Transportation funding Decision-Making: Four Ways To Fix The MPO Process

Probably no one fully understands all the intricacies of transportation funding decision-making.  Federal law, regulations, and funding levels set the context – although those are all interactively influenced by the desires of and power relationships among key interest groups, as well as by the electoral pressures felt by elected officials.  The same dynamic exists at the state level, with the political sphere extending from the state house  both upward to federal allies and down to municipal leaders.

Sitting in the middle of all this is are a series of “official” transportation funding decision-making bodies called Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOs.   Massachusetts has 13 of these bodies, composed of state, regional, and local officials.   Transportation projects suggested by state or local agencies and governments are presented to the appropriate regional MPO, which then selects a very few of them for inclusion on the Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) list.  The state Department of Transportation then assembles these lists into a prioritized State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) list.   Available funds are then used to implement the proposals.

Unfortunately, this description says nothing about what criteria and  processes are used to make these decisions.  And maybe because so much is unclear, one of the results of the current MPO process is that road expansion and upgrades get almost all the highway funding – whether or not they include meaningful bike or pedestrian facilities – with very little money going for explicit bike or pedestrian facilities.  The state’s current four-year project funding list includes $770 million for highway expansion but almost none of the potential path projects.

It is our belief that the state’s current MPO system is deeply flawed in four ways:  in the membership of the MPOs and their advisory committees, in the criteria they use to prioritize spending, and in the non-transparency of the decision-making process itself.


I) Membership

We believe that all except one of the seats on each MPO now held by state transportation agencies should be turned over to state, or perhaps local, public health and environmental organizations.


In the past, many of the formerly separate state transportation agencies held separate seats – Mass Highway, the Turnpike, the T, and others.  The recent consolidation of state transportation agencies means that the multiple MPO seats formerly held by the formerly independent agencies are now all held by the newly formed MassDOT.  While people involved with transportation have long felt that the state dominated the MPOs, the new accumulation of seats under MassDOT’s direct control seems extremely excessive.

At the same time, there is increasing public and political understanding that transportation is not a stand-alone issue.  It is intimately related to land-use, economic development patterns, environmental quality (air and water), climate protection, and public health (through its effect on walking, cycling, and other forms of “active transportation”).  Transportation significantly shapes the quality of our lives, the livability of our communities.

However, the current MPO membership does not reflect these broader concerns nor provide a structural way for these perspectives to be part of the decision-making process.

2) Advisory Committee

We believe that each of the MPO’s Regional Transportation Advisory Council  should be expanded to include more advocates for environmental protection, public health, smart growth as well as transportation.

Massachusetts, like many states, has passed numerous laws and regulations concerning the environment, energy use, land development patterns, public health, and other issues.  In a democratic society, public input about how to successfully include these issues into transportation planning should be part of the decision-making process.  And the most informed people tend to be the advocates, representatives of groups that deeply care about these issues.  The current RTACs, while a step in the right direction, do not sufficiently tap into the depth of knowledge needed – and available – to improve the decision-making process.

3) Decision-making Criteria

We believe that each MPO should have to describe, quantitatively, how every project it decides to fund will move the region closer or further away from achieving the broadest relevant set of public priorities.

Transportation funding decisions need to be more closely tied to the accomplishment of the full range of related public goals, as described above.  However, the MPOs continue to only consider a narrow range of transportation cost effectiveness when analyzing project options.  This means that even if the MPO-approved TIP gets built, it will not help achieve most of the state’s transportation-impacted goals.

For example, the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, which sets a goal of reducing GHG emissions by between 10% and 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, identifies transportation sources as the largest and fastest growing set of GHG emissions. Yet analysis of the MPO’s Boston Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) indicate that these important policy objectives will not be met – the projected automobile mode share in 2030 will be the same (73%) if either the “build” scenario or the “no-build” scenario is followed.

Similarly, even though one of the policy statements listed in Chapter 10 of the Regional Transportation Plan states, “Give priority to projects that maintain and improve public transportation facilities and services, so as to increase public transportation mode share and reduce reliance on automobiles,” the transit mode share projected for 2030 is only 0.1% greater than the “no-build” scenario.

The MPOs need to start their deliberations by listing all laws, regulations, and public goals — both explicitly and indirectly relevant to transportation — established by the state and federal government to determine explicit or implied transportation-related requirements.  This would include, for example, laws and regulations requiring increased pedestrian and traffic safety, that limit greenhouse gas or health-impairing auto emissions, that encourage “smart growth, open space preservation, and healthy physical activity, or that reduce our dependence on imported fuels.  It should also include what would be needed to at least meet all legal requirements for environmental justice and accessibility.

After describing what we are trying to accomplish, the next step should be to analyze current and projected transportation demand – how many people and how much stuff will need to move from where to where over the next 10 to 20 years.   This will involve economic, demographic, environmental, and other factors.  The assumptions underlying the projections should be fully revealed and a range of alternatives tested.  For example, most of the formulas typically used to estimate future car traffic contain assumptions of annual growth in vehicle miles traveled.  In fact, in many places traffic numbers have stayed flat or even declined over the past five years (starting even before the recession), while the number of transit users and bicyclists has rapidly increased, so it is important to explore various scenarios about future possibilities.

Then, the MPO should analyze how to meet this future transportation demand while also achieving our goals.  This does not require vigorous statistical analysis for every issue, which is often difficult to measure.  It might only require a rough “moves us significantly closer to goal” versus “moves us slightly closer to goal” versus “moves us slightly further from goal” versus “moves us significantly further from goal.”

Only after setting this context does it make sense to discuss specific capital investments; only then can the MPO be clear about the extent to which each project will help move the state towards the achievement of its mode-share and other goals.

This kind of analysis might result in plans that facilitate changes in the modes of travel, or changes in the types of vehicles being used, or changes in the location and usage of mass transit, and other options.  The MPO should then describe the trade-offs among these options, including the difficulties in implementing the optimal mix and ending up with specific suggestions for the most feasible approach.

4) Transparency

We believe that all changes to the TIP should be documented and justified in terms of their impact on the achievement of the broadest relevant set of public priorities.

It seems that too often a MPO will go through its processes and publish a list of prioritized projects, and then at some later time suddenly remove some or add others.  We all understand that back-door political compromises and agreements are part of our decision-making process.  We understand that “you support this, I’ll support that” deals are inevitable.  But the resulting changes in funding priorities should, at the least, be publicly justified using the same criteria of their contribution to achieving overall state goals.

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