Navigating the Regional Transportation Funding Maze

by Mariia Zimmerman


It is hard to believe that the final weeks of summer are upon us. I’ve spent a fair amount of my “summer vacation” examining how metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) use their planning and programming tools to support livable communities.This is a question that a growing number of regions are interested in learning to help them make better investments with scarce public resources.

The vast majority of federal transportation funds are allocated to states, transit agencies and regions to distribute through a rather opaque process that varies greatly from community to community. This was the case even in the days of rampant Congressional earmarking. A number of groups such as PIRG and the Brookings Institution have tried to follow the money trail over the years. Uncovering how federal funds are used requires a fair amount of perseverance, but trying to understand what lies behind these funding decisions has felt, at times, feels like an Quixote quest.  However, we are beginning to build a larger body of knowledge and there are some really great examples from the field.

Last week I joined several MPOs for a webinar hosted by Reconnecting America on innovative use of MPO funding tools with spotlights on the Broward, Florida MPO, the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Metropolitan Council in Minnesota.  This October 20-23 at the Rail~Volution Conference in Seattle, I am moderating a panel of stellar MPO rock stars and sharing highlights from a forthcoming publication MZ Strategies, LLC developed for Enterprise Community Partners on how MPOs can utilize MAP-21 funding to support Equitable Transit-Oriented Development. Stay tuned, and I'd love to see you there!

Through this work I’ve come to appreciate the diversity of approaches and the importance of ensuring that federal programs can be tailored to advance regional planning priorities while also meeting local needs and appetite for innovation – both of which vary widely across the country.

Regions such as Atlanta and San Francisco Bay Area, to name a few, are creating discretionary grant funds with a portion of their federal transportation formula funds to support planning and capital investments by local jurisdictions to ensure the regional transportation network can function.  These include investments in transit, bicycling and pedestrian safety and mobility improvements but also in investments in land use and development patterns that provide transportation benefits, while also making great neighborhoods.

Other regions such as Seattle and the Twin Cities are re-examining the process and criteria they use to allocate funding. Inherent across many leading-edge MPOs is the strategy of maximizing the flexibility provided through federal "highway" funds to also invest in bridges, transit, bicycling, pedestrian and pre-development activities. Whether referred to as the Transportation Investment Program, the Regional Allocation or Solicitation Process, or other name unique to your region, these efforts are an important (albeit technical) opportunity to align millions of dollars of annual federal transportation funding with regional long-range transportation, economic development, and growth plans.

Yet, it has been interesting to learn how little most MPOs know about how other regions approach this process. Or how little weight appears to be given in some regions to federal priorities such as safety, maintaining existing infrastructure and transit service, or reducing vehicle miles traveled or carbon emissions. The Federal Highway Administration supported a peer exchange on this topic in 2007, but  broader guidance or research on best practices is severely limited.

As we collectively wait to see what guidance the US Department of Transportation will provide on national performance standards required under MAP-21, it is an incredibly interesting time to see how MPOs and state departments of transportation are charting new territory in this regard.  The debate over transportation funding is already starting with MAP-21 up for re-authorization next year. We need to ensure continued flexibility of federal funds to meet locally-determined priorities, but we also need to improve the transparency of this process.