New Transportation Regulation Will Weaken Local Power

New Transportation Regulation Will Weaken Local Power

You have probably never heard of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs). But they are some of the few remaining bastions of local power left in the United States. Created by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962, MPOs exist in all sizable urban areas and give local governments control over how federal transportation funds are spent. They ensure that each town and city gets a say on upcoming projects, ensuring that a super-highway, for instance, isn’t run through your backyard just because the federal government or the state governor says so. MPOs provide checks and balances to more centralized state and federal control. 

That is, until now.

A new regulation proposed by the Obama administration’s Department of Transportation seeks to merge any MPOs whose urbanized areas share a boundary into one, large MPO. For a city in central Iowa, with few connected urban areas, this might not be a big deal. But for the northeast corridor, this is huge. The densely packed tri-state area would be fused into an organization that could dictate where and how federal transportation funds are spent. This merger would happen in two steps, in 2018 and 2022 respectively.

The implications are clear. Where do you think New York City will want to spend federal transportation dollars? Probably not Stamford, Connecticut, and most certainly not Hartford, Connecticut or Springfield, Massachusetts, all of whom would be affected by this change in policy. This restructuring would ensure that major metropolitan areas such as New York City and Boston would have the power both to approve and to veto projects in towns in other states. It would form an isolated bureaucracy that will control a massive amount of federal dollars. 

Moreover, this will happen not just in the northeast but throughout the nation. Any urbanized area which touches another would be fused into one MPO, creating a domino effect in smaller states or areas where several urban zones are near one another. 

Current MPOs in Connecticut 

The regulation proposal was released just before the 4th of July weekend and is set to take effect in October. The timing is suspicious. Many MPOs don’t meet during the summer months and Congress is out of session then. Meanwhile, the regulation proposal allowed only a 60-day comment period, rather than the usual 180 days. The comment period ended on August 26th, before Congress came back into session. “We have this thing being done fast and at a strange time of year,” according to Francis Pickering, Executive Director of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently offered a 30-day extension of the comment period thanks to protests from MPOs across the country.

2018 regulations

At the end of May 2016, MPOs across the nation finished a two-year collaborative rule-making process that developed new regulations for MPOs. “One month later, the proposed rule comes out of the blue,” Pickering said. “It’s not consistent with, and is not covered by, the rule-making that just ended in May.”

Accordingly, the state of Florida, which has 26 MPOs, issued a strong rebuke to the proposed regulation, citing President Bill Clinton’s 1999 Executive Order 13132 regarding federalism. According to section six of the order regarding consultation, “Each agency shall have an accountable process to ensure meaningful and timely input by State and local officials in the development of regulatory policies that have federalism implications.” 

Potential outcome of 2020 changes

According to a statement issued by the Florida Department of Transportation: “Simply put, FDOT does not believe that the Consultation requirements of Executive Order 13132 have been met.” They go on to state that “the foundation for rule making (and for any other federal-state-local policy or program) must be an understanding and application of federalism principles to ensure that our intergovernmental relationship is as effective and efficient as possible.” 

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx served as mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina and chair of the local MPO. Foxx was frustrated with the process of planning transportation projects and has “made no secret of his desire to see MPO consolidation,” according to Alexander Bond, director of the Center for Transportation Leadership. Although he pushed for the merging of the MPOs in the Charlotte region, his efforts as mayor did not pan out. But while Secretary Foxx failed in Charlotte, he may succeed nationally through these new regulations.

Connecticut is the only state to have successfully and voluntarily merged MPOs — a process that took four years and $1.7 million, according to Sam Gold, executive director of the River Council of Governments in Connecticut, who was directly involved with the merger. “It was a very expensive project,” Gold said. One can only imagine what the costs would be in trying to merge every MPO from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. No one from the Department of Transportation even reached out to the Connecticut MPOs to discuss what these mergers might entail.

One does not need much imagination to picture what this new plan will look like. First and foremost, it will weaken one of the last vestiges of local power and control over how federal dollars are spent. Decisions regarding building roads or bridges in Connecticut or fixing rail-lines in New Jersey would all have to be approved by a central commission in New York City.

Secondly, since transportation encompasses a myriad of different issues — including pollution, land use, housing, and energy — it stands to reason that this big metropolitan conglomerate will be able to impose restrictions and regulations that force local towns and cities to conform to the MPO’s wishes or else risk losing transportation funding. The new Mega-MPO will hold both the carrot and the stick, having both the power of the purse over state and local planning and the power of regulation over what cities and towns can do with their federal funds.

“The politics that we deal with here are not necessarily Republican versus Democrat, its local versus state, local versus Feds. It’s really about levels of government and separation of powers as opposed to parties,” Gold said.

That kind of politics has become all too rare.

Marc E. Fitch is an author and reporter with the Yankee Institute for Public Policy in Connecticut.

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