight on raising the debt limit
9/24/07 Opinion: The new Hillarycare
9/21/07 D.C. Tuition Aid Program Might Get Income Test
9/21/07 Opinion: When Will They Learn? Oh, the things Republicans in Congress let you pay for!
9/20/07 Senate Panel Approves Bill to Require Reports of White House-DOJ Contact
9/20/07 Senate Expected to Vote on Debt Limit Increase Before Columbus Day Recess
9/20/07 Army tests of rival carbines postponed
9/19/07 The Senate's G.O.P. Bomb Throwers
9/18/07 Editorial: Funding congressional pet projects leaves infrastructure across country at risk
9/18/07 Income cap of $1 million proposed for D.C. tuition aid
9/17/07 Money for kid’s health in jeopardy
9/17/07 ‘Hotlined’ Bills Spark Concern
9/17/07 Showdown Over Spending
9/15/07 Editorial: United Nations messes
9/14/07 Editorial: Public projects starve while Congress porks out on ‘earmarks’
9/14/07 Editorial: This little piggy
9/13/07 Coburn: Troop withdrawal is not an option
9/13/07 Funding for bridges served with side of pork
9/13/07 Another Coburn amendment dies
9/13/07 $8B in pet projects clogs bills; In wake of bridge tragedy, road 'earmarks' seen as a crack in funding system
9/12/07 Senate Rejects Proposed Amtrak Cuts
9/12/07 Dems writing stopgap spending measure to last into November
9/12/07 Cincinnati Red and Montana Should Fund Minor-League Stadium Before U.S. Pays, Coburn Says
9/12/07 Senate Rejects Attempt to Waive Wage Rules for Work on ‘Deficient’ Bridges
9/11/07 Healthy Medical Reforms
9/11/07 Democrats, GOP Mapping Approps Strategies
9/10/07 Opinion: The Senate's Ethics Sleight of Hand
9/9/07 Column: How the Swiss do health care
9/7/07 Going Coconut over Florida earmark
9/7/07 Coburn says public should get 'disgusted'
9/6/07 Coburn stands by blockage of vet bill
9/5/07 Editorial: Health Care and Taxes
9/4/07 Opinion: Backers of health plan for kids have other motives
9/4/07 Unfinished business awaiting Congress: Pay raise, Defense bills
9/4/07 Debates in Congress expected to heat up
9/4/07 Current record
9/2/07 Column: Dem congressmen worry about re-election if Clinton is nominee