Bringing MPOs Into the FAST Era

February 2, 2018

Since metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) were first formed in early 1960s, their core mission has been to perform long term surface capital planning and act as a local government voice to state transportation departments. MPOs were created to handle the massive influx of federal money from the interstate highway system and later, from the increase in funding ushered in by the intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

While MPOs have generally performed well in this role, the era of massive capacity projects is over. The current federal law—the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015—placed a much stronger emphasis on state of good repair, discretionary grants, and efficient use of the existing system.

This leaves MPOs in an awkward position as the policy and practice under which they operate has not kept up with this broader shift in federal policy. It is time to update the role MPOs play.

While long range planning should always be part of their portfolio, MPOs can and should be involved a number of innovative planning and operational activities. Examples of topics that MPOs should take on include:

  • Public private partnerships
  • Dynamic road pricing and congestion pricing
  • Autonomous vehicle preparedness
  • Active transportation modes
  • Shared use vehicle regulation
  • Intermodal freight planning
  • Land use and quality of life issues
  • Climate change preparedness
  • Building coalitions for discretionary grant applications

Without a doubt, some MPOs have already evolved into multifaceted, dynamic organizations that do much more than required by law. These “super-MPOs” include San Francisco’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Dallas’ North Central Texas Council of Governments, Philadelphia’s Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, among others. Unfortunately, these are the exception and not the rule. Only a handful of MPOs—probably less than 40—have made the transition. That leaves about 350 MPOs more or less doing the same job they did in the 1990s.

One of the few new tasks enshrined in statute for MPOs is scenario planning. Compared with some of the tasks shown above, it is a relatively minor shift. However, it is one of the only examples of federal statutory change to the MPO portfolio over the last 25 years.

Scenario planning is a framework that can be incorporated into the traditional transportation process to account for what a region wants to look like in the future. It uses analyses of investment packages—usually set by some form of community visioning—to identify the best return on investments on projects the region. Scenario planning was introduced as an optional activity in federal statute 2012 and can be used for both long range visioning, short term performance based decision-making, and management of the transportation system. This recently-released FHWA study [link] does a deep dive into the topic.

This process is very different from traditional MPO planning, and requires a different professional skill set. Scenario planning requires financial acumen, enhanced public involvement capacity, different types of modeling capability, and competency with non-vehicular modes. The MPOs that possess these skills on staff (or have it via consultant) are able to take on the new task. MPOs lacking the funding or professional staff are unable to embrace scenario planning. Scenario planning is an example of the federal government leading MPO practice by putting new tasks into statute—even if it is a voluntary activity.

If MPOs are going to be given a new job, they need the financial resources to do that work. The average MPO receives only $1.06 million in federal aid with larger MPOs receiving more and many with far less. A significant increase in funding is needed if MPOs are to evolve past their traditional long-range capital planning role.

The vast majority of new funding will be spent on personnel. To take on new tasks, MPOs will need to expand and increase the amount of specialization on staff. A recent FHWA study by the Center for Urban Transportation Research and Eno found the median MPO employed only 6 people—including administrative and executive staff. A quarter of MPOs have fewer than 3 staff members. Even some of nation’s top 50 metropolitan areas have a surprisingly small MPO staff. For example, Metroplan Orlando has only 18 employees and the Capital Area MPO in Austin employs just 12.

MPOs are well-suited to take on complex transportation issues. By definition they are composed of local stakeholders, employ professional planners and engineers, and have a regional purview that crosses jurisdictional boundaries. Many are fixtures in the transportation sector of their community. They receive dedicated federal money, which is a powerful carrot to encourage stagnant MPOs to innovate. Congress should lead this transformation by refreshing the portfolio of MPOs; moving them from the interstate highway era into the FAST lane.

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