Are We There Yet? Is There REAL Public Participation Under ISTEA?

by Lisa Schreibman

Federal rules require public involvement in transportation planning. So far, it looks like we have another participation game and the big decisions are still made in a closet.

The 1991 amendments to the federal surface transportation program, known as the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, (ISTEA), were to have changed the transportation planning process. ISTEA for the first time required public involvement in all plans to develop, rehabilitate and maintain the transportation system. ISTEA required that all urbanized areas (places with at least 200,000 residents) set up a metropolitan planning organization (MPO), which would create both a long-term 20-year transportation plan and a short-term 3-year transportation improvement plan (TIP). Three documents must be created with public input — the plan for public involvement, the long-range plan, and the TIP. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), desirable outcomes of public involvement include:

  • Informed and involved citizens who have access to public records and the decision making process
  • A planning approach that is proactive and open to participation by all
  • A process that not only encourages broad public participation but also considers and responds to public input
  • Ample opportunity for public comment when the final plan or TIP differs from the draft — at least one public meeting must be held

An MPO which does a poor job of public participation can, in theory, lose certification and with that all federal highway and transit funds. So, has the public participation requirement of ISTEA been effective? What standards does USDOT have for the MPOs? Do people have better access to long-term and short-term transportation?

To date, no MPO has been decertified for lack of adequate public participation although a few, including New York City’s, have been reprimanded. One could, therefore, conclude that public participation is generally being used well by the MPOs. Yet, the models which USDOT has highlighted as participation successes are not comprehensive enough to fulfill the list of desired outcomes of ISTEA that they themselves identified.

Satisfying the Requirements

For instance, Albuquerque has four methods of including the public in the decision making process. Coinciding with the annual review of the TIP, the MPO holds a public meeting in which there is a ‘public hearing’ section on the agenda. The MPO announces the meetings using standard procedures for formal public hearings, including legal notices in newspapers. Secondly, the public may comment during a ‘public comment period’ held at the beginning of each technical advisory committee (TAC) meeting. However, the MPO does not require that TACs be formed nor that they formally announce their meetings. Thirdly, the Albuquerque plan permits but does not require citizen advisory committees (CAC): “From time to time, there are issues of sufficient magnitude that advisory committees are formed on which citizens are invited to participate directly.” Even here, the committees’ work is not binding, but is subject to review by the Board of Directors of the MPO. Finally, there is a public comment period for both the draft and final plans.

Albuquerque’s only required public involvement is an annual public meeting and a review period of the draft and final plans. Although these ought to be part of any planning process, they are not sufficient to attract a broad cross section of the affected public. Even if the TACs and CACs were required parts of the public participation process, these groups’ work would be insufficient to insure participation by any but a select group of people who have a direct interest in the issues.

The inadequacy of the public involvement process is not limited to the plans for public participation. The federal government reviews MPOs’ TIP and Long Range Plans for public participation activities. In the past half dozen years since the establishment of ISTEA, the “success stories” that USDOT has touted actually show the failure of the process.

For instance, the Little Rock, Arkansas MPO, Metroplan, developed a long range plan on which less than five-hundredths of a percent of the region commented. Metroplan, which covers an area of 550,000 people, used a variety of methods for public involvement including public hearings, local meetings, display ads, vision surveys, focus groups, newspaper inserts and workshops to elicit public comment. The inserts had the greatest potential to reach a large audience since they were placed in a newspaper with a circulation of 225,000. Yet, only 70 people used the mail-back coupon included in the insert. The focus groups reached a total of 45 people. At the public hearings on the plan, 116 people attended of whom 38 spoke and an additional 32 submitted written testimony. USDOT deemed this plan “robust.”

Designed for Failure

The central problem with all the MPO’s public involvement efforts is the structure of the MPO which, from Albuquerque to Little Rock to New York City, is basically the same. The voting members are the directors from the implementing agencies (usually the state and city departments of transportation and any local authorities) plus county executives and mayors of large cities. They and their staff ultimately decide the content of both the draft and final plans of the TIP and the Long Range Plan. Since members of the public are not voting members of the MPO, their input, even when voiced at sanctioned meetings, can be ignored. Many people do not bother to give input because they feel it will be disregarded.

ISTEA attempted to address the problems that arise because agency heads alone decide the fates of communities’.transportation networks. ISTEA changed transportation planning by seating elected officials on MPOs and by requiring public participation in the planning process. However, the addition of elected officials to MPOs has proven insufficient to substantively change the process. The requirements for public participation are too vague to have any long-lasting effect. Therefore, people are only marginally more able to influence their transportation choices now than they were before the passage of ISTEA.

Lisa Schreibman received her M.U.P from Hunter College earlier this year. An organizer for community gardens for five years in New York City and Newark, she now works as a planner for Howard/ Stein-Hudson in their New York Office.

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