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Working with Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO)

Delaware & Lehigh Trail | Photo by Thom Carroll

What is an MPO?

A Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is a transportation policy-making body comprising representatives from local government and various transportation authorities. Every metropolitan area with a population of 50,000 or more is federally mandated to have an MPO.

MPOs oversee the region’s transportation planning, facilitating collaboration between governments, interested parties and residents in the planning process. Through a continuing, comprehensive and cooperative planning process (commonly known as 3C), MPOs give local communities an avenue to participate in decision-making so that their local transportation needs are reflected in regional priorities.

MPOs will often take a leading role in promoting regional mobility. They are uniquely positioned to engage and coordinate stakeholders, produce data and facilitate information sharing across jurisdictions. The vision, goals and objectives set during the planning process in turn guide investments to promote walking and biking. Specifically, MPOs make decisions about the allocation of federal transportation dollars within the metropolitan area based on these regional plans. The dollars may fund roadway, transit, freight, bicycle and pedestrian and other regionally significant transportation projects.

An urbanized area with a population greater than 200,000 is designated a Transportation Management Area (TMA). Since larger urbanized areas tend to have bigger and more complex transportation challenges, MPOs in such areas tend to have additional planning responsibilities.

What Exactly do MPOs do?

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the core functions of an MPO are to:

Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP)

The transportation vision for the metro area is contained in the Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP). The LRTP covers a planning horizon of at least 20 years, with updates every 5 years. The plan outlines regional goals throughout the period, and then details priority investments and anticipated funding to help achieve those outcomes. The LRTP is created in a participatory planning process, while keeping in mind issues ranging from regional economic development to mobility of goods and services and even environmental justice. The plan helps create a synergy between policies and plans at the local and state levels.

You might find that trails are included under a bike and/or pedestrian component of the plan. For example, the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization has incorporated their metro area’s 2040 Bike/Pedestrian Needs Plan, which includes trail improvement projects, into the 2040 LRTP. If one exists, a regional bicycle and pedestrian plan will often be integrated into the LRTP, and then used to guide bike/ped priorities.

Transportation Improvement Program (TIP)

The Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) breaks down the LRTP into short-term and actionable chunks. The TIP contains priority transportation improvement projects derived from the LRTP to be commenced within a four to five-year planning window. The projects are fiscally constrained, meaning they should be consistent with available and expected funding. Ultimately, to receive federal transportation funding, a project must be included in the TIP. The Miami-Dade TPO has an interactive portal to view a list of projects, maps and costs in their TIP.

Unified Planning Work Program (UPWP)

The last and most detailed step in the planning process is preparing a Unified Planning Work Program (UPWP). The purpose of this document is to help coordinate the planning activities of all involved. It specifies the schedule, projected costs and resources required for planned projects, including planning studies and evaluations. The UPWP is prepared annually.

How are MPOs Structured?

MPOs generally have broad latitude to decide what structure works for them, so they will differ from place to place. An MPO might be a standalone agency with a sole focus on transportation, or may be integrated into a host agency that has oversight functions beyond transportation. MPOs are often housed under Councils of Government, for example, which are regional planning agencies composed of elected officials from jurisdictions within the metro area. Other MPOs may be part of a transportation authority or housed within a county or municipal government.

Whatever the case, MPOs usually consist of a policy board, made up of elected officials from the MPO’s jurisdiction and representatives of transportation authorities. This is the main decision-making body of the organization. Representatives on the board most often have one vote, though the law leaves voting structure up to each MPO to work out. Policy board meetings are open to the public. MPOs in Transportation Management Areas must also include officials of public transportation agencies in the metro area on their policy boards, as well as appropriate state officials.

To inform the decision-making, the board relies on advisory committees. Most MPOs will have at the very least a Technical Advisory Committee and a Citizen Advisory Committee. There might also be subcommittees on specific issues including safety, environmental justice and bicycle and pedestrian issues.

