Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Sane planning? Not for transportation

BRIDGEWATER, N.H. – Gather a bunch of people interested in urban regions – as opposed to just cities – and it's only a matter of minutes before the acronym MPO comes up, and the grumbling starts.

MPO means Metropolitan Planning Organization, and it's a federally mandated way to plan "transportation" "regionally."

Those quote marks are intentional.

To too many MPOs, "transportation" means only roads, and of the highway genre, not of the city street genre and certainly not transit or pedestrian or bicycle paths.
And for an alarming number of MPOs, including in the Charlotte region, the "regional" part is a farce. The metro area most people recognize as the Charlotte metro region is home to four separate MPOs, or five, depending on how you count. So transportation planning here is completely fragmented – and Charlotte gets shorted when dollars are divvied.

Further, the Mecklenburg-Union MPO, affectionately known as MUMPO, rates about a 3 on a scale of 10, if 10 is to be completely multimodal in focus, and 1 is all-roads-all-the-time.

At a conference among members of the Citistates Group's associates – an association of writers, thinkers, practitioners and government officials who share an interest in metro regions – I heard several MPO horror stories. Consider: In San Jose's region, the largest city in the region (San Jose) in effect has no voting representative on its MPO.

But here's what Tom Downs (former New Jersey transportation commissioner, former CEO of Amtrak, among other things) suggested: Too many MPOs are in violation of Title 23 of the U.S. Code (here's a Wikipedia link), particularly the part that says the MPO should cover the whole metro area:

"Each metropolitan planning area —
(A) shall encompass at least the existing urbanized area and the contiguous area expected to become urbanized within a 20-year forecast period for the transportation plan; and may encompass the entire metropolitan statistical area or consolidated metropolitan statistical area, as defined by the Bureau of the Census."

Ahem. Mecklenburg and Union counties are most decidedly not "the contiguous area expected to become urbanized within a 20-year forecast period for the transportation plan. " Can you say, "Cabarrus County" or "Mooresville" or "Belmont-Gastonia-Mount Holly" or "Rock Hill-Fort Mill"?

What is to be done? Downs noted that the law has a process for decertifying an MPO that isn't following the code. That's a big hammer to use.

The multiple MPOs and RPOs (R as in rural) in this region – MUMPO plus Gastonia, Cabarrus-Rowan, Greater Hickory and Rock Hill-Fort Mill, S.C., MPOs and the Lake Norman and Rocky River RPOs – have not tried to consolidate, although any rational person can see that's what should happen. Is it time for the hammer?


Rodger said...


Let me help on this one. The Cabarrus-Rowan MPO did rock the boat several years back when RPO's were being formed. At that time the Cabarrus-Rowan MPO covered Concord, Harrisburg, Kannapolis, China Grove and Landis (the last two in Rowan County) and Northwest Cabarrus. So about 2/5 of Cabarrus County and about 1/10 of Rowan. The Census is used to define urban areas and that was what the Census defined ours as. NCDOT made that our MPO. When RPO's came along NCDOT wanted us to put the remainder of Cabarrus County in with Rowan and Stanly counties to make a new RPO. At our MPO meeting we told NCDOT that wasn't going to happen and instead suggested that all of Rowan and all of Cabarrus be the Cabarrus-Rowan MPO. Our reward for this was no additional funding for taking on the planning in these areas (even though the new RPO would have received funding). But we did it anyway because it was the right thing to do.

What you propose would make a lot more sense if the region got a pot of money and funding decisions were made at the regional level instead of at the state board of transportation. What we have now are MPO's that create transportation models and plans for their areas (and by the way - at one point - and I assume it is still going - there was a body of representatives from each MPO that were working on a transportation model for the entire charlotte region and doing cooperative planning on items like air quality so it isn't like the MPO's were not talking and doing collaborative planning). These plans get sent to Raleigh for funding. You might send up your top 10 priorities in order and get your 7th priority funded. That is how our broken system works.

Also, why we are at it. Projects like widening I-85 compete with projects like making a five lane state highway in a city more pedestrian, bicycle and car friendly. In Cabarrus County, the I-85 widening project will eat up the equity formula allotment for years to come, ensuring that no other, more meaningful projects, get funded. I-85 is a road with regional, state and southeastern importance for interstate commerce and travel. So while projects like that get funded, there is nothing left for important local projects that improve livability and have a more direct impact on local land use and travel.

Pathmaker said...

According to federal law, the Governor of each state leads the formation of MPOs with the concurrence of jurisdictions representing 75% of the urban area population plus the central city. The Governor is in control of taking the initiative to consolidate. Traditionally, this role has been delegated to the NCDOT. For some reason, NCDOT appears to prefer small, powerless MPOs. Interestingly, NCDOT refers to MPO governing boards, made up of locally elected officials, as Transportation Advisory Committees (TACs). That should give a clue as to their view of the MPOs role.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Tom Christoffel said...

Hello Mary -
Google’s Blog alert sent me to this post because of the terms “city" and "region.” This post should be of interest to readers of Regional Community Development News, so I will include a link to it in the June 24 issue. The newsletter will be found at Please visit, check the tools and consider a link. The type of frustration you express are topics in the RCD News. Tom