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Could MPOs replace states as the most important subdivision of government?

The former mayor of Seattle thinks states should be abolished, because in just about all of them the economic engine urban areas are hamstrung by legislatures controlled mainly by rural interests. It’s not just the money, it’s also the regulations and project selections, so that even when cities do get their share of funding it often doesn’t go to urban priorities. From transportation to gun laws, cities are getting screwed left and right.

Northern Virginia suffers famously from this problem, but it’s a national issue. In Virginia it may be the Bank of Fairfax, but in Washington state it’s the Bank of Seattle, in Colorado it’s the Bank of Denver, and in Missouri it’s the Bank of Saint Louis and Kansas City.

While abolishing the states may be unlikely (more like unconstitutional), this is a problem that can be fixed with less drastic reform, at least as it relates to transportation. Currently, most transportation funding, regulating, and decision-making is handled by state Departments of Transportation. The VDOTs and MDOTs of the world control not only state-generated funds, but also their state’s shares of federally-generated funds. Federal gas tax revenue is simply transferred to state DOTs, who do with it what they will.

Except it doesn’t have to work that way. Every six years Congress adopts a transportation authorization bill that guides how funding will work for the next six year period, and any time that bill comes up for renewal, Congress can rewrite whatever parts of it they want. It so happens that the transportation bill is due to be rewritten this year, and some parties think it’s time for the most drastic revision in decades. It’s entirely possible that Congress could shift some or even all federal transportation funding to some other level of government, such as Metropolitan Planning Organizations, which are tailor made for, well, metropolitan planning.

How likely is such a shift? If the Obama administration’s moves on transportation so far are any indication, it could be more likely than ever. Since taking office the new administration has launched multiple new programs that don’t follow the old give-money-to-states-and-let-them-decide formula. Even if Obama doesn’t come out to support a wholesale castration of state DOTs, it seems inevitable that at least some money that used to go to states will now be allocated some other way.

When the transportation bill finally comes before Congress later this year or next, expect this to be a point of debate.

April 26th, 2010 | Permalink
Tags: government, transportation



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