A new proposal by the U.S. Department of Transportation would make it harder for small towns, underserved communities, and the public at large to have a voice in how to address local transportation needs.
Supersizing Metropolitan Planning Organizations
Federal legislation requires that transportation planning and policy in urbanized areas – those with populations of more than 50,000 people – be carried out by metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs. Representatives from local governments and transportation agencies make up these transportation policy-making bodies. MPOs plan and approve a range of transportation activities, from the construction of bike lanes to the widening of roads to the reworking of problematic intersections.
Currently, New England has 28 individual MPOs, ranging from Boston to Burlington, Vermont. The new proposal by the Department of Transportation would change this structure by requiring the merger or coordination between closely situated MPOs. In other words, if the urbanized areas extending from two different MPO areas overlap, then those MPOs would be required to merge or to coordinate for all their planning documents. In practice, this would mean that the Boston MPO would be required to merge or coordinate with ten other MPOs – one in Rhode Island, three in New Hampshire, and seven others in Massachusetts. This new mega-MPO would encompass 388 cities and towns, span more than 8,500 square miles, and include more than 7.4 million people!
Proposed Rule Takes No Steps Forward and Too Many Steps Back
CLF opposes this proposal, officially known as the Metropolitan Planning Organization Coordination and Planning Area Reform rule. In comments filed last week, we noted our concern that the perspectives of individual municipalities would be lost as MPOs merge into bigger bodies or develop transportation documents across larger geographic areas. Public engagement may decrease as the logistics of attending public meetings becomes more challenging due to larger distances between the communities in the MPO and the meeting location. Further, environmental justice and rural communities would increasingly be left out of the transportation planning process.
The rule purports to emphasize a regional perspective during the planning process and facilitate efficient transportation planning focused on projects that address critical regional needs. These are laudable goals, but this proposed change is not the way to achieve them. CLF has worked with local MPOs for years. Based on our experience, we believe that transportation planning in the densely settled Northeast would not only fail to benefit from the proposed changes, but would be set back significantly. The Department of Transportation needs to shelve this proposal and encourage MPO coordination in a less obtrusive way.