October 15, 2010



Over the last few decades, members of Congress have increasingly inserted into federal transportation funding bills language that directs money to specific projects, a practice called earmarking. Without earmarks, transportation funds are made available mostly to federal, state and metropolitan agencies. In urban regions, local governments and transportation agencies choose how to invest these funds in projects and programs according to local objectives and with public input. Working through the metropolitan planning organization (MPO), these actors engage in planning and decision-making shaped by federal law that encourages, albeit imperfectly, openly deliberated goal setting and competitive project selection. Over time, Federal policy has increasingly strengthened MPOs and this explicitly regional level decision-making authority. With earmarks, however, Congress hand-picks which transportation projects receive federal dollars, transferring hard won discretion from the urban region to members of the U.S. Congress. In this seminar, I examine MPO responses to increased Congressional earmarking through a comparison of two cases. In Dallas-Fort Worth, the MPO has formally inserted itself into earmarking activity on the region’s behalf. In the New York metropolitan region, the MPO has largely been uninvolved. Because earmarks can disrupt the near- and long-term plans and capital investment programs of metropolitan regions, MPO capacity to protect planning commitments from Congressional interference via earmarks is important. These two cases illuminate organizational and institutional attributes that enhance MPOs’ capacity to do just that.

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