An MPO will also have a staff to support the board. Depending on the size of the MPO, staffing numbers can range from two (often just Executive Director and a transportation planner) to dozens. They are the ones with the technical expertise to manage the planning process, including preparing documents and facilitating public input.

Why are MPOs Important?  

By now, it should be clear how and why MPOs play a crucial role in regional transportation planning. But where do trails fit in?

First and foremost, it is important and beneficial to advocate for the inclusion of trails in an LRTP and other regional transportation plans, since these documents can provide support for future trail systems and assist trail advocates in finding funding for the construction and maintenance of trails. MPOs almost always have competing modal priorities, but there are many examples of MPOs that readily recognize the importance of trails. For instance, the plan produced by the MPO for Black Hawk County, Iowa, comprehensively integrates the area’s growing trail system with broader regional transportation needs. The Lexington Area MPO in Kentucky actually earmarks a certain percentage of funding for bike/ped projects according to their regional plan, which specifically emphasizes off-road trails.

Further, MPOs effective control of access to federal transportation funding makes working with them a must. Some context: in 2012, the federal Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) combined several bicycle and pedestrian funding programs into the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), which represents the biggest federal source of trail funding. That law was succeeded in 2015 by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which reorganized TAP into a set-aside of the Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) program.

Under the law, MPOs are mandated to develop a competitive process for awarding TAP funds to local entities such as transportation planning agencies, school districts, local governments and other organizations. You can read more about the federal funding sources channeled through MPOs, as well as other sources of funding for trails, in the Acquisition Funding page of the Trail-Building Toolbox.

Finally, MPOs sometimes go beyond simply factoring trails into their planning and doling out funds to actively encouraging the growth, development and use of trails and trail networks. In the Greater Philadelphia region, for instance, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) has partnered with other groups, including RTC, to help develop The Circuit, a planned 750-mile network of multiuse trails in the region. In this case, DVRPC leverages its unique structure and large professional staff to help ground the effort in policy, build political will and source funding. In the Fargo-Moorhead region of North Dakota and Minnesota, the MPO has mapped their multiuse paths and other bicycle infrastructure and provides resources to encourage biking under an initiative called Bike FM.

How to Engage Your MPO

The following are specific tips for engaging and working with your MPO:

Conclusion

MPOs differ widely in terms of structure and level of influence on transportation priorities, so it’s important that you do your homework. It might be possible, for example, that your state’s department of transportation or local leadership have more of a say on which projects sit at the top of the pile than your MPO.

When approaching an MPO for the first time, a great place to start is the organization’s website. You can find any of the more than 400 MPOs around the United States here. The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section of each MPO’s website will usually give a quick overview. You can also find other relevant information on their website, such as board structures, board and committee meeting schedules, staff contacts and planning documents.

Look for projects similar to yours within the MPO’s service area and try to understand from those involved the politics and process of their funding source. They may also be able to direct you to the right folks to help champion your trail.

Some MPOs can be less than enthusiastic about trails, and might instead choose to focus their energies on other modes, like highways or transit. You can try to move the dial through the steps outlined above (relationships with staff, attending meetings). You can also try to demonstrate that your project has public support, and you should consider joining together with other like-minded folks looking to develop trails to help amplify your cause. Alternatively, or in tandem, engage a local elected representative to help fight for your trail. What works will depend on your context. Just remain professional and be aware that you might have to be in it for the long-haul.

Resources

‣ Plan – The Sioux Falls MPO Multi-use Trail Study

‣ Plan – Spalding County Rail with Trail Mutli-Use Study

TrailNation Collaborative

TrailNation Collaborative is a nationwide peer learning community from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that brings together advocates, leaders and professionals from across disciplines to establish and accelerate trail networks across America. The collaborative provides proven tools, methods and resources, combined with RTC’s expertise and network of partners across the country, to accelerate the development of connected trail systems. When trails are connected across regions and states, trail networks have a proven transformative impact—they are essential infrastructure that creates thriving, healthier communities.

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