MPO Planning Area Rule Reopens for Comments, Signaling a Softer Line on MPO Consolidation from USDOT

October 6, 2016

The FHWA/FTA proposed rule on Metropolitan Planning Organization Coordination and Planning Area Reform sparked quite a bit of interest on the pages of ETW (starting here) over the summer. The NPRM would essentially force over 140 MPOs to consolidate with nearby MPOs that serve the same Census-defined urban area. The NPRM generated 25 comments from the industry, associations, and the general public. Based on those comments and other feedback, FHWA and FTA have chosen to reopen the comment period. During this extended comment period, however, FHWA/FTA are principally interested in input on 3 specific questions: (a) under what circumstances would multiple MPOs be allowed to serve a single urban area; (b) the impact of requiring one set of plan documents; and (c) the forecasted cost of the proposed rule. Reopening of the comment period for these specific issues may foretell a softer line on the one-MPO-per-urban area standard that would spur mass consolidation.

Backing away from the one-MPO-per-urban area standard undercuts the primary argument for issuing this proposed rule in the first place. FHWA and FTA had stated that the proposed rule was a clarification of Congress’ intent in the 1991 ISTEA law. The administration cannot back away from this assertion, or the basis for issuing an administrative rulemaking also evaporates. The final rule will have to be carefully written to pass legal muster. As the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Executive Director Steve Heminger pointed out in his ETW guest column, the NPRM’s process for MPO boundary drawing treads perilously close to the line between the administrative rulemaking role of USDOT and the legislative role of Congress.

FHWA/FTA appear to have taken notice of the potential organizational and planning process issues associated with very large urban agglomerations being forced into a single MPO. In his guest column to ETW, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Barry Seymour made this exact point. Although he expressed support for the spirit of the NPRM, former Connecticut Transportation Commissioner and Eno Senior Fellow Emil Frankel also agreed that certain megaregions—like the Northeast Corridor—would not be well served by being forced into a single MPO. Organizational process issues and costs featured prominently in many of the comments submitted during the first round, including in joint comments from all three MPO associations here.

If USDOT allows urban areas to be split into multiple MPOs, it would represent a major win for suburban local governments and the dozens of MPOs that were targeted for consolidation. Although some MPO realignment might still occur, the scope of the national MPO shuffle would be far less than what was envisioned in this summer’s NPRM.

Some version of the rule is still very likely to be finalized before the end of the Obama Administration. The reopened comment period closes on October 24th. People who responded during the original comment period do not need to resubmit comments unless they wish to add their opinion on the issues in question. Comments can be entered on the docket by following the instructions here.


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