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)

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