One of the problems with transportation policy is that it is bogglingly opaque. The multiplication of planning boards and oversight boards and quasi-public authorities and the immense decision-making power awarded to the bureaucrats in planning and transportation departments make it very clear to provide democratic oversight of the political process. That means that even more than is normally true, institutional design is one of the most important tools we have to ensure good governance of transportation.
New research by Elisabeth Gerber, at the University of Michigan’s public policy school, and Clark Gibson, in UC San Diego’s political science department, therefore, is extremely valuable. Gerber and Gibson gather a wealth of data on metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) from around the country and then try to determine what factors lead MPOs to think more regionally or more locally, defining thinking locally as supporting projects that are only in one or two jurisdictions each and regionally as supporting projects across more jurisdictions.
Under that definition, Gerber and Gibson found that MPOs plan more regionally when the entire area is wealthier, when it is more transit-rich, when the MPO has greater organizational capacity (staff and resources), when the state sets the MPOs agenda (by chairing committees, say) and when there are fewer elected officials on the MPO.
This is useful information. The Monkey Cage, the academic political science blog, points out that 2/3 of the members of D.C. region’s MPO, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, are elected officials. In addition to that, I’d add that all three officers of the TPB are local officials. Both of those factors should cut towards greater local planning. On the other hand, the D.C. region is wealthy and transit-rich, and the TPB is a relatively high-capacity organization. Those should help the TPB make more regionally-oriented decisions (an entirely separate decision from good decisions, I would add).
It’s very hard to exert democratic oversight on bodies like the TPB. Changing the institution to promote better outcomes, say by putting regional actors in charge of the body’s agenda, is a good way to begin to compensate for that.
(h/t David Broockman)