By Joe Grengs
No other governmental program comes close to influencing the divided geographic patterns of our metropolitan regions like that of federal transportation. Yet most citizens would be hard-pressed to name who decides how and where transportation dollars are spent. Metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs, are the bodies through which billions of federal dollars are distributed to state and local governments each year in support of transportation projects. Nearly every transportation project you see-new roads, fixed roads, interchanges, bus lines-has federal transportation dollars behind it. MPOs decide which projects get funded and which do not. These projects, in turn, influence where homes, jobs and stores are located. Yet the people who make up these MPOs, and the manner in which they arrive at their decisive choices, are mysterious to all but the most dedicated citizen activists.
The problem with MPOs is that most of them are biased against central cities in their voting structure. By allotting votes on a "one government-one vote" basis instead of a "one person-one vote" basis, MPOs grant outlying suburban jurisdictions considerably more political power in the decision-making process compared with center cities. Scholars and activists contend that this bias exacerbates sprawling urban development and further disadvantages poor households and people of color in the urban core. Whether this bias leads to worsening social equity remains an open question, but on a procedural basis a highly skewed representational scheme within an MPO may be in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, thus making such a structure unconstitutional.
Should the actions of transportation officials be subject to democratic accountability? Not in the state of Michigan, according to a judge's ruling in August 2004. A civil rights lawsuit alleged that transportation officials in the Detroit metropolitan region choose projects and spend public dollars in a way that favors the largely white and wealthy suburbs and unfairly ignores the needs of the central city and its inner suburbs. At issue was the voting structure of the MPO. The judge found that voting strength of an MPO need not be in proportion to population because an MPO has limited responsibility as a special-purpose government. Unfortunately, as a result of the ruling, Detroit's famously segregated metropolis will continue to develop under the influence of a skewed procedure that builds in a bias toward building roads for suburban commuters over strengthening transit service for inner-city bus riders. But the case does offer important lessons that planners elsewhere can learn from to mount challenges against undemocratic practices in transportation funding....