How — and When — Can D.C. Help Local Transport Reform Happen?

3776359498_c697a2496e.jpgA map of the areas served by transport MPOs, pictured in color. (Photo: NARC via Kaid Benfield)

In a new op-ed
for Citiwire, former Indianapolis mayor and GOP member of Congress Bill
Hudnut suggests six ways that Washington can train the nation’s
350-plus metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) into tools for
smart and environmentally sound transportation policymaking.

Hudnut’s piece is worth reading in full, but here are his six proposals:

  • Elect the membership.
  • 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 [MPOs’ transport 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 multi-modal regional access plans, establish
    local transportation governance standards and best practices, and fund
    approved multi-modal 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.

The
third item was included, for the most part, in the climate bill that
passed the lower chamber of Congress earlier this summer. The
legislation requires MPOs to "address transportation-related greenhouse
gas emissions" as part of their local planning decisions, specifically
mentioning increased transit ridership, pedestrian activity, and bike
use as goals.

But no numerical targets for emission
reduction are specified in the bill. And without the second and fourth
items on Hudnut’s list becoming reality soon, the door is left open for
MPOs to set uneven or unrealistic emissions goals.

So how
soon could more substantive MPO reform reach Congress’ lengthy to-do
list? Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) is working on
a plan for competitive grants to encourage innovative local and
regional planning, but the upcoming six-year federal transportation
bill is the most likely vehicle for MPO empowerment.

Of course, that six-year bill is presently mired in a funding stalemate
that will continue into next month, when lawmakers must decide how long
they can put off a broader re-write of federal transportation laws.
Most senators are on record backing their leadership’s push for a "clean" 18-month delay that avoids targeted reform of the current system.

Yet
there is still the chance, however slim, that change could start
happening more quickly. One Democratic senator suggested last week that
an 18-month stopgap transport bill should come with planning help for
MPOs and state DOTs.

In a Senate floor speech, Sen. Mark
Warner (D-VA) outlined a transportation benchmark plan and said he
would work to "ensure its inclusion" in any extension of current law
that comes up for a vote next month. Here’s a transcript of Warner’s
remarks:

I have drafted an amendment that would direct the Secretary of
Transportation to coordinate with states, metropolitan planning
organizations and our new chief performance officer to develop metrics
to address the following factors:

(1) National Connectivity: How have
transportation investments improved the connection of people and goods
across the Nation?

(2) Metropolitan Accessibility: How have transportation
investments allowed Americans in metropolitan regions to access their
jobs and other activities more reliably and efficiently?

(3) Energy Security and Environmental Protection: How have
transportation investments reduced carbon emissions and petroleum
consumption?

(4) Safety: How have transportation investments improved
safety by reducing fatalities and injuries associated with
transportation?

My proposal outlines how states and metropolitan regions
can begin to report these measures. The factors above are
outcome-oriented, objective and measurable. They are also designed to
cut across all modes of transportation, and to measure performance
across an entire region as opposed to measuring specific projects in a
vacuum.

This legislation will help ease the transition to a more
performance-based system. Not only will it provide us with actual
performance data, but it will help clarify what additional resources
states will need to better provide such data in the future.

(h/t Kaid Benfield, NRDC)

  • nobody

    Am I the only one disturbed that Las Vegas is not part of an MPO, but some place in the middle of Wyoming is.

  • This can be achieved quite simply: MANDATE ALTERNATIVE ROADWAY STANDARDS.

    The above criteria are too vague, and in each of them I can read a justification for more car-only planning and road building.

    Our nations’ roads are, to a large degree, under the proviso of “transportation engineers” – a trade group that has created a construct for human beings (homo automobilus) that they use to simplify the complex structure of our modern economy and transportation needs into a math problem involving a medium roughly similar to sewage moving through a pipe. The engineer then plans the appropriate sewer pipes to spew this waste product, and “progress” ensues.

    Focusing on emissions is clearly not going to get us over the hump – we need standards that quantify the abuse to our society, economy, and health that the private automobile network brings.

    We need to ditch the VMT vs. deaths metric. Total deaths on a road per year make a clear case for a switch to safer modes.

    Noise is a an easy way to ding car-only roads. Noise standards are already in place in just about every state in the union. We just need to apply those standards to transportation planning.

    Further, there are two fields with the training and tools to quantify what our transportation system does to people (sociology and anthropology). These fields need to be incorporated into the road measurement and design game. Urban planners rely too heavily on “theories” and PR – we need solid social science to play a bigger part in how our nations roads are designed and built.

  • Wad

    Las Vegas’ MPO is the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada.

    http://www.rtcsnv.com/index.cfm

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