Guest Op-Ed: Use Incentives, Not Brute Force, To Encourage Needed MPO Consolidation

Guest op-ed by Steve Heminger, Executive Director, Metropolitan Transportation Commission (the MPO for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area).

Regional planning and MPOs are a good thing, but as the old saying goes, you can sometimes have too much of a good thing. Such is the case in several large metropolitan areas around the country, where a single region is served by multiple MPOs. That is inefficient, confusing to the public, and just not good government.

On its way out the door, the Obama Administration has proposed a cure that is likely worse than the disease. As my colleague Barry Seymour from Philadelphia has pointed out, the DOT’s draft rule making could create a Frankenstein MPO that would sprawl over most of the Northeast Corridor. In other regions of the U.S., the proposed rule would disturb healthy and long-standing institutional relationships for the sake of minor overlaps in planning areas that don’t even yet exist — but might manifest themselves 20 years hence if certain growth patterns prevail.

I think there’s a better way to reform governance at the nation’s metropolitan planning organizations, as well as achieve more sustainable transportation outcomes in the bargain. My career has taught me time and again that it’s far easier to produce a desired change in behavior with carrots instead of sticks. And it just so happens that the federal government distributes over $55 billion in surface transportation carrots every year. The vast majority of that money is allocated to states, but a small and growing share is “suballocated” to the MPOs for project selection. Why not boost that suballocated share in the next authorizing bill and link its receipt to MPO governance reform where it’s needed, and to better system performance outcomes that are needed everywhere?  For that matter, the money allocated directly to the states could benefit from a performance linkage too.

This incentive-based approach is well advanced in California, where the state’s huge size and complexity have made distributed and devolved decision-making a necessity. As a result, the state has looked to the MPOs in California — especially those in the dynamic mega regions like the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego — to do everything from planning to financing to actually building highway and transit projects, all the while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minding a laundry list of other state policy objectives. Not coincidentally, this heavy dose of regionalism has been accompanied by greater levels of suballocated federal and state funding than anywhere else in the country.

Another telling example of carrot power dates to when Mary Peters served as DOT Secretary in the George W. Bush (43) Administration. Through a quirk in the congressional appropriations process, DOT was presented with a modest amount of unencumbered discretionary funds. Secretary Peters promptly seized the day, repurposing the money into a new Urban Partnership initiative with which she sought to spur cities to experiment with novel approaches to traffic congestion. In fact, the most notable legacy of that effort was a failure – a large incentive grant contingent upon authorization of congestion pricing for midtown Manhattan was effectively turned down when the New York State legislature killed the proposal through inaction.

But the real lesson of that episode was this: absent the federal funds on offer, they wouldn’t even have had the debate. A bigger carrot might have done the trick.

So I would humbly suggest that DOT put away the rule book and take out its check book to address MPO governance reform. We may need fewer than 400+ MPOs across the land. But we need stronger regional planning and policy engagement if the federal transportation program is going to get the best bang for its limited buck.

Mr. Heminger’s views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Eno Center for Transportation.


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