Study Examines Land Use and Transportation Decisions in Metro Areas


Leadership from elected officials and access to federal and state funding are crucial components for successful transportation and land use planning in urban areas, according to a study recently completed by Portland State University’s National Policy Consensus Center.

The study, “Regional Transportation and Land Use Decision Making In Metropolitan Regions: Findings From Four Case Studies” (Read The Full Report Here) looked at efforts by regional agencies in four urban areas to coordinate land use and transportation via governance, coordination, growth centers and transportation improvement programs. The study is part of an OTREC project led by Rich Margerum of the University of Oregon’s Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management.

Margerum, along with Robert Parker of UO and Susan Brody and Gail McEwen of the National Policy Consensus Center, looked at the Puget Sound Regional Council in Washington, Metro in Oregon, the Denver Regional Council of Governments in Colorado and the San Diego Association of Governments in California for the project. The team examined literature and reports, conducted 40 interviews and also conducted an online survey of over 450 individuals within the four regions. In addition, a symposium was held in September 2010 with representatives from the four regions, the US Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency and other federal transportation officials.

One issue that arose in all four regions, Margerum said, was the complexity of regional boundaries encompassed by Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs).

“Portland’s Metro alone encompasses 25 cities,” Margerum said. “This is further complicated by the fact that the MPO doesn’t encompass the travel shed, which extends north in Washington and south into Salem. It’s not just about coordination within metro areas but coordination across other boundaries into other states.”

Another challenge for the four regions was coordinating land use and transportation planning efforts with state Departments of Transportation. While regions like Portland are looking at planning for open space, affordable housing and other livability issues in addition to transit, the goal of most DOTs is to move goods and services as efficiently as possible, Margerum said. These goals often don’t mesh and can lead to tensions between agencies.

“In all four regions we found tensions between how the state spends it’s funding and how the MPOs spend their funding,” Margerum said. “Portland and Puget Sound control much smaller portions of funding that occur within their metro regions than their state DOTs. This is less true in Denver and San Diego because they have a sales tax fund controlled by their MPOs.”

Funding and decision making power were also key for MPOs. While Portland and the Puget Sound can’t rely on a sales tax for funding, they have more power to make decisions than MPOs in San Diego and Denver. However, Portland and Puget Sound have fewer tools to purchase things like open space or to make direct investments in transit than MPOs in San Diego and Denver. While sales tax is one way to address the issue of funding, Margerum said more funding at the state or federal level could be passed through MPOs rather than state agencies to give MPOs more buying power.

“It’s not an increase in funding but a change in who controls funding,” Margerum said. “This is something that occurs in California. The state has a formula where federal and state funding is divvied up and there is an automatic pass-through of dollars to MPOs. It’s not without controversy, however, because then you have less funding at a state level.”

Most important to a successful MPO, Margerum said, is active engagement by elected officials in MPO planning efforts. The study found that all four areas had mayors and city councilors on their boards making direct decisions about transit investment and planning. The decisions these officials make, and the level at which official are engaged in planning efforts, can effect where funds go for projects, Magerum said.

The team has proposed a follow-up study to assess how local governments have responded to plans made by MPOs in terms of changes to city codes, policies and zoning. Margerum will also be involved in a pilot study this summer examining problems that have arisen from regional planning efforts and how elected officials have responded.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘We’re going to make an urban transportation center’,” Margerum said, “It’s another to do it, especially in a challenging market. What do you need to trigger responsible transit development in these areas?”

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