Them Fancy Federal Dollars

In a prior job, I was tasked with reviewing public comments on a proposed transit extension in Oregon. It was a pretty controversial project, which included several ROW takings, and was making headlines right at the crest of the Tea Party wave. A lot of people were pissed off. I remember one comment in particular. It went something like:

You people think you can do whatever you want just because you have them fancy federal dollars.

I really like the idea that federal funding is somehow more ornate than “regular” money, making it “fancy.” The $2 dollar bill is pretty fancy-looking, maybe all federal funding comes in $2 increments.

There are also a lot of really good diagrams of all the different Illuminati symbols on the $2 bill if you search Google; so, of course the Illuminati lizard-alien feds would use $2 bills. Source: Wikipedia


I remember back when I was first getting into transportation planning, I asked the Bike/Ped Coordinator for the Pioneer Valley’s Highway District: Who is it, exactly, that decides how funding gets spent? Who is it that decides how to use all those fancy federal dollars? Who decides if a bridge gets rehabilitated, or a bike path gets built, or a road is repaved?

The answer I got at the time was, “Well, it’s a collaborative process.” That was a dissatisfying answer, though I understand now why she gave it to me. Deciding how to use the billions in local, state, and federal transportation funding is a complex process that includes a lot of different actors.

I was thinking about this the other day when I had the good fortune to attend the Pioneer Valley MPO meeting. If you haven’t heard of an MPO before, don’t worry; I only judge you medium-harshly. Let me give you a quick run-down:

MPO stands for “Metropolitan Planning Organization.” I won’t get into the history of how they developed, but basically they are a federally-required board of municipal representatives. This board collectively decides how to spend the millions of transportation dollars they receive from the federal government. The MPO is supposed to have a strong public participation plan, but to be frank, this is by far the most opaque and mysterious part of the transportation planning process.

This board produces two key documents: a long-range Regional Transportation Plan, and a four-year project list (the Transportation Improvement Program). Without these two documents, the fancy federal dollars do not flow.

What I like best about the MPO is that it also acts as a requirement for regional transportation planning. In Massachusetts, school departments, land use plans, fire departments, electric utilities, and everything else is done at mostly the town level. The MPO forces cities and towns to work together regionally to come up with solutions to transportation needs.

At the MPO meeting this past week, I got to see Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack discuss the future of rail in the Pioneer Valley. I even got a couple of pictures of the deliberation process in action!

It was a packed room, though they were really all just there to see Secretary Pollack (center, in red). She’s a rock star.
From left to right: Mayor Sarno, Springfield; Mayor Morse, Holyoke; Mayor Kos, Chicopee. Hey, I bike through all those cities on my way to/from work!

The topic du jour was rail improvements in western Massachusetts, including north-south connecting New Haven to Greenfield, and east-west connecting Springfield to Boston. The gist was that we won’t get any rail improvements in the short term, but in the long run it could happen. Of course, as Keynes said, in the long run we’re all dead. 

New england rail study
Source: VTrans (because for some reason MassDOT was down when I tried to access their page)

In all, the capital improvements they were looking at cost in the $1.2 billion range, if I recall correctly. The projected ridership was something like half a million people per year on various legs of the upgraded route, though I know those projections can be overly optimistic. I might do a post about rail versus bus sometime if I’m feeling particularly bellicose one day, but I’ll just say that the large price tag on rail does tend to make me skeptical.

But the mayors present were all for it. Mayor Morse from Holyoke pushed for regional equity, that eastern Mass is getting significant rail investments while western Mass continues to get planning studies. Mayor Sarno of Springfield made a comment to the effect of, “It would be great to have better commuter rail connections to Boston so that the housing stock in Springfield can help housing-squeezed Boston, and act as an economic boon to Springfield.” (Given the existing rail links to Worcester, Brockton, Lawrence, and Fitchburg, I’m doubtful that adding a rail link to an even further-flung cheap-housing city will do anything to address housing costs in Boston. But hope springs eternal. )

Anyway, it’s nice to know that older Price has answered younger Price’s earnest question of who decides how we spend money. It is through the regional planning process that city and town officials come together, evaluate transportation priorities in a fair and balanced way, and then put together a reasonable, fiscally-constrained project list to be funded through federal and local sources.

Ha! Just kidding. That’s how it’s supposed to work. And sometimes it does, and then them fancy federal dollars start flowing!


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