Monday, August 3, 2009

The Future of Transportation Planning

On Friday the 31st, William H Hudnut III had an entry on about his ideas for restructuring the MPOs of America. MPOs for those who don't know, are the local/regional transportation agencies that allocate federal funds in a logical coherent manner. Yeah, right.

MPO is an acronym for Metropolitan Planning Organization and is supposed to plan for the transportation needs of a larger city and its surrounding area. One could imply from the name that they propose new transportation services and modes to provide for the need of the population they serve. From what I have seen, they take the transportation projects of others and attempt to divide the appropriated funds among the projects in some pre-determined formula. This formula seems to come from the state level and appears to favor the highways more than any other mode. As long as they are simply placing beans into separate silos, there is hardly any planning taking place.

Hudnut accurately states;
...they largely lack power to implement the transportation improvement plans (TIPs) they recommend. That’s why we can think of them as “sleeping giants.” They can propose, but not dispose. They can veto federally funded projects allocated under state plans, but not rewrite them. So they have few if any teeth. They are good for jawboning and horse-trading amongst a selected group of interested officials, but they have difficulty walking their talk. Their job is to coordinate, not operate. They lack clout, and are not given the power to enforce the plans they recommend to city or county councils or the state legislature.
These planning agencies do not look at the various projects and devise a more efficient solution or even propose a better mode to achieve the same goal, nor do they combine the long term goals into a long term solution, they simply continue the status quo of patching the system with band-aids when a complete reworking is called for.

We are currently at a critical point in transportation thinking. The federal transportation funding cycle is about to be reauthorized and the new administration has some new priorities. The Highway Trust Fund is showing signs of not being able to sustain itself and the infrastructure that it built is beginning to crumble as we watch. Fossil fuels are giving way to alternative ones and so should our transportation concepts.

Below are some of his ideas on changing the MPO structure:
Elect the membership. Elected officials and agency staff could be excepted; they would serve ex-officio. But let all eligible voters have the opportunity to vote on citizen members in any number chosen as long as it exceeds the number of ex-officio members.

Give MPOs actual authority to zone land, allocate funds, issue bonds, levy taxes, and enforce federal and state regulations regarding clean air and water.

Require MPOs to focus on GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions as a planning issue, since lower densities generate a larger carbon footprint than higher ones. And not only that: federal law should require that the TIPs comply with results-based goals for climate stability, furthering national energy independence and clean energy goals.

Require neighboring regions to link their planning through a uniform approach to presenting information and benchmarking results. And require, indeed, that there only be a single MPO for a single metro region–Many are now all split up, with predictably minimal coordination.

Develop multimodal regional access plans, establish local transportation governance standards and best practices, and fund approved multimodal access plans (as recommended by the White House).

Mandate a “fix it first” strategy for MPOs, which is to say, rebuild the old before building the new.
William Hudnut’s e-mail address is I am sure that he would like to hear your comments, as would I. Anyone care to take him up on it.

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