MPO Consolidation is Often Needed

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

Both Alex Bond, my colleague at the Eno Center for Transportation (Eno), and, in this issue, Barry Seymour, Executive Director of Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), have written in Eno Transportation Weekly (ETW) about the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), recently issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), dealing with transportation planning in metropolitan regions and the consolidation of metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). USDOT, led by Secretary Foxx, is to be applauded for stimulating discussion about these important issues, through the issuance of this NPRM.

As both Alex and Barry have noted, the role of MPOs originated in the early years of the Interstate Highway Program in the 1960s and 1970s and was appreciably strengthened in 1991 by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). While MPOs have played an important role in transportation planning and capital programming in past decades, the time is long overdue to assess how these organizations can be made more effective in the context of significant transportation infrastructure needs and constrained public resources.

I write from the perspective of one who has led a state transportation agency and, more recently, served as a federal transportation policy official. While I agree with Barry that there should be limits placed on the reach and impact of this NPRM, I believe that significant reform of transportation planning in metropolitan regions is necessary.

Whether in the context of long-range plans or the more frequent transportation improvement programs (TIPs), MPOs need to apply principles of strategic and comprehensive planning to undertake benefit-cost analyses of the projects included within them, and to target scarce resources on the projects and activities that will bring the greatest benefits.

Of the more than 400 MPOs in the nation, most of them are too small both in their geographic reach and in their financial and human resources to undertake these analyses. Moreover, they are often too fragmented to develop the projects and programs that can improve connectivity and accessibility in the metropolitan regions that are increasingly the engines of the nation’s economic growth and prosperity.

In many states – Secretary Foxx’s North Carolina, Florida, and my own state of Connecticut come to mind – there are far too many MPOs, and they often bear little resemblance to the size and scope of the metropolitan labor markets and commuter sheds that are “facts on the ground.” MPOs should be sized and resourced to meet the requirements and capital investment needs of the metropolitan regions that they are supposed to serve. Too many of America’s 409 MPOs are too small and are not “just right” to provide the regional perspective that Barry Seymour has recommended or to shape comprehensive and prioritized strategic capital programs to meet the investment needs of their metropolitan regions.

It should also be emphasized that appropriately sized and staffed MPOs would be able to cooperate more effectively and productively with state transportation agencies, to which a significant portion of federal surface transportation funds flow.

Barry Seymour is right to call for a “careful balance of regional transportation planning,” and I agree with him that there should be flexibility in defining boundaries of metropolitan regions and in establishing the functions and practices of the planning and capital programming agencies that exist within such regions. However, based on my own experience at the state level, I do not believe that “. . . MPO boundaries have been clearly defined at the right regional scale” in many states and metropolitan areas of the country. While DVRPC may be “right-sized” and appropriately staffed and resourced, this is not the case in many – perhaps most – places.

Clearly, a single MPO for the entire Northeast Corridor would be neither effective nor accountable. But there are many places within the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, and elsewhere in the country, where MPO boundaries and geographic reaches are not well-suited to their responsibilities. As a result, cooperation among them is too limited, if not entirely non-existent. MPOs that are too small and whose geographic scale and human resources are too limited cannot appropriately or effectively provide the planning and programming tasks assigned to them under current federal planning laws. In these circumstances, this NPRM is right to seek to overcome these shortcomings.

While introducing greater flexibility into this metropolitan planning NPRM seems appropriate, as Barry has suggested, I believe that the NPRM’s overall goals and purposes should be maintained: fewer and more effective MPOs within the nation’s major metropolitan regions, and greater cooperation in the development of metropolitan-wide plans and capital programs. We need to have MPOs and transportation planning processes that are capable of meeting the needs of the nation’s evolving metropolitan regions. In too many states and in too many regions this is not currently the case.

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

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