McLean County's Regional Planning Commission Will Help Usher Us into the Future

Vasudha Pinnamaraju serves as Executive Direct of the Regional Planning Commission. (Image Credit: Breanna Grow)

Vasudha Pinnamaraju serves as Executive Direct of the Regional Planning Commission. (Image Credit: Breanna Grow)

Just imagine: you’re heading out to meet some friends for dinner. Using your smartphone, you summon a self-driving car to your high-rise apartment building. The car picks you up at the curb and drives you to the restaurant. It drops you off just outside the door and then heads to a storage facility where it will park itself and wait for the next passenger to call.

This may sound like a scene from a science fiction movie, but a future much like it is on its way, says Vasudha Pinnamaraju, Executive Director of the McLean County Regional Planning Commission (RPC).

For the last 50 years, the RPC has been responsible for overseeing transportation planning in McLean County. In developing the current comprehensive plans for both the City of Bloomington and Town of Normal, Pinnamaraju and the planning commission staff conducted extensive community outreach efforts. Those documents will help guide policymakers for the next 20 years.

Created under the The Federal-Aid Highway Act, the majority of the RPC’s funding (80%) comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The other 20% comes from our local governments.

As Pinnamaraju explained, the RPC exists outside the influence of any one body. Instead it’s governed by an 11-member commission appointed by the McLean County Board and includes representatives from the City of Bloomington, Town of Normal, McLean County, Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority, District 87 and Unit 5. This structure allows Pinnamaraju and her staff to be objective, keeping resident’s best interests at the forefront of their work.

“There are changes coming that we can begin thinking about today,” she says. “We don’t want to implement anything prematurely, but at the same time if we are looking at a huge investment like a parking garage, we probably need to pause and think, ‘Is this going to be what we need [in the future]?’ The transition period [to advancing technology] is where we can apply caution, use flexibility, do pilot projects, and see where we are.”

Manufacturers are already testing autonomous vehicles in cities across the nation, where residents prefer public transit over the added costs and responsibilities of owning a vehicle.

Tech companies are also piloting smart city projects that use the “Internet of Things” (physical structures connected to online networks, also called “IoT”) to save money and improve urban living.

“Civic innovation is where the majority of conversations are going to happen in the next 10 years with transportation changes and smart cities,” Pinnamaraju said. “Imagine everything being able to talk to everything else. So all the data we’re gathering suddenly becomes information.”

While it may be some time before today’s cutting edge technologies reach Bloomington-Normal, government officials need to start preparing now for the coming transportation revolution.

Parking is a good place to begin those preparations.

When autonomous vehicles do hit the road, “[A car] will drop you off and park itself some place,” said Pinnamaraju. “We don’t call that parking anymore; we call it storage at that point.”

Already the rising popularity of online shopping and ride-sharing services like Uber challenge decades-old notions about how much parking is needed in urban communities.

“Some of the parking regulations we have in place are from way back when,” Pinnamaraju told AdaptBN. “Today I think both the City and the Town have to take a very strong look at [whether we] continue to require this amount of parking.”

Normal’s comprehensive plan identified minimum parking requirements that have created an overabundance of parking, leaving less space for residential and commercial developments. Eliminating those requirements and introducing technology such as meters and vehicle counting systems could increase parking efficiency on the streets and in parking decks.

Pinnamaraju said parking lots are starting to look more like prime real estate for developers as well as cities facing the high costs of urban sprawl.

The costs of outward expansion for the City of Bloomington, as revealed by a 2015 fiscal impact study. (Image Credit: McLean County Regional Planning Commission)

The costs of outward expansion for the City of Bloomington, as revealed by a 2015 fiscal impact study. (Image Credit: McLean County Regional Planning Commission)

A 2015 fiscal impact study showed just how much outward expansion has cost the City of Bloomington.

For example, after spending $11M on The Grove subdivision in 2005, the City had recouped just $500,000 of its investment by 2013. Similarly, the Fox Creek subdivision, which is now around 20 years old, had yielded a $1.5M return in 2013 on the City’s $10M investment.

Pinnamaraju said the City needs to think carefully before approving any more development outside its core. Instead, she suggests making infill and mixed-use development a top priority. Infill efforts would focus on using existing land and infrastructure to meet the community’s needs, while mixed use development would blend those needs--residential, commercial, cultural, institutional and more--within the same physical structures.

Both ideas fall under the concept of “smart growth,” policies that encourage communities to be more fiscally responsible in the face of ever-shrinking resources. Pinnamaraju said so far she’s impressed with conversations among City Council members about smart growth policies.

“Cities cannot afford to continue to sprawl,” she said. “This [plan] is not the first document to say that, but this is the first council that really is curbing sprawl.”

Of course, none of this is going to happen overnight--change takes time and effort.

“I think the important thing during this transition is education. We are hoping to bring as much information and knowledge about this here to our community.”

The RPC’s 13th annual information forum will take place on April 11 at 7:00 a.m. at the Radisson Hotel. The event is open to the public and the cost is $35 for general admission and $15 for students.

“We want to make sure that community members hear this,” said Pinnamaraju. “I think most of us have more questions than answers, and the more we keep this in the forefront, I think it helps us in this transition time.”

On a final note, Pinnamaraju offered a quote she uses as a personal mantra:

“We need to all be humble in the upcoming transition period, because honestly nobody knows what’s coming down the pike.”