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PORTSIDE  July 2011, Week 4

PORTSIDE July 2011, Week 4

Subject:

Meet the Obscure Unelected Agencies Strangling Many U.S. Cities

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Date:

Mon, 25 Jul 2011 01:53:26 -0400

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Meet the Obscure Unelected Agencies Strangling Many
U.S. Cities
DC Streets Blog
by Angie Schmitt
July 21, 2011
http://dc.streetsblog.org/2011/07/21/meet-the-obscure-unelected-agencies-strangling-many-u-s-cities/

Do you know the name of your local Metropolitan Planning
Organization or Council of Government? Most Americans
don't. In fact, most people probably have no idea these
agencies even exist, let alone what they do. Yet they
are surprisingly powerful and play a substantial role in
shaping the places where we live and work.

Led by unelected boards, MPOs and COGs, as they're
known, are a special breed among government agencies.
They lack the authority to issue taxes or impose laws.
As such, they go largely unmentioned in the media and
are mostly unknown to local residents, outside of the
most wonkish circles. But the low profile of MPOs and
COGs belies their considerable power.

Despite their limitations, they represent the strongest
form of regional governance we've got in the United
States, crossing city and county lines. More
importantly, they disperse hundreds of millions of
federal transportation dollars annually. While these
agencies often distribute transportation funds more
fairly than state DOTs, many of them are structured in a
way that favors sprawl and undermines cities.

MPOs and COGs can be profoundly undemocratic. They are
governed by boards of public officeholders, but there is
no requirement that they be in any way representative of
the region's population. In fact, the general rule that
governs the composition of MPO boards is "one place, one
vote," rather than the more traditional "one person, one
vote." This often produces decisions dramatically skewed
toward suburban and rural interests.

For example, greater Milwaukee's MPO, known by the
unwieldy acronym SEWRPC, is governed by a board of 21
members, three from each of the counties that make up
the planning region. That means that the city of
Milwaukee - population nearly 600,000 - has zero
representatives on the commission that distributes
millions of dollars for transportation throughout the
region. It is not guaranteed any votes. The city's only
voting power comes from the three seats given to
Milwaukee County - and those must be spread between the
central city and many suburbs. Meanwhile, rural Walworth
County - population 100,000 - is guaranteed three votes.

Milwaukee is an especially egregious case. But
unfortunately, this general pattern is more the norm
than the exception. A 1999 Brookings Institution study
[PDF] found that central cities were under-represented
in as many as 92 percent of MPOs and COGs.

That bias can have a strong impact on policy, further
research has shown. A 2003 study by researchers at
Virginia Tech found that for each additional suburban
member on an MPO board, there was a 1 to 9 percent
decrease in funding for transit - with highways being
the favored alternative.

Researchers examined three regions where boards were
unrepresentative and three regions where they were
proportional to population. They found significant
differences: Transit investment varied from a low of 3.2
percent in Detroit (unrepresentative) to 50 percent in
Seattle (proportional).

Across the country, the composition of MPO boards varies
wildly. The only federal requirement is that at least 75
percent of the region be represented in some capacity,
said Delania Hardy, director of the Association of
Metropolitan Planning Agencies. And while there are
plenty of examples of places where there is room for
improvement, she said, there are also good examples.

While Milwaukee represents one extreme, Portland
embodies another. This region is the only place in the
country where the MPO board is not only representative
of the region's population, but also directly elected by
the local population.

In late 2009, Myron Orfield, author of "American
Metropolitics," set out to determine which metro areas
had the most effective regional planning agencies. He
evaluated the country's 25 largest metro regions [PDF]
on indicators such as sprawl, segregation, growth and
fiscal equity. Portland was the runaway standout.

"They have a very good urban growth boundary. They
cluster jobs at defined job centers. They require that
all communities build their fair share of affordable
housing. They have low and decreasing segregation," he
said. "On every measure that we care about, it does
well."

Outside of having directly elected MPO representatives,
Portland has some other advantages, a strong land use
policy framework being the most notable. But allowing
the public to directly elect the people who will shape
their region is also important, Orfield said.

"If you don't have it up for election, it's really hard
for people to participate," he said. "It's sort of a
general principle of democracy."

During the last round of negotiations over the federal
transportation bill, in 2009, Orfield joined the
National Association of City Transportation Officials in
lobbying for MPO reform. His legislation would have
required proportional representation for directly-
elected MPO boards. The reforms were adopted into the
transportation reauthorization bill put forward by Rep.
Jim Oberstar (D-MN) but never became law.

Some communities are making progress toward important
sustainability and equity goals on their own. Orfield
pointed to Chicago, Washington D.C., Seattle, San Diego,
and even Raleigh, North Carolina.

"Regions with more proportional representation tend to
do a better job," he said.

Detroit's MPO is dominated by rural and suburban
interests. Its transit system is uniquely dysfunctional
among large metro areas. Photo: Beaumont Enterprise

On the other hand you have Detoit's SEMCOG, which is
responsible for dispersing $1 billion in federal funds
annually. In 2006, SEMCOG was the subject of a civil
rights lawsuit over the composition of its executive
committee. At the time, the agency had allocated three
delegates to the city of Detroit, representing more than
900,000 people. Meanwhile, Livingston County - which has
a population of less than 200,000 people - was given
four delegates.

Discrepancies like this can be especially insidious for
people of color. For example, at the time of the
lawsuit, Detroit was more than 80 percent African-
American. Meanwhile Livingston County, on the opposite
extreme, is less than one percent African-American,
according to a court deposition.

The suit was dismissed because the court determined the
principle of "one person, one vote" does not apply to
appointed positions. Five years later, not much has
changed, says Ponscella Hardaway, director of MOSES, the
low-income advocacy group that brought suit against
SEMCOG.

In a symbol of regional failure, Detroit is unique among
large metros for operating separate transit systems for
its central city and the surrounding suburbs - a
byproduct of the Motor City's stark racial segregation.
That creates a logistical nightmare for transit riders.

SEMCOG "could have taken some leadership" on this issue,
said Hardaway. "Their vision for regional cooperation is
not matched with their actions. It's almost like they're
a nonentity."

As you might expect, the Detroit region performs poorly
on the measures Orfield used to measure effective
regional planning.

"It is really probably the worst in the country," said
Orfield. "Detroit builds massive highways into
cornfields and doesn't reinvest in the existing
infrastructure or build transit. Detroit is a
catastrophe."

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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