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Friday, February 5, 2010

Metropolitan Transportation Planning

William J. Mallett
Specialist in Transportation Policy

Federal law requires state and local governments to designate a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) in each urbanized area with a population of 50,000 or more to help plan surface transportation infrastructure and services. There are currently 381 MPOs nationwide. Despite some strengthening of their authority over the years, MPOs have generally remained subordinate to state departments of transportation (DOTs) in the planning and selecting ("programming") of projects using federal surface transportation funds. Moreover, it can be argued that at the metropolitan level MPOs are subordinate to local governments that own and operate many elements of the transportation system, and also control land use planning and zoning. 

Because of the perceived weakness of MPOs, some in the transportation community have argued that they ought to be given much more power over the planning and programming of projects using federal surface transportation funds. Some of these observers go so far as to suggest that federal policies and programs in a number of areas, including transportation, housing, and the environment, need to be coordinated on a metropolitan scale, and that MPOs are the organizational venue where this should occur. Others argue that the relationship between state government, local government, and MPOs is well-balanced and should not be changed. A third view is that metropolitan transportation planning is controlled by planners who often harbor anticar views, and consequently, MPOs can be actually detrimental to well-functioning metropolitan transportation systems. In this view, MPOs should be abolished or, at the very least, have their functions significantly curtailed. 

Surface transportation programs were authorized under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU or SAFETEA) (P.L. 109-59) covering the period FY2005 through FY2009. In lieu of a new multi-year reauthorization that is still being considered, Congress has extended these programs and their funding several times. Reauthorization of the surface transportation programs provides an opportunity for Congress to reexamine policies related to MPOs and the metropolitan planning process. This report discusses several issues that Congress may want to consider: the authority of MPOs to plan and program funds; representation and participation in MPOs; MPO funding and technical capacity; and implementation of livability initiatives. It may also want to consider a number of issues having to do with planning requirements such as the need for a long-range plan, the proper scale of planning, and the incorporation of freight transportation interests. The report begins with a brief description of the metropolitan transportation planning process. 

Date of Report: February 3, 2010
Number of Pages: 22
Order Number: R41068
Price: $29.95

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