Village Green: How to Fix Local Transit & Road Planning

Our nation's metro regions need stronger tools to address transportation and land use issues.  I haven't turned to the issue of metropolitan regionalism in a while (last time was in April), but a new column by Bill Hudnut on Citiwire inspires me to do so again today.  Bill's bio lists him, accurately, as a man of many facets:  "Former four-term (GOP) mayor of Indianapolis and congressman, author, public speaker, TV commentator, think tank fellow, elected official, and clergyman." 

I've had the good fortune of working with Bill occasionally and highly value his experience and judgment.  He's right on the money this time as he argues for reform of metro-level transportation planning.

As I have written before, I believe most of the issues of growth, mobility, equity and the environment that we address here are fundamentally regional in character.  But our political mechanisms place most of the authority for dealing with them at the smallest levels of local government.  This causes all sorts of chaos, since city and suburban municipalities by their nature do not consider matters beyond their limited, frequently artificial borders and  too often drain people, jobs and resources from each other while competing for revenues -- to cite just one type of dysfunction.  This breeds sprawl, which breeds increased traffic and inconcenience, and so on.

While mayor, Bill actually did something about this issue, advancing a form of merged government between the city of Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County.  And he believes that we have an existing structure on which to build regional solutions in the metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) mandated by federal transportation law. 

I have had the same thought and said so, but it's reassuring to read it from Bill.  Now, MPOs in the real world are fraught with problems of inequitable representation and political weakness.  In most places, they don't work very well.  But the idea of vesting multi-jurisdictional MPOs, each covering a metropolitan area, with defined political responsibilities is a good one.


Bill writes that "MPOs are ideally suited to the regional realities of today's metropolitan areas and to the task of shaping future growth in multi-jurisdictional communities."  But, with some exceptions that Bill cites, there's a hitch:

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.

With a rewrite of federal transportation law just around the corner, we have an opportunity to do some constructive dental work.  Here are Bill's six ideas for strengthening MPOs and giving them a mission better-suited for 21st century problems:

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 [transportation plans] 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.

That would be a heck of a start.  Read the full column here.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Swichboard, where Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.