Transit investment lagged in regions where MPO boards did not give equal representation to city populations, Detroit being an especially bad example. In more democratic metros, investment was much more balanced. Image: Nelson, 2003
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. MPOs and COGs are powerful forces shaping metro regions. 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.