SEBRING - Highlands County may in future years have more clout when seeking money for road improvements.
Chris Benson, community services manager, said Gov. Rick Scott's recent approval of a transportation planning organization that will include Highlands County and several others may make it easier down the road to get state and federal road monies. The organization may also one day look at mass transit, he said.
Ever since census figures earlier this year showed that the Sebring-Avon Park area's population exceeded 50,000, city and county officials have been working on creating a TPO, which is required by law for areas with that population or more.
From the start, three options were discussed, including a TPO serving only Highlands County, joining the TPO that includes Polk County, or creating a TPO with surrounding rural counties.
Officials said Gov. Scott favored reducing the number of TPOs in Florida and the State Department of Transportation supported combining Highlands with the Polk County TPO.
But some local Highlands County officials balked at that idea, saying that Polk County, which has a population of more than 600,000, would dominate.
Sebring Councilman John Griffin said because of that reason he favored a separate TPO for Highlands County that would not include Polk County.
The TPO approved by the governor includes Highlands, Okeechobee, Glades, Hardee, Hendry and DeSoto counties.
The proposal for the organization notes that those counties have a lot in common.
"The linkage of these counties is economic, environmental, cultural and collaborative. Through history in agriculture and mining, with ranching and small businesses centered on the abundant natural resources, including lakes, the Heartland counties have worked together in changing times," the proposal said.
Benson said the idea of a TPO made up of primarily rural counties is new when compared to other TPOs in the state.
"This is new territory we're charting," he said.
Many of the TPOs also only serve one county, he said.
But it makes sense for the TPO serving Highlands County to have multiple counties, he added, because many of those counties already work together in other areas, such as workforce development.
The creation of the MPO will encourage regional planning and provide an advocate for making sure the roads are adequate to handle traffic and are safe, he said.
Laws governing the organizations say they must develop 20-year plans for transportation and upgrade those every five years.
The laws also require public participation in setting those plans.