Metropolitan Planning Organizations

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) have been an important partner in the transportation planning process for decades. MPOs are regional organizations comprised of cities, counties, and towns in an urban area. Directed by a board of elected officials, MPOs maintain a staff of transportation professionals who plan for their region’s accessibility and mobility. Staff members work to collect transportation data, project the need for infrastructure, and prioritize projects based on available funding. While all MPOs craft plans for roads, pedestrian/bicycle facilities and transport for the disabled, some also are responsible for planning and administering public transit systems, airports, sea ports, and rail systems.

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1962 required–as a condition of federal fiscal assistance–that urbanized areas with more than 50,000 people must plan for regional transportation planning expenditures cooperatively with other jurisdictions in the region. MPOs were born from this requirement. As the nation grew, more and more areas become urbanized and exceeded the 50,000-person threshold. When the Census Bureau determines the threshold has been met, a new MPO is formed by the appropriate state legislatures. Several MPOs cross state lines. The number of MPOs has increased from 225 to 385 between 1965 and 2005. MPOs can adopt a variety of monikers—such as Transportation Councils, Metropolitan Councils, or Transportation Committees. About half of all MPOs are co-located or co-staffed by the region’s Council of Governments (COG).

In 1991, Congress pulled together all of the highway and transit programs into one piece of legislation known as the Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act (ISTEA). Congress largely retained the system of state and metropolitan planning. Most MPO activities were continued under the new legislation, and a few extra duties were assigned to them. The federal highway program has been reauthorized three times since ISTEA — most recently in 2012 by Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21). All of these authorizations confirm the role of MPO’s as an important partner in the transportation planning process.

Once an urbanized area grows to more than 200,000 people, it is reclassified as a Transportation Management Area (TMA). The local MPO assumes additional planning duties including drafting a Congestion Management Plan and monitoring of air quality. To go along with the additional duties, TMAs are eligible for additional STP funding for major metro areas.

MPOs strive to make their transportation plans as inclusive and forward-thinking as possible. MPOs missions are guided by the “three C principles”: continuing, coordinated, and comprehensive. MPOs coordinate with municipalities and counties that have land use decision-making authority. Comprehensive input is solicited from the general public and other agencies–such as environmental protection, historic preservation, and conservation–who will be impacted by transportation decisions. Transportation plans are to ensure the continuation of improvement to region’s infrastructure. MPOs are funded by utilizing a 1.25% takedown from core highway and transit programs.

All MPOs are responsible for administering federal funds. Some MPOs perform duties mandated by state law, and other tasks as directed by the MPO board. The basis of all activities is the Metropolitan Transportation Plan or Long-Range Transportation Plan, which visualizes the MPO’s region 20 years into the future. From this 20-year plan, a shorter term priority list of projects is maintained in the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) plan. Usually covering three years, TIPs identify projects that are of greatest importance for construction, upgrade, or maintenance. Each TIP is incorporated into the State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP). MPOs are also required to perform duties relating to highway safety for inclusion in state safety plans. Depending on certain characteristics of the region, MPOs may also prepare plans for non-motorized transportation, public transit, or air quality.

For a complete directory of MPOs, Click Here


The MPO Planning Process:

MPOs are regional organizations comprised of cities, counties, and towns in an urban area.   Directed by a board of elected officials, MPOs maintain a staff of transportation professionals who plan for their region’s accessibility and mobility.  Staff members work to collect transportation data, project the need for infrastructure, and prioritize projects based on available funding. While all MPOs craft plans for roads, pedestrian/bicycle facilities and transport for the disabled, some also are responsible for planning and administering public transit systems, airports, sea ports, and rail systems.

At the heart of the MPO’s duties is the Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP).This plan projects transportation system and program needs 20 years into the future.  Drafting the plan can take up to two years, as massive amounts of traffic, demographic, and employment data must be synthesized, often utilizing special software such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or transportation modeling software. Agencies impacted by transportation–such as environmental protection, social services, or historic preservation–are consulted during the process to ensure the plan compliments the goals of those agencies. The plan is also subjected to input and scrutiny from private citizens, members of advisory commissions, and MPO board members. Finally, the MPO board must approve the plan.

Transportation Improvement Program TIPs are a written three to five year work program of projects in an MPO’s region. The TIP prioritizes projects to be completed based upon the 20-year Long Range Transportation Plan, current conditions, and prevailing funding.  Federal and state funds are allocated to the projects that appear in the TIP. Often no more than a list of projects, it heavily refers to the LRTP for planned projects.

The operations and management plan for the MPO is the Unified Planning Work Program (UPWP). The UPWP’s purpose is to coordinate the planning activities of all participants in the planning process, including municipalities, counties, and MPOs. It contains the schedule, projected costs, and needed resources to construct planned projects. Usually approved for only one fiscal year, it is the last and most detailed step in the transportation infrastructure planning process.


Other Duties:

MPOs perform planning functions for other modes of transportation beyond the formal planning process for road improvements.  Some of these duties are required actions if the MPO wants to receive funding under SAFETEA-LU. In addition to these prescribed duties, MPOs often undertake special studies to remedy a special problem, promote changes in the community, or other tasks as directed by the MPO board. Most MPOs perform Bicycle and Pedestrian facilities plans, which identify the need for sidewalks, bike lanes, and trails. Frequently, bicycle and pedestrian plans are a standalone component of the LRTP, TIP, and UPWP.

MPOs take the lead with planning for transit services for the disabled and transportation disadvantaged. MPOs are required to draft Coordinated Human Services Transportation Plans, which consolidate the Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC), New Freedom, and United We Ride programs with other local services for the transportation disadvantaged. MPOs may also provide planning support for public transit providers within their jurisdiction.

Intercity transportation and goods movement are also concerns of MPOs. Some MPOs and COGs function as airport authorities.  Any airports, seaports, rail facilities, intermodal terminals, or intercity bus stations must be taken into account when drafting roadway, transit, or bike/ped plans.MPOs do not have the authority to directly tax or implement user fees. They depend on budget appropriations from the federal government. Each year, Federal highway and transit programs are subjected to a Metropolitan Planning Funds (known as PL Funds) takedown, which directs 1.25% of total funding toward transportation planning activities at MPOs. Funding pools which are subject to the takedown are the: Surface Transportation (STP), Interstate Maintenance (IM), Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ), Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation, and National Highway System Programs. If transit is provided within the MPO area, most types of transit funding are also subject to the PL Funds takedown.

MPOs are free to collect membership dues from the jurisdictions it covers. Since the boards of MPOs are comprised of member cities, counties, and townships, these membership dues amount to a voluntary contribution to the MPO. Funds collected as membership dues create a pool of flexible dollars that can be used for a variety of activities. For example, dues could be used for activities that are not permissible uses for PL funds such as advocacy, marketing, or business development.

Each year’s PL figure is delivered to the states through a formula allocation. The PL Funds formula is based on the state’s population residing within urbanized areas.  In turn, each state distributes federal PL funds to the MPOs within each state. Each state’s formula varies, but usually takes into account lane miles, vehicle miles traveled, population, and other factors.

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