RoadWorks: MPOs May Merit Makeover

 MPOs: Options Exist to Enhance Transportation Planning Capacity and Federal Oversight. Metropolitan planning organizations are responsible for transportation planning in metropolitan areas, but according to the GAO, little is known about what has been achieved by their planning efforts. The report looks at MPO operations, including U.S. DOT oversight practices and influences, but also focuses on changes that may enhance transportation planning.

MPOs were surveyed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to produce a Congressionally-requested report. 

GAO surveyed all 381 MPOs (with an 86 percent response rate) and conducted case studies of eight metropolitan areas and conducted a survey of program managers. GAO suggests that Congress consider making MPO transportation planning more performance based by, for example, identifying specific transportation outcomes for transportation planning and charging DOT with assessing MPOs’ progress. GAO also recommends, among other things, that DOT develop a strategy to improve data gathering and modeling at the MPO level.

About 85 percent of all MPOs responding to the survey cited the lack of transportation planning funding as a challenge to transportation planning, according to GAO. About half “stated that the lack of flexibility for using federal planning funds inhibits them from conducting comprehensive transportation planning. Staffing constraints, such as limited number of staff and lack of trained staff, also impact MPOs’ ability to conduct transportation planning. Finally, according to our survey and interviews, some MPOs lack the technical capacity and data necessary to conduct the type of complex transportation modeling required to meet their planning needs.”

GAO said the survey revealed “a pattern of variations and challenges that could increasingly compromise the quality of regional transportation planning, potentially allowing transportation problems — such as increasing congestion — to inhibit economic activity in the United States.”
For example, according to the report:

MPOs’ roles and responsibilities are not commensurate with their requirements. Under the current system, a small MPO with a simple transportation mission and limited technical capacity is generally accountable to the same planning and program requirements and oversight as a large, complex MPO. SAFETEA-LU allows MPOs to seek permission to use a more abbreviated planning process. MPOs may not be universally aware of this option since, to date, no MPOs have utilized it.

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The quality of MPOs’ computerized travel demand models and the data used to support the process is often insufficient or unreliable. As planning organizations, one of the important functions of MPOs is the ability to forecast and analyze an increasingly complex and growing set of environmental, transportation, and social trends. Thus if MPOs are not able to keep pace with the increasing complexity of this task, their contribution to transportation planning may be compromised.

Because the oversight mechanisms for MPOs are focused on process, rather than outcomes, it is unclear what impact regional transportation planning is having on transportation outcomes. Despite more than 30 years of a federally mandated and funded transportation planning process and billions spent on roads, bridges, and transit projects, there is not enough information for policymakers to determine whether the planning process is addressing critical transportation challenges facing the United States. However, shifting to a more performance-based oversight approach will require legislative changes.