Metropolitan Planning Organizations:
Options Exist to Enhance Transportation Planning Capacity and Federal Oversight
GAO-09-868: Published: Sep 9, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 9, 2009.
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Metropolitan planning organizations (MPO) are responsible for transportation planning in metropolitan areas; however, little is known about what has been achieved by the planning efforts. This congressionally requested report describes (1) the characteristics and responsibilities of MPOs, (2) the challenges that MPOs face in carrying out their responsibilities, (3) how the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) provides oversight for MPOs and the extent to which this improves transportation planning, and (4) the options that have been proposed to enhance transportation planning. To address these objectives, 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.
MPOs vary greatly in terms of capacity and responsibilities. Some MPOs are supported by one or two staff, while others have over 100 staff. While half of MPOs represent populations of less than 200,000, some represent millions. MPOs are typically housed within a regional planning council or a city or county government agency, but also may operate as independent agencies. Most MPOs receive the majority of their planning funds from federal sources, but also receive funds from other sources such as states or localities. The technical capacity of MPOs also varies significantly, both in terms of the type of model used to develop travel demand forecasts and the number of staff available to perform such forecasts. Some MPOs have acquired additional responsibilities, such as project implementation, beyond federal requirements. MPOs cited many challenges in our survey and interviews, primarily related to funding and staffing, authority, and technical capacity. About 85 percent of all MPOs responding to our survey cited the lack of transportation planning funding as a challenge to transportation planning. About half of our survey respondents 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. DOT's Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) work together to oversee MPOs, but given the process-oriented approach of the oversight, it is difficult to determine whether their oversight is improving transportation planning. MPOs representing more than 200,000 in population are subject to federal certification reviews. The certification reviews focus on procedural compliance with planning requirements, not transportation outcomes. MPOs generally view this federal process as pro forma in nature and place a greater value on informal assistance provided by both federal and state governments. Several proposals have been developed by government and industry associations that could address some of the resource, authority, and technical challenges facing MPOs. For example, (1) allowing the use of transportation planning funds for more activities could better meet the needs of some metropolitan areas; (2) varying MPOs' planning requirements and authority or changing the legal definition of MPOs could address varying capacity and planning needs; (3) increasing federal investment in modeling and data gathering could improve the technical capability of MPOs and bring a greater degree of reliability and consistency across MPOs to travel demand forecasting; and (4) making the planning process more performance-based could allow FTA and FHWA to better assess MPOs' progress in achieving specific results.
Matter for Congressional Consideration
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In 2009, we reported that DOT's Federal Transit Administration and Federal Highway Administration work together to oversee Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), but given the process-oriented approach of the oversight, it is difficult to determine whether their oversight is improving transportation planning. For example, MPOs representing more than 200,000 in population are subject to federal certification reviews, but the certification reviews focus on procedural compliance with planning requirements, not transportation outcomes. We recommended 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 in achieving these outcomes in the certification review process. On July 6, 2012, President Obama signed into law P.L. 112-141, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. The Act made the MPO planning framework more performance-based by: (a) establishing national performance goals for federal highway programs in several areas, including the safety and condition of the nation's highways; (b) requiring the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with MPOs and others, to establish performance measures linked to national goals; and (c) requiring MPOs to establish performance targets for those measures and report their progress in achieving performance targets through system performance reports. Finally, the Act required the Department of Transportation to evaluate and report on the effectiveness of the performance-based planning process of MPOs. As a result, the federal government will have the information it needs to measure the results of its investment in MPO planning to ensure that MPOs' planning activities are contributing to the achievement of national goals and improved transportation outcomes.
Matter: Congress may want to consider making MPO transportation planning more performance-based--for example, by identifying specific transportation outcomes for transportation planning and charging the U.S. Department of Transportation with assessing MPOs' progress in achieving these outcomes in the certification review process.
Recommendations for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Not Implemented
Comments: DOT's response to GAO report stated that, as recognized in the GAO report, provisions currently exist that allow MPOs to seek permission to use an abbreviated planning process, if appropriate for their mission requirements and technical capacity. Although the Department works closely with small MPO's to assist in the planning process, and is available to assist with the abbreviated planning provisions, MPO's are not using these provisions. While the Department will continue to assist MPOs in these and other ways to help expedite project delivery, it does not intend to establish guidelines at this time. In June 2012, DOT officials reiterated this position. MAP-21 does not make any changes to this, similar to previous legislation, MAP-21 provides language on abbreviated transportation plans and TIPs for metropolitan areas that are not designated as transportation management areas (the language is highlighted in the attachment.) It states that Subject to paragraph (2), in the case of a metropolitan area not designated as a transportation management area under this section, the Secretary may provide for the development of an abbreviated transportation plan and TIP for the metropolitan planning area that the Secretary determines is appropriate to achieve the purposes of this section, taking into account the complexity of the transportation problems in the area.
Recommendation: To improve the transportation planning process, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrators of the FHWA and the FTA to establish guidelines for MPOs to apply for, and implement, the abbreviated planning clause for small MPOs, and share these guidelines with existing MPOs.
Agency Affected: Department of Transportation
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In 2009, we reported that some Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) lack the technical capacity and data necessary to conduct the type of complex transportation modeling required to meet their planning needs. In addition, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) found similar challenges and recommended several improvements to MPO modeling approaches. We recommended that the Department of Transportation (DOT) develop a strategy to improve data gathering and modeling efforts among MPOs, including establishing a timeline for implementing TRB's recommendations. In December 2010, DOT issued "The Travel Model Improvement Program Report for Fiscal Years 2008-2009." The report included information on activities DOT had taken to respond to Special Report 288, including conducting a peer exchange on travel model validation practices to provide practical advice and priorities to MPOs on various validation issues and developing a report to share information on successful modeling practices. DOT also provided a strategy of immediate and mid-term activities to improve data gathering and modeling efforts among MPOs. These actions will improve MPOs ability to conduct the modeling efforts needed to better support their planning efforts.
Recommendation: To improve the transportation planning process, the Secretary of Transportation should develop a strategy to improve data gathering and modeling efforts among MPOs, including establishing a timeline for implementing the modeling and data recommendations for the federal government in the Transportation Research Board's Special Report 288.
Agency Affected: Department of Transportation