Staying in the Black
Kristen Z, Transportation Planner
[<5 Minute Read]
Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) have been in business close to 40 years now. During this time, they have grown or shrunk depending on the needs and interests of the region. MPOs and other regional planning organizations like Council of Governments and Regional Councils assist with a broad array of community needs, including everything from transportation infrastructure planning to helping fund water systems to – in some regions – even providing critical social service programs.
These organizations have not only diversified their programming, they have also diversified their funding sources for operations and for funding infrastructure and non-infrastructure programs and plans. MPOs that serve regions larger than 200,000 people award federal transportation funding, and most organizations, regardless of size, are looking at grants and other supplemental funding opportunities. These opportunities stretch the formula federal, state, and local government dollars that are flowing into MPOs, and the competitive nature of these opportunities helps regions refine their strategic priorities.
(Keeping your transportation infrastructure priorities front and center is important for funding conversations. EcoInteractive’s Project Tracker comes standard with a public facing website so the public, decision-makers, and grant reviewers can always access the region’s MTP and TIP projects.)
The federal government is currently evaluating legislation to replace the expired FAST Act; regardless of the decisions made in Washington, D.C., regional planning organizations have several funding opportunities and mechanisms at their disposal today.
We asked Greg Youell, Executive Director @ the Omaha-Council Bluffs Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) to share some of the tools he’s used to diversify his agency’s funding. (Keep in mind, he’s worked with his DOT and FHWA Division Office to ensure these tools are appropriate for his agency.)
‘Ensuring we remain healthy fiscally and positioned to deliver quality services is a constant focus. Using a number of tools over the past decade, MAPA has diversified our funding and grown our capacity as an agency. Here are a few options that have worked for our transportation program:
Advance Construction (AC) – Using this tool in coordination with your State DOT can make sure that your region doesn’t lose a penny. Essentially, local governments build a transportation project on their own dime, while following the Federal-Aid process. They then become eligible for reimbursement at a future date, when you convert the federal funds. Making sure that each year’s federal dollars get allocated as soon as possible prevents the risk of losing them and positions you to take advantage of other funding opportunities that may come along.
August Redistribution – Hundreds of millions of dollars get redistributed each year toward the end of the fiscal year to State DOTs. If your region has a project that is approved and ready to go, talk to your DOT about including it in the August Redistribution. It’s an excellent way to get funds spent quickly and can offer some additional flexibility to the program.
Swap Funding – Like several states, the State of Iowa provides our MPO with state funds to local governments in exchange for federal STBG dollars, which they utilize on a state project in our region selected mutually. Cities and counties can often deliver projects in a quicker and more inexpensive manner than is possible when utilizing the Federal-aid process, so the state dollars are welcome.
In-kind Match – Look for planning efforts underway by local or state partners that are funded without federal funds. This could include anything from traffic counting to aerial imagery. If the activity supports the regional planning process, then it is eligible to propose in your UPWP as in-kind match, saving you precious local dollars.
TIP Fee – No this doesn’t mean putting out a jar at your receptionist desk! Our region needed to increase revenues urgently, and adopted this funding mechanism as a preferred alternative to increasing local dues. Interestingly, the idea was recommended during our Certification Review and had been utilized in a neighboring state. While there’s a lot to it, the basic idea is that local Federal-aid projects require that a 1% fee go to the MPO (e.g., $10,000 on a $1 million project). It has provided a great source of stability to our organization.’