MZ STRATEGIES, LLC
As part of its Regional Solicitation Evaluation process, the Metropolitan Council (Met Council) of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area asked MZ Strategies, LLC to undertake a short research effort to identify processes and criteria used by peer Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to allocate their federal Surface Transportation Program (STP), Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program, and Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) funds. The Met Council’s Transportation Advisory Board, responsible for managing the regional solicitation process and evaluation, identified six MPOs to research: Atlanta, Denver, Kansas City, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle.
In August 2013, MZ Strategies interviewed staff at each of these 6 MPOs and researched materials available online that further detail each region’s long-range transportation policies, solicitation process and criteria. Met Council staff and consultants worked with MZ Strategies to develop a set of questions asked of each region (See text box). The following report summarizes findings from this research, which was funded through a grant from the McKnight Foundation to the Transportation Funders Network to support work by MZ Strategies, LLC to further regional transportation innovation in the Twin Cities.
In evaluating its regional solicitation process, the Met Council wanted to know how other regions manage this process, including the extent to which federal highway funds are blended, how preservation and maintenance needs (particularly for transit) are met, and what type of alignment exists between selection criteria and regional policies or goals. Among the six MPO regions the following trends were observed and are summarized in Table 1: Regional Solicitation of Federal Transportation Funding Summary:
- Half of the regions blend federal funds in the solicitation process, allowing for the MPO to determine the best match of federal funding based on project type, eligibility, budgets and other regional priorities. This also allows for some projects to receive multiple types of funding, e.g. a transit investment may use both CMAQ and STP funds since it meet eligibility for both programs. Kansas City does not typically allow for blending of funds, but has in the past blended CMAQ and STP. The Met Council does not currently use a blended fund approach.
- Five of the 6 regions have established set-asides, most frequently of STP funds, to meet specific policy objectives such as maintenance and preservation, non-motorized transportation, or to fund local priorities. The Seattle-Tacoma MPO splits its blended funding 50/50 between a regional solicitation and a countywide solicitation; in addition to a $3 million set aside for Rural Town Centers and Corridors. Portland’s Metro maintains a set-aside for large regional projects such as light rail expansion. The Phoenix MPO, in contrast, uses formulas to assign funding to different project types that represent a mix of modal investments within CMAQ, STP, and TAP, and recently approved a set-aside in TAP for non-infrastructure projects. The Met Council has a limited set aside in CMAQ for Transportation Management Organizations and travel demand activities.
- Five of the 6 MPOs allow for bundling of smaller projects to help them score better in the application process, and also to provide some cost efficiencies and expedite project delivery. However, among these regions all reported that it is important to bundle similar project types or focus on a specific geographic area to ensure that environmental review is not jeopardized and can be done in a coordinated fashion. In Atlanta’s revised TAP solicitation, they encourage bundling bicycling/pedestrian projects to make investments in key corridors or centers such as sidewalk improvements at a transit station area. The Met Council has not encouraged project bundling.
- There is wide variation in how regions prioritize reconstruction, preservation and state of good repair. This reflects the differences in the age and quality of infrastructure, and in transportation funding. In Atlanta, for instance, severe transit operating shortages resulted in a $20 million annual set aside of STP urban funds for transit facilities. In Seattle, state highway funding shortages resulted in a one-time $25 million set aside for state of good repair specifically for highways. All regions use FTA formula funds (5307 urbanized formula grants and 5309 preventive maintenance grants) for on-going transit preservation needs. CMAQ and STP were also cited as frequent additional funding sources. Many include state of good repair in evaluation criteria. The Met Council primarily funds transit preservation needs through FTA Formula Funds.
