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  • Writer's pictureMashrur Rahman

A seat at the table? Transit representation in U.S. metropolitan planning

Updated: Jun 18, 2022

Gian-Claudia Sciara, Mashrur Rahman, Rydell Walthall


  • The first comprehensive inventory of transit representation in US metropolitan planning is developed.

  • Transit has no direct vote on the MPO policy board in 36% of large metro regions (over 200,000 population).

  • Federal requirements that transit have direct voting representation in regional decision-making were contentious.

  • While transit operators value direct over indirect board representation, MPOs sought indirect representation for transit.

  • Few MPOs that represent transit indirectly document how they do so, reducing transparency and accountability in regional transportation governance.

Abstract Since the early 1990s, U.S. metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) have had increasing room to shape the extent to which public transit benefits from regional transportation spending. Federal law has given MPOs widening latitude over this period to use highway-oriented funding for transit investment. Yet, concerns that public transit operators—and, by extension, transit needs—have been underrepresented in MPO decision-making are longstanding. This paper reports on the first comprehensive inventory of transit representation on MPO decision-making boards. MPOs and the planning process they oversee allow metro regions to tap federal funds, and together MPOs approve billions in metropolitan transportation investment across the U.S. We study these important institutions in the transportation landscape and how they provide for transit participation. We find that transit's actual voting representation on MPOs is somewhat higher than previously estimated, suggesting that recent federal policies have modestly increased formal transit involvement in investment decisions. We also find that different forms of board representation for transit—direct and indirect—can produce disparities in transit's influence from one region to the next. These findings reveal the impact of federal transportation laws on metropolitan scale decision-making and highlight some of the enduring institutional challenges to broadening participation in regional transportation governance. They also pave the way for further studies of the impact of MPO representation on transit expenditures by MPOs.

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