Terrific article on MPOs, their importance, and why they need to be fixed.
Transportation Reform: Restore Local Control, Accountability
By Ross Kesceg
February 16, 2015
Before throwing more tax money at a misunderstood transportation crisis, the legislature should first maximize the effectiveness of existing funds. But in addition to placing restrictions on how tax dollars are used, the legislature should also restrict the ability of regional governments to undermine sound policy.
The culprits behind most of Texas’ non-road transportation waste are Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs). They are federally mandated planning bureaucracies that have taken control of “voluntary” regional governments created by the legislature, such as the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG). COGs claim to help local governments coordinate projects, but in reality, they are an unnecessary layer of government one-step removed from voters that takes power away from locally elected officials.
MPOs enable Washington, D.C. to indirectly control all transportation policy. They also give political cover to liberal-leaning local politicians. Although MPO voting members include locally elected officials from larger member cities, they also include bureaucrats from transit agencies, toll authorities and TxDOT. In any case, none of the voting members are elected by voters to serve on the MPO, yet they wield near-dictatorial control over funding for every transportation project in their region.
This regional approval process takes control away from locally elected officials by placing a middleman between the legislature, TxDOT and local governments. In order for a transportation project to be included in Texas’ federally mandated transportation improvement plan (STIP), an MPO must first approve the project.
MPOs ultimately shield policy culpability from voters because local officials can simply blame the MPO, who voters do not elect, for transportation waste like TexRail in Tarrant County. Local officials are often fearful of opposing wasteful projects because doing so jeopardizes other necessary items from being approved.
In other words, the MPO can hold TxDOT funds hostage if a city official speaks out in opposition. This puts city officials at odds with whatever select group of politicians and bureaucrats serve on an MPO as voting members. As a result, local officials remain largely silent, standing by in omission to rampant taxpayer abuse.
First and foremost, the legislature should restrict how MPOs use all state and federal funds, which would minimize the amount of tax dollars flowing through MPOs to non-road waste. MPOs have already admitted that Proposition 1 money will simply replace funds that aren’t currently restricted, essentially freeing up more financing for toll roads and trains. This is why state-imposed restrictions on all funds are vital.
The state cannot untie the strings attached to federal funds with state law, but it does have absolute dominion over TxDOT through which the bulk of funds flow, and can restrict the scope of projects it funds in partnership with MPOs.
The legislature should also remove the policy-making authority of MPOs and COGs. Again, the state can’t re-write federal law, but it can control what authority COGs exercise in addition to how they direct tax dollars. If COGs refuse to comply, the state can withhold its contribution to a COG’s budget—the NCTCOG has an annual budget of $173 million.
COGs and MPOs are now pushing to expand their reach to include economic development. If the legislature refuses to restrict the current authority they wield, county and local sovereignty may be lost altogether. Only the officials vested with local governing authority and elected by voters should govern, not amorphous, appointed bodies of select politicians, transit agencies and unelected bureaucrats.
Regional governments are wasteful, redundant and bureaucratic intermediaries. It’s time the Republican-led legislature reins them in, before they become too big to tame. After all, complexity is the enemy of transparency, and MPOs have made transportation policy hopelessly complex.