- All 6 MPOs felt that regional priorities are effectively reflected in their solicitation process with project sponsors asked to report on how project advanced goals of long-range transportation plans. Only Portland and Seattle though have explicit criteria directly connected to regional economic development and equity goals. Seattle has established an equity mapping tool pre-populated with data on housing, education, employment that project sponsors need to complete to show the relationship of the proposed project to these regional centers and policy priorities. The other regions report that they implicitly incorporate non-transportation factors through a committee process (Denver), evaluation of funding on a per-capita basis (Kansas City), and balancing representation across jurisdictions and including the Economic Development team in project selection decision making (Phoenix). The Met Council solicitation application requires project sponsors to indicate how the project advances regional goals, but does not have explicit criteria nor are certain regional goals prioritized.
- Four of the 6 MPOs have specific goals for balancing investments across modes and explicitly encouraging multi-modal projects. Denver has set percentage targets for each category. Seattle has a set-aside for nonmotorized transportation and has flexed over 20% of its federal highway funds to transit. The Twin Cities primarily funds bike and pedestrian projects through TAP, transit and air quality related projects through CMAQ and roadway projects including “A” Minor arterials through STP which is the largest funding category. This appears to be a less balanced approach than the other 6 regions studied.
- All 6 regions coordinate closely with their state DOTs and transit agencies. In Denver both review selected projects before final approval into the TIP. Kansas City has a particularly complicated system of coordination since the metropolitan area covers two states. Common areas of specific coordination include state of good repair and project readiness. The Met Council and MnDOT also coordinate closely, and the Twin Cities is unique in having the MPO and regional transit provider housed together through the Met Council.
- All 6 regions work to fund a balance of regional and local projects with federal transportation dollars. Seattle distinctly splits its bundled federal funds between regional projects and local projects; and also has a set aside for rural areas of the metro region. Portland uses a regional set aside to fund large scale regionally important projects. Denver and Kansas City use a committee process to ensure local priorities are met. Bundling smaller projects is another tool for supporting local projects. The TAB process does not seek to balance between regional and local, but rather focuses on individual projects and the limited TDM set-aside.
All of the regions interviewed are either in the process of evaluating and/or revising their own solicitation process, or in the case of Atlanta have just completed such a process. The changes in MAP-21 are triggering much of this, but there is also a desire by regions to find a more streamlined and effective process for selecting projects that meet regional goals and priorities.
Finally, it is interesting to note that many of the regions have established a system for tracking and mapping information on projects funded in the TIP and through the regional solicitation process. The Puget Sound Regional Council implemented a project tracking program that requires project sponsors to meet adopted project tracking policies, which have improved the efficiency and accountability of funding. The Atlanta Regional Commission website hosts a searchable project database, “PLAN-IT” and interactive mapping to find information on projects selected for funding, and including in the Regional Transportation Plan and TIP.
There is deep interest among these regions to learn more about what their peers are doing. Very little information is available nationally on the regional solicitation process. The Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration held one MPO peer review session on this topic related to long-range planning in 20074, but have not issued best practices or other guidance documents. This is a topic worthy of further research by USDOT and the Transportation Research Board.
About the Metropolitan Council
“The Council was created by the Minnesota Legislature in 1967 to coordinate planning and development within the Twin Cities metropolitan area, and to address issues that could not be adequately addressed with existing governmental arrangements. Additional legislation in 1974, 1976 and 1994 strengthened the Council’s planning and policy roles, and merged the functions of three agencies (the Metropolitan Transit Commission, the Regional Transit Board and the Metropolitan Waste Control Commission) into one — the Metropolitan Council. The Council’s mission is to foster efficient and economic growth for a prosperous metropolitan region.”
About MZ Strategies, LLC
“MZ Strategies, LLC builds upon Mariia Zimmerman’s almost two decades of experience working at the intersection of planning, politics, advocacy and policy development at the national and regional levels. We offer common sense, politically proven strategies to make government more effective, generate value for citizens and property owners, and create greater opportunity for all members of the community.”
Tags: Mariia Zimmerman, McKnight Foundation, Met Council, Metropolitan Council, Minneapolis, Minnesota, MN, MnDOT, MZ Strategies LLC, St. Paul, Transportation Funders Network, Transportation Research Board, Twin Cities