Better Know Your MPO

By on 1 September, 2015 in Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 11.42.51 AMPeople say a lot of incorrect and annoying things about politics, but one of the most frustrating commonly-expressed sentiments is this: “All politicians are all the same.”

Broad generalizations can make specific actions feel useless. What we really need is an antidote to the kind of pessimism engendered by feelings of uselessness. One way forward is to ask questions about specific problems while investigating causes and possible solutions. For example, a lot of politically inactive people would agree that a thriving public transportation system is a desirable thing for a city to have. Any average person you meet could explain the value of affordable buses that run on time, taking you where you need to go in a comfortable climate-controlled bus, with regular pick-ups on well-designed routes.

The same is true of bike lanes and encouraging bicycle and pedestrian commuting. You don’t have to be political to want these things, but you do have to understand politics to understand why we don’t have them. This is where learning — and nuance — can begin to factor into the conversation. It turns out that there’s an almost-invisible world of activity behind the everyday experiences of roads, bridges, bike lanes, pedestrian paths, and development strategies.

That’s why it’s worth learning a little bit about your local Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO.

Don’t let your eyes glaze over! It’s just one acronym!

Question: “What’s an MPO?”

Answer: “The federal government makes us have one!”

Alabama, like every other state, relies on federal funds to maintain its infrastructure. Because, as it turns out, infrastructure isn’t free. And we in Alabama like to bash the federal government while taking lots of federal money.

The feds require every urban area with more than 50,000 people to have an MPO. More precisely, each area that receives our collective tax monies is required to have a transportation planning process. The MPO is that planning entity. The process is meant to include a long-range plan, a short-range plan, an outreach process and a work program.

Question: “Why?”

Answer: “Because planning, while seemingly dull, is also really important!”

It’s tempting to let legislative bodies delegate money on a year-to-year basis, depending on revenue and the political and economic climate. But that would be a dumb way of doing it. You don’t want to allocate money for a bridge one year and then run out of money the next year and end up with half a bridge over the creek. Because that wouldn’t really help anyone.

So with long-term planning and prioritization of multi-year construction projects, we can make sure that all of our roads and bridges connect to one another.

Question: “I’m already getting bored!”

Answer: “That’s not a question! But let me tell you why you should care about this!”

You know how you’re driving around with your mom, and she’s always pointing at every construction site and saying, “What’s THAT going to be?” As if you were some kind of psychic or as if you were the Construction Czar of the whole town?

Well, the MPO isn’t going to necessarily help you out with that, but it is a good way to learn about the future development plans of our city (and neighboring cities). And sometimes that means you can get a sense of what’s going where, and what direction(s) the city may be moving.

Question: “So who’s in this MPO?”

Answer: “Local leaders!”

State governors are empowered to determine each MPO’s composition and structure. As an example of a typical MPO’s composition, Montgomery’s 12-member organization consists of elected representatives from the Town of Coosada, the City of Millbrook, the City of Montgomery, the City of Prattville, and the City of Wetumpka, as well as county commission representatives for Autauga, Elmore, and Montgomery Counties. These representatives are organized into an MPO Policy Board, a Technical Coordinating Committee (TCC) and a Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) supported by full-time MPO staff who perform the planning duties, including development and approval of the long range transportation plan.

Question: “So do those leaders just have everything under control?”

Answer: “If you’ve got a question or concern, there are actually outlets for public input into the process!”

You can attend the committee meetings mentioned above, or the actual full meetings of the MPO itself. Mind you, there’s not a ton of seating in the meeting room (495 Moulton St.) next to the bus station, but a determined person can find a place to sit.

In fact, the MPO just did a round of public input on its 2040 Long Range transportation plan.

Question: “2040?!? That’s forever from now!”

Answer: “That’s also not a question, but yes, long-term planning requires difficult demographic and economic considerations about where our region is heading.”

Maybe we’ll have jet packs and flying cars by then. More likely, we’ll have climate change and continued sprawl. But the point is that if you want to influence the direction of the city you live in and (hopefully) love, knowing about the MPO is useful because the decisions made by its members are really important ones. Public input is desired, but is often in short supply because the MPO seems confusing and labyrinthine, and most people have never even heard of it.

You can learn more about the Montgomery MPO at is website here: http://montgomerympo.org/

Question: “What if I live out in the country?”

Answer: “You’re governed by something called the Rural Planning Organization (RPO), and that, my friend, is a blog post for another day.”

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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