Citizens Want A Say In Regional Transportation

by Alfred W. Barry, III
     On May 18, the Baltimore metropolitan planning organization known as the Transportation Steering Committee (TSC) voted to continue with “business-as-usual” despite a federal reprimand that threatens federal transportation funding for the Baltimore region.
     By federal law, each major metropolitan area in the United States is required to establish a regional planning body to provide oversight for transportation planning and to ensure compliance with federal air quality standards.
     Prior to any federal funds being released to the Baltimore region, the Transportation Steering Committee must approve a long-range transportation plan and short-term implementation plan for highway, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian improvements.
     These plans must meet several important criteria to protect the environment, provide equity to all people of the region, and reduce air pollution.
     IMPROPER DELEGATION OF RESPONSIBILITY: The federal government also places several process requirements on the metropolitan planning organization. Federal law requires that elected officials shall serve as the metropolitan planning organization.
     When Congress passed ISTEA (the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) in 1991, it specifically sought to ensure that elected officials would take responsibility for the important transportation decisions made in their region.
     Congress also required that metropolitan planning organizations involve the public at-large in their decision-making processes.
     In the Baltimore region, this responsibility has been improperly delegated to staff bureaucrats.
     By their position within their institutional hierarchy, the bureaucrats are not responsible for the regional land use, air quality, and traffic implications of their decisions.
     Even if they were responsible for these larger issues, they are powerless to act without direct consent from their mayor or county executive.
     This is a flaw in the process that the federal government said must be corrected when it reprimanded the Transportation Steering Committee in a December 1997 report.
     Instead, the Transportation Steering Committee voted last week to call themselves the “empowered representatives” of the chief elected official in their jurisdiction.
     This distinction is nothing more than a paper shuffle designed to skirt federal law.
     A PUBLIC HEARING WITHOUT BEING HEARD: The federal agencies also cited the Transportation Steering Committee for failing to substantively involve the public in the transportation planning process. On April 15, the Steering Committee held a public hearing on the Transportation Improvement Program for fiscal years 2000-2004. Despite the fact that several citizens and organizations attended in order to present testimony, not a single member of the Transportation Steering Committee attended the hearing.
     Members of the public and interested organizations were required to submit formal written requests to get copies of the documents being discussed at the meeting and to be later voted on by the Transportation Steering Committee.
     While the Transportation Steering Committee held closed meetings on how to respond to the federal government, the Baltimore Regional Partnership proposed a simple plan to bring the Transportation Steering Committee in compliance with the federal regulations.
     The plan would have the chief elected officials meet monthly with representatives of state agencies, municipal officials, and citizens to review transportation plans.
     According to the National Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, nearly every regional planning body includes, as final decision makers, the elected officials of their region. Since 73% of all metropolitan planning organizations use some form of weighted representation and many have voting and non-voting citizen members on their board of directors, the Partnership plan also recommends that representation by the counties and cities be determined by the population of each county or city, and citizens be given a vote in the process.
     In addition, the Transportation Steering Committee would have to codify its policies for access to documents and meetings.
     The Partnership plan was dismissed out of hand by the Transportation Steering Committee.
     Why was the plan dismissed? To directly quote a senior assistant to a county executive, "we did not feel it was appropriate to include citizen representatives" on the Transportation Steering Committee.
     One executive even conceded that he was "too busy" to participate.
     Even if the elected officials are "too busy," the expenditure of $16 billion in public funds is too great to be allocated behind closed doors.
     We urge the Mayor and county executives to take this process seriously, to show up at the meetings, and to substantively engage the public in making transportation decisions.
     The health of our region and our ability to succeed in the 21st century depends upon it.

Mr. Barry is chairman, Committee on the Region, Citizens Planning and Housing Association. For information, call 410/539-1369.

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This story was published on June 3, 1999.