Metropolitan Planning: A History of Success, an Uncertain Future?

(Ed. Note: ETW first reported on this story the week of July 18, 2016. You can read the full story here)

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) provide a critical link in the chain of planning and decision-making that serve to build our nation’s transportation system. First established through the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1962 and then strengthened via the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), MPOs provide a unique perspective and fill a central role.

While state Departments of Transportation build and manage our Interstate Highway System, and cities and counties represent local priorities and needs, the nation’s 409 metropolitan planning organizations provide the regional view that enables surface transportation projects to be planned and delivered at the right scale. If state-level planning is “too big” and local planning is “too small”, the “just right” scale of MPOs can view the connections across boundaries, facilitate cooperative priority-setting and decision-making, and deliver the right set of plans and projects at a scale that works.

Unfortunately, a recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking from the USDOT threatens to undermine the careful balance of regional transportation planning established over the past 50 years. Entitled “Metropolitan Planning Organization Coordination and Planning Area Reform” (1), the proposed rule would change the definition of a Metropolitan Planning Area, currently defined as the area agreed to by the regional MPO and the Governor, to an area that includes the entire urbanized area as defined by the Census Bureau plus the contiguous area expected to become urbanized in the next 20 years. Where more than one MPO would exist within this new boundary, the MPOs would be required either to merge, or to create a single long-range plan, a single Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) and a single set of performance measure targets for the entire urbanized area.

The stated intent of this proposed rule is to improve the transportation planning process by emphasizing the importance of applying a regional perspective and strengthening the voice of MPOs, but the proposal would create a number of perhaps-unintended consequences that could undermine these objectives.

For example, here in Greater Philadelphia, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) has served the region since 1965, providing transportation planning services to a nine-county area of 6 million people in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We adjoin six other MPOs, each of whom serve their own regions in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. We each have defined boundaries, and agreements in place with each other and with our respective state Departments of Transportation that define those boundaries and establish cooperative measures to share data, plan cooperatively on joint projects at our boundaries, and resolve disagreements when they arise.

Under the proposed rule, the overlap of urbanized areas would link the DVRPC planning area with as many as eight other MPOs in five states, extending from Baltimore to New York. The proposed rule does enable the Governors to retain existing MPO boundaries if they so determine, but it would still require that the MPOs together produce a single long-range plan, a single TIP, and a single set of performance measure targets for this extended area. Given the diverse populations, travel trends, transportation needs, budgets, policies and governance within this area, a single long-range plan would be meaningless and a single TIP or performance measure target would be impossible. Routine actions such as TIP amendments would become a bureaucratic quagmire, and meaningful public engagement would be eliminated. Instead of “Too big to fail”, the proposed rule would create a mega-region that is “Too big to succeed”.

We agree with the proposal to require states and MPOs to maintain a planning agreement to define responsibilities, share information and provide a process for resolving disagreements. We would go further to require a planning agreement between adjoining MPOs where urbanized areas cross MPO boundaries to define the same. However, the states and local governments should retain the flexibility to define regions that work for planning and programming purposes.

The authority to consolidate MPOs already exists in those states and regions where it makes sense for them, but the mandates of this proposed rule do not work in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast Corridor, and other areas of the country where MPO boundaries have been clearly defined at the right regional scale, where the state Departments of Transportation, public transit providers and local elected officials have established well-working cooperative relationships, and where coordination is already regularly occurring among adjoining MPOs. In this case, our federal planning partners have missed the mark.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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