Metropolitan Planning Organizations, Explained and Evaluated
With over 400 MPOs in the United States, why have so few Americans interacted with, or understand, these organizations, even as this lack of understanding contributes to a status quo that is draining governments of money and locking in the car-centric status quo.
A blog post by Sam Sklar attempts the impossible (we kid): to explain metropolitan planning organizations, even making it sound simple:
Chances are you’ve never had a meaningful interaction with your regional transportation planning body, sometimes known as an MPO—Metropolitan Planning Organization. This organization, required by law for regions over 50,000 people, does two things: creates and maintains a long range plan (LRP) and the capital spending program that feeds into the statewide program—the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) to the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) superhighway.
The article provides a brief history of MPOs—even with 400 MPOs in the country, none of them have been around for that long, and the first was created in 1960. But in that time, MPOs have had an underappreciated effect on the practice of planning. Or, as Sklar puts it: "The formalization of MPOs in the early 1970s into replicable agencies exploded the rationality of planning and appropriating the future of highway dollars, now coming in the billions annually."
But the planning choices of MPOs led to freeway revolts and Sklar notes some fundamental discrepancies and conflicts with the way MPOs function, and the results they deliver.
With the many challenges of regional transportation and land use planning governance in mind, Sklar also presents a series of policy prescriptions to hold MPOS accountable for their decisions and to better deliver projects that meet the actual needs of the community. Underlying these prescriptions is an acknowledgement that large transportation projects should refocus their efforts to fixing existing infrastructure first, before expanding the capacity of the system.