What is a MPO?

metropolitan planning organization (MPO) is a federally mandated and federally funded transportation policy-making organization in the United States that is made up of representatives from local government and governmental transportation authorities. The United States Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962, which required the formation of an MPO for any urbanized area (UZA) with a population greater than 50,000. Federal funding for transportation projects and programs are channeled through this planning process. Congress created MPOs in order to ensure that existing and future expenditures of governmental funds for transportation projects and programs are based on a continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive (“3‑C”) planning process. Statewide and metropolitan transportation planning processes are governed by federal law (23 U.S.C. §§ 134135). Transparency through public access to participation in the planning process and electronic publication of plans now is required by federal law. As of 2012, there are 342 MPOs in the United States.

What is the purpose of the MPO?

Why MPOs are essential:

  • Transportation investment means allocating scarce federal and other transportation funding resources appropriately;
  • Planning needs to reflect the region’s shared vision for its future;
  • Adequate transportation planning requires a comprehensive examination of the region’s future and investment alternatives; and
  • An MPO is needed to facilitate collaboration of governments, interested parties, and residents in the planning process.

In other words, the federal government wished to see federal transportation funds spent in a manner that has a basis in metropolitan region-wide plans developed through intergovernmental collaboration, rational analysis, and consensus-based decision making.

How is the MPO Governed?

Typically, an MPO governance structure includes a variety of committees as well as a professional staff. The “policy committee” is the top-level decision-making body for the planning organization. In most MPO's, the policy committee comprises:

  • elected or appointed officials from local governmental jurisdictions such as municipalities or counties;
  • representatives of different transportation modes, such as public transit, freight, bicycle/pedestrian; and
  • state agency officials such as, state Department of Transportation, environmental agency, etc.; and
  • non-voting members such as FHWA, FTA, FAA, FRA, staff advisers from state departments of transportation, Chambers of Commerce

With only a few unique exceptions nationwide (such as the MPO in Portland, Oregon), MPO policy committee members are not elected directly by citizens. Rather, a policy committee member typically is an elected or appointed official of one of the MPO’s constituent local jurisdictions. The policy committee member thus has legal authority to speak and act on behalf of that jurisdiction in the MPO setting. Federal law, however, does not require members of an MPO policy committee to be representatives of the metropolitan areas' populations. Systematic studies have found that MPO policy committees' representations of urban municipalities and disadvantaged minority populations in their areas are less than proportional to population.[1] The policy committee’s responsibilities include debating and making decisions on key MPO actions and issues, including adoption of the metropolitan long-range transportation plans, transportation improvement programs, annual planning work programs, budgets, and other policy documents. The policy committee also may play an active role in key decision points or milestones associated with MPO plans and studies, as well as conducting public hearings and meetings. An appointed advisory committee (CAC) develops the recommendations for consideration by the policy committee and establishes a ranked proposal for work plans.

Most MPOs also establish a technical committee to act as an advisory body to the policy committee for transportation issues that primarily are technical in nature. The technical committee interacts with the MPO’s professional staff on technical matters related to planning, analysis tasks, and projects. Through this work, the technical committee develops recommendations on projects and programs for policy committee consideration. Metropolitan travel forecasting is one of the key roles that the technical committee supports. The technical committee typically comprises staff-level officials of local, state, and federal agencies. In addition, a technical committee may include representatives of interest groups, various transportation modes, and local citizens. A 2005 survey of MPOs nationally commissioned in preparation of "Special Report 288" of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies found that "forecast by negotiation" was a common method of projecting future population and employment growth for use in travel forecasting, suggesting rent-seeking behavior on the part of MPO committees influencing the technical staff.[2]

Usually MPOs retain a core professional staff in order to ensure the ability to carry out the required metropolitan planning process in an effective and expeditious manner. The size and qualifications of this staff may vary by MPO, since no two metropolitan areas have identical planning needs. Most MPOs, however, require at least some staff dedicated solely to MPO process oversight and management because of the complexity of the process and need to ensure that requirements are properly addressed.

What is the MPO's Core Function?

There are five core functions of an MPO:

  1. Establish a setting: Establish and manage a fair and impartial setting for effective regional decision-making in the metropolitan area (UZA)
  2. Evaluate alternatives: Evaluate transportation alternatives, scaled to the size and complexity of the region, to the nature of its transportation issues, and to the realistically available options
  3. Maintain a long-range transportation plan (LRTP): Develop and update a fiscally constrained long-range transportation plan for the UZA covering a planning horizon of at least twenty years that fosters
    • mobility and access for people and goods,
    • efficient system performance and preservation, and
    • quality of life
  4. Develop a transportation improvement program (TIP): Develop a fiscally constrained program based on the long-range transportation plan and designed to serve the UZA’s goals while using spending, regulating, operating, management, and financial tools
  5. Involve the public: Involve the general public and all the significantly affected sub-groups in the four essential functions listed above.

If the metropolitan area is designated as an air quality non-attainment or maintenance area, then

  1. Protect air quality: Transportation plans, programs, and projects must conform with the air quality plan, known as the “State Implementation Plan” (SIP), for the state within which the UZA lies.

Presently, most MPOs have no authority to raise revenues such as to levy taxes on their own, rather, they are designed to allow local officials to decide collaboratively how to spend available federal and other governmental transportation funds in their urbanized areas. The funding for the operations of an MPO comes from a combination of federal transportation funds and required matching funds from state and local governments.