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Your View: The MPO is holding back Miami transit. Here’s how we can fix it.

 

The Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization is responsible for transit planning throughout the county. Marta Viciedo, founding partner of Urban Impact Lab and chair of TrAC, and Maggie Fernandez, president of Sustainable Miami and a member of TrAC, weigh in on how the MPO is holding back Miami transit and lay out a case on how to fix it.

The Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO, has been a little understood and, by some accounts, mysterious part of Miami-Dade County for decades. Since 1962, federal transportation legislation requires that an MPO be designated for each urbanized area with a population of more than 50,000 people in order to carry out the metropolitan transportation planning process. Billions of federal and state transportation dollars flow through MPOs and their decisions impact a community’s growth patterns, and have social and economic implications. That’s pretty significant. Yet, the Miami-Dade MPO greatly underscores its own potential importance by describing itself only through its charge of transportation planning and ensuring adherence to federal transportation mandates. Unless you’re an insider working closely on transit issues, it’s difficult to understand exactly what they do and what they’re up to.

In addition to producing transportation plans, MPOs are essential to ensure that the planning needs reflect the region’s shared vision for its future and that it facilitate collaboration of governments, interested parties, and residents in the planning process. Yet, the Miami-Dade MPO website does not include  a vision or goals statement providing insight to residents  regarding the complex world of transportation planning and how they factor into the equation. In many ways, this is precisely the issue with the Miami-Dade MPO.  Absent a guiding vision for people and place, the MPO is an assemblage of intelligent and educated people planning one of Miami’s most pressing and popular problem — without a publicly accessible direction or goal.

By way of comparison, Broward County provides an example of what an MPO vision could be:

The Broward MPO’s vision is to transform transportation in Broward County to achieve optimum mobility with emphasis on mass transit while promoting economic vitality, protecting the environment, and  enhancing quality of life.

Though devoid of any mention of people, Broward MPO’s statement at least provides a guiding light for the work ahead and a simple framework to understand the county’s priorities and future actions. More importantly, it makes the agency more accountable to the people it serves, giving residents clear ways to assess how well the agency delivers on its goals.

The Miami-Dade MPO’s recent update of the Long Range Transportation Plan, or LRTP, through 2040 included an expected project cost of $39.4 billion and revenue of $41 billion. It’s only plan in Miami-Dade County that takes into account all forms of mobility, including our airports, seaports, mass transit, roads, and bike and pedestrian pathways. This broad view could empower the MPO with a unique ability to coordinate and strategically plan for “optimum mobility” options over the coming decades. While each municipality generally creates their own transportation plan, each project must make its way into the LRTP.  Projects may be added, edited or fast-tracked at any point, but the LRTP remains the central planning document for the county’s transportation future. In the absence of any guiding vision, however, the MPO’s current plan is a collection of disparate projects, rather than a strategic way forward to achieve great mobility options for Miami-Dade residents.

As transportation challenges escalate locally, attention on the MPO and interest in understanding its function has also increased. With that has come greater scrutiny of its organization, and a growing call for its restructuring. To understand the MPO’s organizational shortcomings, look no further than the MPO’s governing body. With an unwieldy 23-member board, made up of all 13 county commissioners, several municipal representatives and gubernatorial appointees, the MPO Board is scheduled to meet monthly, but often has difficulty making quorum. County commissioners elected by districts make up the majority of the MPO’s board, which enables a parochial approach to transportation planning. In short, the MPO often amplifies local politics, rather than rising above them for the greater good of the entire county’s transit needs.

Reorganizing the MPO could take several forms.  Local leaders pressing this issue, have suggested several approaches:  a greatly reduced governing board, from 23 to seven, including only two or three County Commissioners rather than all 13, plus representation from major municipalities and other local transportation agencies. This approach could lead to the MPO becoming an independent agency, like the School Board, rather than the county-dependent organization it currently is. In 2012, the Broward MPO was restructured into an independent body with a 19-member governing board. In a presentation for a transportation conference (PDF), the MPO said the organizational change made the agency more nimble and effective:

The changes to the MPO structure led to re-calibration of the working relationships among the MPO Board, staff and agencies. The MPO staff had to re-examine all its activities and confirm its required duties. No longer was it acceptable for staff to say, “That’s how we always do it.”

Developing a comprehensive and progressive vision for the MPO is the most critical consideration, regardless of the MPO Board’s constitution.  Who will set this vision?  How will it speak not only to physical transportation needs and spending, but also to the movement of people?  Once a great vision is crafted, what process will be used to ensure that all transportation projects fit into this strategic, multi-served, and sustainable future?

Miami-Dade has an opportunity to set a vision through its current recruitment and hiring of a new MPO Executive Director.  This is a critical opportunity to get fresh leadership that can have an enormous positive impact on our transportation infrastructure. The appointed selection committee, which is subject to the Sunshine Law (meaning we can attend interviews), includes City of Miami Gardens Mayor and MPO Vice Chair Oliver Gilbert, County Commissioner Esteban Bovo, County Commissioner Dennis Moss, School Board Chair Perla Hantman, and City of Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine. You too can become part of the solution by reaching out to the selection committee members to share your transportation priorities, key issues and what you’d like to see in the MPO’s next director. Contact them:

  • Removing politicians from the MPO is the only way to make it work. As long as they are part of the board it will be subject to them imposing direction skewed by their perceptions tainted by what’s best for their bailiwick instead of what’s best for the county at large. Restructuring should include reducing the number of people on the board and adding a Transportation Czar who is elected by the people for a 4-year term.

    • John Hopkins

      It would not be realistic to remove politicians from the decision process. They control the spending, after all. But citizens can affect the outcome. Follow the issues you know or care about most, and especially press the MPO to secure competent professional advice.

      • As an autonomous board charged with directing transportation spending, politicians, aside from gumming up the works and slowing progress, become redundant. The Peoples Transportation Plan was an autonomous board set up to oversee spending the funds raised on the half-cent sales tax. Then the county commission systematically weakened it so it could divert monies away from the Plan’s stated purpose. Now, thanks to politicians, it’s a weakened hollow core of what it once was and now generally serves the commission instead of the people.