Texas drivers are fed up with the dysfunctional predicament of our state’s transportation system. While many local politicians cast blame at the state, it is fitting that their search for whom to blame should begin with a look in the mirror. Taxpayers ought to know the true genesis of many indefensible policy and project decisions made by TxDOT and Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs): Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs).
Currently, Texas’ 25 MPOs engorge themselves on billions of dollars in the form of federal and state transportation funds, grants, and other taxpayer-funded sources. Some MPOs even dictate how member governments can use toll revenue generated by toll roads in their own jurisdictions.
The state’s largest MPO is notorious for throwing its weight around to get what it wants to the detriment of taxpayers and drivers. In the Metroplex, the MPO known as the Regional Transportation Council or “RTC” is behind the explosion of tolling and enormous transit waste in North Texas.
Lacking very little legal authority, the real power of MPOs lies in their federal mandate: the ability to dictate projects pursued by TxDOT and RMAs. Under federal law, each state must adopt a Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) that includes projects exclusively proposed by state MPOs.
MPO planners are some of the most powerful bureaucrats in the state due to this ability to direct billions of dollars in state transportation funds. In the case of the RTC, the top transportation planner, Michael Morris wields greater influence than most lobbyists, elected officials, or businessmen when it comes to politics in the Metroplex.
This ability to create winners and losers with the stroke of a pen is nothing new to transportation politics; yet judging by the projects submitted to TxDOT in MPO planning documents, the biggest losers are Texas taxpayers.
Seemingly, every anti-taxpayer project of controversy currently at issue in the Lone Star State can be traced back to local MPOs.
The tolling of U.S. 75 in Collin County, Austin’s light-rail, San Antonio’s streetcar, El Paso’s trolley, and nearly every major expansion of tolling in North Texas all find their origins in MPO plans.
MPOs also lobby their state officials on legislation. The RTC has an extensive, anti-taxpayer legislative agenda for the upcoming session. This document includes support for the creation of billion-dollar high-speed passenger rail, eminent domain for private toll developers, and red-light cameras as a revenue stream for the state. “Fact sheet” documents published by the RTC even shill for these controversial agenda items at taxpayers’ expense.
Proponents of MPOs claim that locally elected leaders direct policy and thus add “local control” to transportation expenditures. Given the experience of some elected officials on MPO boards, this notion of local decision-making is comically inaccurate. It can better be described as regional control with large power-players running roughshod over local leadership.
Outsized positions for urban politicians and transit agency bureaucrats ensure that the boards of officials overseeing MPOs have a decidedly anti-taxpayer leftward lean.
Low voter visibility, multiple layers of political insulation, and a steady stream of federal dollars give MPO staff the power to “balkanize” TxDOT’s state transportation functions by region to the detriment of a coherent, equitable state transportation policy.
Texans deserve an efficient, accountable, and effective state transportation agency. The federally mandated and funded, anti-taxpayer absurdity from MPOs severely hinder this goal-and many local officials are just as culpable for transportation failures as TxDOT.
This November, voters should ask the tough questions of their local leaders when it comes to the work of MPOs in their jurisdiction—after all, many are the cradles of state transportation dysfunction.