Evolution and Devolution: A National Perspective on the Changing Role of Metropolitan Planning Organizations in Areawide Intermodal Planning

Report No: 97-R19

Published in 1997

About the report:

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) dramatically changed the metropolitan planning process by presenting new opportunities and responsibilities to the institutions in charge of metropolitan planning. The legislation fundamentally altered intergovernmental relationships at the federal, state, and local levels by devolving unprecedented decision-making authority for project selection and funding allocation to state and local governments. Seemingly, one of the prime benefactors of this change was the metropolitan planning organization (MPO), the institution created to perform federally required transportation planning for metropolitan areas. Yet, a decrease in MPOs' planning responsibilities in the decade prior to the passage of ISTEA left MPOs somewhat unprepared for the new roles and responsibilities given them by the legislation. Indeed, ISTEA's new technical and political mandates created onerous burdens for MPOs, and the devolution of power blurred many of the established lines of responsibility in transportation planning. As a result, ISTEA's effect on MPOs has had implications for all actors involved in the planning process and has engendered questions concerning the institutional competence of MPOs, as well as their planning authority vis-a-vis other planning institutions. In this study, the authors investigated the genesis and evolution of MPOs. They reviewed the changes in MPOs over time, including the statutory mandates and funding changes that have affected both their planning capabilities and priority setting. Special attention was paid to the changes created by ISTEA and the institution's ability to deal with the requirements of intermodalism. The report provides recommendations to help facilitate MPOs' adjustment to the intermodal transportation planning process mandated by ISTEA and suggests areas of future research to help planning agencies prepare for the mandates of "NEXTEA."

Disclaimer Statement:The contents of this report reflect the views of the author(s), who is responsible for the facts and the accuracy of the data presented herein. The contents do not necessarily reflect the official views or policies of the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, or the Federal Highway Administration. This report does not constitute a standard, specification, or regulation. Any inclusion of manufacturer names, trade names, or trademarks is for identification purposes only and is not to be considered an endorsement.


  • Ted D. Zoller, Jeffrey A. Capizzano

Last updated: December 16, 2023

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