Monday, December 3, 2012

Region's planning footprint set to expand

How sane is transportation planning in the Charlotte region? Depends, I guess, on how you define sane. Plenty of sane people take part in the planning, of course.

But the organizing device, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (a.k.a. MPO,) is not configured in any sane way. For instance, the MPO for Charlotte – you know, the city of 750,000 or so in the middle of the huge metro region – does not include Cabarrus, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln or York counties. It now includes only a portion of Union County and a teeny sliver of Iredell. This Charlotte-area MPO is known as MUMPO – the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization.

That's about to change, bringing a modest improvement. Based on the 2000 Census, the federal rules that define what can/should be in an MPO mean the Charlotte-area MPO must expand. It's all based on what's called an "urbanized area," which is a "metro region" which is not the same as the many, many other "metro regions" you may have heard of, such as the Centralina Council of Governments' region, the Charlotte Regional Partnership's region, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute's region, etc.  (Want to see a mash-up map of all those regions laid atop each other? Try this link.) Note of clarification here, added at 2:44 p.m.: Unlike many metro regions, MUMPO plans ONLY transportation projects. It's a separate organization from the Council of Governments, which is ostensibly a regional planning group. Sort of. And of course, one of the first things you learn in Planning 101 is that land use planning and transportation planning are, or should be, joined at the hip. Whatever.

So I'm sitting at the policy-wonkish session of the Charlotte City Council's Transportation and Planning Committee, hearing a report on MPO expansion. Here's a link to download the proposed new map. Pictured above is a small version of the map.

The good news: Expanding the MPO is much smarter than not doing so. It's not expanded out to what it should be (for Pete's sake, why not include Cabarrus and Gaston?) but it's clearly better. After all, as MPO secretary Robert Cook just told the panel, Marshville is now considered part of the "urbanized area."  As is all of southern Iredell County, north to north of Interstate 40.

But will the name change?
I've proposed MILUMPO although, I admit it, it was sort of tongue-in-cheek. I've had fun in the past with the names of all the regional MPOs and RPOs. (Yes, there are rural planning organizations, too.) GUAMPO, RFATS, RRRPO, etc. are just too funny to pass up.

But Robert Cook just said the MUMPO members think they'd rather keep the acronym and come up with new words to match the letters. "Metrolina Unified something or other ..." was one name mentioned here.  Council member Patsy Kinsey piped up with, "I hate the word Metrolina." She is not alone.

There's a lot of minutiae being discussed, though the details in this sort of thing matter. Do towns under 5,000 population get a vote? Previously they did not. Should the MPO members pay a piece of the local matching money required to get federal funds to help run the MPO? Currently Charlotte pays the whole local match, about $400,000. (Note, as City Council member David Howard has reminded the group several times, the local "match" is not the same as membership fees. Those are paid on a sliding scale based on population.)

And this is a biggie: Should the group continue with its system of weighted voting? Currently there are 38 total votes, with 16 allotted to Charlotte. Other members have one or two votes each. Under the new setup, Charlotte will have 53 percent of the population. Should it get 53 percent of the vote? As is, when the Charlotte representative does not show up the group pretty much lacks a quorum. Currently, the voting is structured so that Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, by themselves, could not carry the day; they need at least one other member for anything to pass.

So one idea is to have two types of votes, one not weighted, for things that are minor and not procedural, and the other for important matters that need weighted votes.  The City Council committee by a show of hands was strongly in favor of weighted voting, all the time.

Update (5:37 p.m.): What happens next? The memorandum of understanding among the various MUMPO members, setting out the number of members, who gets a vote, whether and how votes will be weighted, etc., must be negotiated and approved by MUMPO members. So today's input from the City Council was not an official vote on anything. Final action on the memorandum of understanding is scheduled for March.


Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Mary why is this a good thing? The extension of the MPO into the boonies waters down the power of the central city to plan transportation that is in the interests of the urban area. Places like Pittsburgh and others WISH they could reduce down to the size that you currently have so they don't export tax base to rural towns that want a new sprawl road. I would encourage a post on the negatives of this decision as well.

Mary Newsom said...

Dear Pantograph:
The problem is that huge sections of what is clearly the Charlotte "urban area" are not part of Charlotte's MPO area. I work at UNC Charlotte (a 26,000-student state university) and can practically throw a rock into an urbanized part of Cabarrus County (well, I could if I could throw). But Cabarrus County is not part of the MPO. It has its own MPO.

In North Carolina, the state government, not counties, controls highway building. We have city streets and we have state roads. No county roads. So it's all a quest for more "roads money" from the state. Those sprawl roads get built anyway, and the cost to build and maintain them isn't, today, balanced against more urban needs (including transit and bike/ped as well as better roads).

Urban areas in N.C. are disadvantaged in terms of state transportation dollars, for many reasons that I won't bore everyone with here. The Balkanized MPO system here hurts, not helps.

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