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Ready-to-Go Regionalism

It's time to give metropolitan planning organizations real power.


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.


Commented April 29, 2009

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Once I was given a tour of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, by the city planning director. It was a pretty grim sight: long rows of empty downtown storefronts, and huge commercial spaces that nobody could come up with a use for. The reason was simple enough: McKeesport was a dying steel town. It had 55,000 residents in 1940, but only 24,000 at the end of the century. Still, all the infrastructure for the older city was still in place. As the planning director put it, "We're like a 300-pound man who loses 150 pounds and still tries to wear his old suits."

I think about that story pretty often, with regard to declining big cities as well as small industrial towns. I think about it in relation to Buffalo and in particular the Buffalo City Hall, one of the most bizarre public buildings I have ever seen. It is a massive fortress, 32 stories high, floor upon floor filled with agencies whose function is impossible to determine from the name. Roaming the corridors, as I did a few years ago, I got the feeling that they housed remote outposts of city government that didn't do much and didn't have anybody on the outside paying attention to them. Two blocks away, an Erie County headquarters building provides many of the same services to the same citizens. All this in a city that has lost more than half its population in the past half-century, and a county that is facing population decline even in some of its more affluent suburban areas.

Buffalo has a problem similar to that of McKeesport, but it is a problem of government more than of urban planning. Both the city and county need a thorough bureaucratic housecleaning that would save money and make the whole region more competitive in attracting the new business it badly needs.

Of course, people have been saying that in Buffalo for decades. Some have tried to do something about it. Joel Giambra became Erie County executive in 2000, pledging to create a regional government that would eliminate all the duplication and phantom agencies and place the area on a sound fiscal footing for the first time in a generation. Giambra was unable to get it done, in part because he didn't manage county finances very well but even more because the 45 separate political jurisdictions that exist within the county just weren't motivated to come together.

Buffalo is in worse shape than most American cities, economically and demographically. But dozens of them have been engaging in the same debate for years, understanding at some level that cities and suburbs have to function together as regions, but unable or unwilling to make the sacrifices that could help bring it about. Louisville managed a successful city-county consolidation in 2005, under the skillful leadership of Mayor Jerry Abramson, but not many places have a Jerry Abramson. Right now regionalism and the right-sizing of government for the 21st century are on the back burner in most metropolitan areas. They certainly are in Buffalo. One might be tempted to conclude that urban America will never get genuine regional governments, no matter how badly it might need them.

But that's only part of the story because, hard as it may be to believe, every one of the large metro areas in the country already has a regional government. It has a council called a "metropolitan planning organization." If we figured out a better way to use these entities, we wouldn't need to do anything half so complicated as Joel Giambra tried to do in Buffalo.

The history of MPOs can be told in a relatively short space. Almost every metro area has had planning bodies of some sort for the past century, often several at a time, but for 50 years they were essentially volunteer groups and those in political power paid little attention to them. In 1973, Congress changed that by requiring each metro region to designate an official MPO to participate in transportation planning and land use, and giving them some resources to help them do their research.

A couple of places took this language and ran with it. Portland, Oregon, created a metro council with broad powers and a membership directly elected by the voters. Minnesota's Twin Cities got a council appointed by the governor, but still with considerable influence over key regional planning decisions.

But those were outliers. The vast majority of MPOs spent the two decades after 1973 under the thumb of state transportation departments, which made the important choices and pressured MPOs to rubber stamp them.

Then, in 1993, under the prodding of U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the new ISTEA transportation law offered MPOs a whole new set of tools. It doubled their budgets and gave them lead authority over some federally sponsored transportation projects. The states were forced to negotiate with MPOs as they acquired--theoretically, at least--the power to veto major projects.

But this new arrangement has been only a mixed success. Some MPOs, such as the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City, have used their resources to become not only a player in transportation policy but also a clearinghouse for the sharing of services among financially strapped localities. In Chicago, after a decade of false starts, the newly created Metropolitan Agency for Planning managed to break free of state control and, by developing close ties to the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley, made itself into a force that no government in the area could afford to ignore.

In most of the country, though, MPOs haven't done a great deal with the tools Moynihan gave them. In Los Angeles, as recounted by the political scientist Margaret Weir in her recent study, "Collaboration Is Not Enough," the MPO essentially remained a debating society in which a plethora of interest groups struggled to be heard but made little impact on public policy. More often, the elected city and county officials who held seats in these regional bodies simply used them to protect parochial interests rather than to make plans for the region as a whole.

Looking at the history of MPOs over the past generation, one might decide that, occasional success stories notwithstanding, they are never destined to evolve into genuine regional governments. I'm not sure that's true. Certainly, most of them haven't seized the vague and tentative powers the federal government has given them. But what if the feds gave them more than that? What if Congress gave MPOs a pile of money and essentially required them to set priorities on how to spend it? I'm not talking about new money here; I'm talking about the transportation and planning money that already flows out of Washington through vehicles such as the economic stimulus and the transportation bill scheduled for consideration later this year. What if we just said to the MPOs, in effect, "This money will now go straight to you. Spend it in your region's interest."

The stimulus is already done. The MPOs didn't get much out of it. They were given statutory assurance of the rights they already possessed, but nothing like a new grant of power that might allow--or perhaps force--more of them to become real decision makers.

The transportation bill, however, remains to be written. This is the fundamental law that put MPOs on the map, to the extent they are on the map, in 1973 and 1993. With a few twists of legislative language, the 2009 transportation act could take a major step toward real regionalism in America.

I can't say with confidence that it is politically feasible. I'm not naïve about the way states, and particularly state transportation departments, would react to something like this. They would fight it to the bitter end. They might win.

I'm also aware that there are serious representational questions that many MPOs would need to solve. While some of them, like the one in Chicago, allocate votes at the table in rough proportion to the population of each jurisdiction, others are organized more like the United Nations: Every city or county in the area, regardless of size, gets one vote. If MPOs gained real power, this arrangement would likely be challenged as unconstitutional. But the smaller entities on most MPO councils would oppose such a reform, and perhaps in some cases paralyze the whole body as a result.

Even if these problems could somehow be solved, the MPOs themselves would need to mature. When you talk to people who serve on them, you hear a common complaint: Staff and members are comfortable with the current arrangement, in which they do research and make suggestions but are not politically accountable for the outcome. That would have to change in a hurry.

So I don't know if strengthening of MPOs is in the cards right now. But there's one thing I do know: If America has become a nation of metropolitan regions, as numerous studies suggest and the Obama administration appears to believe, then these regions need some form of government beyond fragmented cities and counties. I can think of only one plausible way to get there from here: Take what we have created and make something out of it.

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