Meet the Obscure Unelected Agencies Strangling Many U.S. Cities

Transit investment lagged in regions where MPO boards did not give equal representation to city populations, Detroit (SE Michigan) being an especially bad example. In more democratic metros, investment was much more balanced. Image: Nelson, 2003

Do you know the name of your local Metropolitan Planning Organization or Council of Government? Most Americans don’t. In fact, most people probably have no idea these agencies even exist, let alone what they do. Yet they are surprisingly powerful and play a substantial role in shaping the places where we live and work.

Led by unelected boards, MPOs and COGs, as they’re known, are a special breed among government agencies. They lack the authority to issue taxes or impose laws. As such, they go largely unmentioned in the media and are mostly unknown to local residents, outside of the most wonkish circles. But the low profile of MPOs and COGs belies their considerable power.

Despite their limitations, they represent the strongest form of regional governance we’ve got in the United States, crossing city and county lines. More importantly, they disperse hundreds of millions of federal transportation dollars annually. While these agencies often distribute transportation funds more fairly than state DOTs, many of them are structured in a way that favors sprawl and undermines cities.

MPOs and COGs can be profoundly undemocratic. They are governed by boards of public officeholders, but there is no requirement that they be in any way representative of the region’s population. In fact, the general rule that governs the composition of MPO boards is “one place, one vote,” rather than the more traditional “one person, one vote.” This often produces decisions dramatically skewed toward suburban and rural interests.

For example, greater Milwaukee’s MPO, known by the unwieldy acronym SEWRPC, is governed by a board of 21 members, three from each of the counties that make up the planning region. That means that the city of Milwaukee — population nearly 600,000 — has zero representatives on the commission that distributes millions of dollars for transportation throughout the region. It is not guaranteed any votes. The city’s only voting power comes from the three seats given to Milwaukee County — and those must be spread between the central city and many suburbs. Meanwhile, rural Walworth County — population 100,000 — is guaranteed three votes.

Milwaukee is an especially egregious case. But unfortunately, this general pattern is more the norm than the exception. A 1999 Brookings Institution study [PDF] found that central cities were under-represented in as many as 92 percent of MPOs and COGs.

That bias can have a strong impact on policy, further research has shown. A 2003 study by researchers at Virginia Tech found that for each additional suburban member on an MPO board, there was a 1 to 9 percent decrease in funding for transit — with highways being the favored alternative.

Researchers examined three regions where boards were unrepresentative and three regions where they were proportional to population. They found significant differences: Transit investment varied from a low of 3.2 percent in Detroit (unrepresentative) to 50 percent in Seattle (proportional).

Across the country, the composition of MPO boards varies wildly. The only federal requirement is that at least 75 percent of the region be represented in some capacity, said Delania Hardy, director of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Agencies. And while there are plenty of examples of places where there is room for improvement, she said, there are also good examples.

While Milwaukee represents one extreme, Portland embodies another. This region is the only place in the country where the MPO board is not only representative of the region’s population, but also directly elected by the local population.

In late 2009, Myron Orfield, author of “American Metropolitics,” set out to determine which metro areas had the most effective regional planning agencies. He evaluated the country’s 25 largest metro regions [PDF] on indicators such as sprawl, segregation, growth and fiscal equity. Portland was the runaway standout.

“They have a very good urban growth boundary. They cluster jobs at defined job centers. They require that all communities build their fair share of affordable housing. They have low and decreasing segregation,” he said. “On every measure that we care about, it does well.”

Outside of having directly elected MPO representatives, Portland has some other advantages, a strong land use policy framework being the most notable. But allowing the public to directly elect the people who will shape their region is also important, Orfield said.

“If you don’t have it up for election, it’s really hard for people to participate,” he said. “It’s sort of a general principle of democracy.”

During the last round of negotiations over the federal transportation bill, in 2009, Orfield joined the National Association of City Transportation Officials in lobbying for MPO reform. His legislation would have required proportional representation for directly-elected MPO boards. The reforms were adopted into the transportation reauthorization bill put forward by Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) but never became law.

Some communities are making progress toward important sustainability and equity goals on their own. Orfield pointed to Chicago, Washington D.C., Seattle, San Diego, and even Raleigh, North Carolina.

“Regions with more proportional representation tend to do a better job,” he said.

Detroit's MPO is dominated by rural and suburban interests. Its transit system is uniquely dysfunctional among large metro areas. Photo: Beaumont Enterprise

On the other hand you have Detoit’s SEMCOG, which is responsible for dispersing $1 billion in federal funds annually. In 2006, SEMCOG was the subject of a civil rights lawsuit over the composition of its executive committee. At the time, the agency had allocated three delegates to the city of Detroit, representing more than 900,000 people. Meanwhile, Livingston County — which has a population of less than 200,000 people — was given four delegates.

Discrepancies like this can be especially insidious for people of color. For example, at the time of the lawsuit, Detroit was more than 80 percent African-American. Meanwhile Livingston County, on the opposite extreme, is less than one percent African-American, according to a court deposition.

The suit was dismissed because the court determined the principle of “one person, one vote” does not apply to appointed positions. Five years later, not much has changed, says Ponscella Hardaway, director of MOSES, the low-income advocacy group that brought suit against SEMCOG.

In a symbol of regional failure, Detroit is unique among large metros for operating separate transit systems for its central city and the surrounding suburbs — a byproduct of the Motor City’s stark racial segregation. That creates a logistical nightmare for transit riders.

SEMCOG “could have taken some leadership” on this issue, said Hardaway. “Their vision for regional cooperation is not matched with their actions. It’s almost like they’re a nonentity.”

As you might expect, the Detroit region performs poorly on the measures Orfield used to measure effective regional planning.

“It is really probably the worst in the country,” said Orfield. “Detroit builds massive highways into cornfields and doesn’t reinvest in the existing infrastructure or build transit. Detroit is a catastrophe.”