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Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

Indianapolis Needs a New MPO Structure

Every metro area is required by federal law to have a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which produces documents that are required to obtain federal funding for transportation projects.

I saw this article about how Shelby County has decided not to provide any funding to the Indianapolis MPO. This result isn’t surprising in itself. Shelby County has long been one of the most insular anywhere in Indiana, which is one of the reasons I attribute for its anemic growth rate despite having phenomenal infrastructure. (To be consistent with their own principles, Shelby County should probably give back all the Major Moves money they’ve been allocated to the Toll Road counties).

The fact that the MPO has to go around hat in hand begging for donations is the real highlight of the story. The Indianapolis MPO has an interesting structure. It has a regional governance council, but effectively operates as a department of the city of Indianapolis, which pays its bills. Because the Indianapolis MPO covers the absolute minimum amount of territory allowed by law, and because the vast bulk of this was in Indianapolis, this made sense historically. But today Indianapolis is in a financial crisis and can’t afford to cover the MPO’s bills. What’s more, the surrounding areas now make up a much greater percentage of the region’s people and traffic. The structure of the MPO hasn’t kept pace. This has led to the MPO going around to various jurisdictions in the region begging for funds as noted above. To their credit, the vast majority of these have anted up. Moving forward though, a better structure needs to be put in place.

It is clear that there is a burning platform for change. The changing population distribution of the region, the city’s financial crunch, and dissatisfaction with the current approach are driving change. Hamilton County, for example, is considering setting up its own county MPO after the 2010 Census when its population exceeds the threshold allowing it to do so. (This would still require the Governor’s approval). It also seems that the MPO is putting everything except essential services in the deep freeze. It hasn’t published a short term transportation plan in quite a while, with no projects shown for 2009 or 2010, but is instead functioning just by amending things in as they come up. The long range plan needs updating, but the update project appears to have died on the vine. Presumably funding is the problem.

I believe fragmentation is the wrong approach. It compromises on building a truly integrated transportation system that spans the region. For example, a proposed transit system would serve Marion and Hamilton County. Improvements to I-465 and I-69 span both counties as well. And starving the MPO of funds short changes the region and the public.

The right answer is to reconstitute a proper regional MPO. This is what is done in most places. This secures both the funding source, and sets up a governance and administration model that is independent of the city. The existing staff, which is actually quite good, could transfer to become the core of the newly constituted agency.

I believe this should also be a truly regional agency, planning for the entire nine county region except Shelby County, which is likely to remain predominantly rural. (A small portion of Shelby County probably has to be included by law, but the MPO should petition to leave it out). Anderson and Madison County today have their own MPO, but this should be merged into the new agency. The Indianapolis and Anderson urbanized areas have effectively merged, and it is highly likely that Madison County will be added back to the MSA after the next census. In fact, it should be part of the MSA now but only is not because they specifically petitioned to be removed.

This type of structure is what is used in Cincinnati (where the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana (OKI) council of government actually does transportation planning for three states) and in Louisville (where the Kentuckiana Regional Planning and Development Agenda (KIPDA) does planning in two states). If these two famously fragmented metros that are well known for a lack of regional cooperation can create integrated, multi-county and indeed multi-state transportation planning agencies, it seems to me that the much more unified Indianapolis region could do the same. Obviously it would take a lot of negotiation to do, but it is the right move to make.

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Topics: Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

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