FHWA/FTA Proposed Rule Would Reshuffle MPOs Nationwide

On June 27th, the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration jointly released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Coordination and Planning Area Reform. This rule has the potential to dramatically reshape the transportation planning landscape by strongly encouraging MPO consolidation and requiring state DOTs to have a stronger system for working with the MPOs that remain.

There are 409 metropolitan planning organizations in operation today. All Census-defined urban areas must be covered by an MPO.[1] As many as 142 MPOs (35%) share an urban area with another MPO. The notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) targets these MPOs for consolidation. Some of the largest urban areas in the country are split into multiple MPOs—a particularly common condition in the fast-growing Sun Belt.

The rule was issued with little advance warning, but USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx has made no secret of his desire to see MPO consolidation. The fractured MPO landscape proved to be a problem during his service as Mayor of Charlotte, NC. There are three North Carolina MPOs and one South Carolina MPO that cover the greater Charlotte region—all of which have boundaries that abut each other.

MPOs were created to provide local control over route selection of Interstate projects in the 1960s and 1970s, and remain an important counterbalance to the power of state DOTs. Congress first mandated MPOs in the 1973 Federal Aid Highway Act, and strengthened their mission in ISTEA in 1991. The proposed rule asserts that Congress’ intent was for each urban area to have a single MPO (with limited exceptions). As urban areas expanded and/or grew together, it was often more politically expedient—or advantageous financially—to create new MPOs instead of expanding existing ones or merging neighbors together. Current administrative code makes it extraordinarily difficult to merge MPOs, because it requires approval by 75% of the local governments in the area as well as governor of the state(s). This proposed rule would require a re-designation of MPOs based on the standard of one MPO per urban area, effectively providing a reset button on boundaries drawn over the past 43 years.

The proposed rule changes accomplish three policy objectives:

  1. One MPO Per Urban Area. The rule clarifies that one MPO per metropolitan planning area (a legal term that includes the Census-defined urban area plus land expected to be urban within 20 years) is the intent of statute and administrative code. Governors and local governments would be required to redesignate new MPOs with boundaries that meet the one-MPO-per-urban area standard. After each Census, MPOs would go through a similar process. The governor and local governments are still able to jointly declare that a single urban area should have multiple MPOs if the region has extenuating circumstances. Urban areas that cross state boundaries are not exempt from the one MPO guideline.
  2. Single Set of Planning Documents. In cases where an urban area will have more than one MPO, a single set of planning products is required. Joint documents would include a 20-year long range transportation plan, short-range transportation improvement program, and a 1-2 year unified planning work program.[2] This provision eliminates much of the incentive for separate MPOs in the same urban area. One set of planning documents would help streamline planning between the MPOs and partners like the state DOT, toll/turnpike authorities, and public transportation operators.
  3. Adoption of State DOT/MPO Planning Agreements. All state DOTs will be required to negotiate and agree to planning agreements with all MPOs in their state.[3] Further, the planning agreement must include a process for resolving disputes between the MPO and the state DOT. The planning agreement might include tasks like travel demand models, data collection, and coordinated plan adoption schedules. These planning agreements will strengthen the position of MPOs relative to state DOTs, particularly in the era of performance-based plans that were mandated by MAP-21. In some cases, states will be working directly with MPOs for the first time.

There are several benefits to merging MPOs. Consolidated MPOs would represent a larger (and more regional) geographic area. This should create fiscal efficiencies in the planning process by reducing overhead and improving economies of scale in consultant procurement. Regional MPOs would be in a better position to craft plans for the entire metropolitan area. Having consistent MPO boundary standards could also position MPOs for new roles (i.e. freight planning, connected vehicle preparedness, PPP, etc) beyond the traditional MPO task of capital planning.

The NPRM will face vigorous opposition from the MPO community and the consultants/vendors that serve them. Reducing the number of MPOs means fewer board seats for elected officials, fewer executive positions, and a loss of control for suburban local governments. Consultants fear a reduction in the number and size of contracts bid out by MPOs.

Proponents of the change will likely include state DOTs, large municipalities, transit operators, and other MPO planning partners. They will favor the change because it reduces the amount of coordination effort required, and places central cities in a stronger position to influence regional planning.

Comments to the NPRM are due on August 26th, and a final rule could be published—or the proposed rule cancelled—as soon as late October. If adopted, MPOs would be required to meet the new standard within two years. By late 2018 the reshuffle will be complete, and the country could have see the number of MPOs in operation reduced by 100 or more. To view the NPRM or enter a comment to the FHWA/FTA docket, visit: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/06/27/2016-14854/metropolitan-planning-organization-coordination-and-planning-area-reform.

[1] The NPRM references metropolitan planning areas, which are slightly different than Census-defined urban areas. An MPO is required for each metropolitan planning area. Metropolitan planning areas include the Census-defined urban area plus all territory expected to become urban over the next 20 years. This article uses urban area as an analogue for metropolitan planning area, to avoid confusion.

[2] These documents are already required by statute or administrative code. Their purpose and content is not altered by the NPRM.

[3] Many state DOTs already have planning agreements with MPOs in their state. However, this has been a voluntary exercise. The requirement for planning agreements with dispute resolution process will force state DOTs to work with MPOs.

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