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Thread: Do regional planning agencies serve a useful purpose?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Do regional planning agencies serve a useful purpose?

    Regional planning is frequently espoused by academic planner-types as a solution to various undesirable land use outcomes, even in the face of on-the-ground realities which invalidate regionalism as politically impractical. For one, land-use decision-making across the U.S. is the sole domain of local governments and subject to the individual prerogatives of each community, with very limited exceptions in states with growth management rules which may prescribe some development review authority to regional planning agencies (RPAs). Competition, not cooperation, is usually the rule as local governments vie for tax revenue from new development while attempting to ward off unwanted land uses. In this context, the notion of “master planning” for a region is thus a suspect one at best. Regional planners often counter that a regional plan will serve as a blueprint of sorts for state infrastructure investment, but this is rarely ever the case- here politics trumps planning once again. What, then, do we make of state-level RPAs which are tasked with engaging in regional planning?

    Based on my experience as a local government planner, there are a number of reasons I question whether state-level RPAs serve a useful purpose. To me, it doesn’t make sense to have planning agencies without any jurisdiction over land use, or any capacity to implement plans. Local governments already engage in enough planning and have professional staff, they don’t need what are essentially “nanny agencies” duplicating their efforts. My experience has also been that RPAs, particularly in Massachusetts, often have an agenda that local governments (and the planners that employ them) find to be untenable, which I will get to in a little bit.

    Greater Boston’s RPA, the Metropolitan Area District Commission (MAPC), is one of the 14 regional planning agencies in the Commonwealth. The MAPC declares as its mission: “promoting smart growth and regional collaboration”. MAPC goes about this by producing lots of plans/studies of the Boston region (arguably more than it knows what to do with), and by providing fee-based “technical assistance” to the 101 cities and towns under its purview. It is essentially a government-subsidized planning consulting firm, with direct access to federal and state grants for various planning initiatives. Thus it has an obvious competitive advantage over private sector planning consultants, and thus there are very few private sector planning consultants in Massachusetts. Other than, “this is MA and this is how we do things”, I don’t see any reason why private firms can’t fulfill this role of advising local governments on planning issues. Not only might private consultants do a better job, but they would also be free to give cities and towns unbiased planning recommendations, since unlike the RPAs they’re not constrained by a state-level political agenda.

    As for the MAPC, I believe it has an extreme environmentalist/anti-growth agenda (and I say this as a professional planner sympathetic to the role of urban planning). For nearly every project the regional planners at MAPC roll out the same prescriptions for “smart growth” in one form or another: high-density/mixed-use/transit-oriented development/new urbanism/healthy communities/complete streets, etc. They’re not short on lingo to express their displeasure with automobiles and suburban development patterns, what they are short on is common sense. It seems like they have a “zone it and it will happen” mentality, which rarely includes consideration of market forces. In red-hot Boston neighborhoods there’s might be enough dynamism for such an approach, but Boston is much more the exception than the rule. The 100 or so communities in the MAPC study area are usually presented with two options: either “urbanism at all costs” for the older cities and close-in suburbs, or “conservation subdivisions” for exurban communities. These are the type of are generic, off-the-shelf recommendations which seem to characterize MAPC planning reports.

    I’m curious what others on here think about RPAs. Do you believe they serve a useful purpose in your state? Do you agree with my objections to them, or do you think I’m off-base?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian stroskey's avatar
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    I think RPAs differ depending on where you are located. In my state they do not deal with land use at all. Rather, they work on regional transportation initiatives, do planning (mostly zoning) for small towns, and help with grant writing for non-profits and small towns. Are they has key as Oregon or the Twin Cities, not at all, but they do serve a need. I think we could survive without them but they aren't hurting anything. What I would like to see is more cooperation between neighboring cities in terms of development. Instead of a race to the bottom let's agree to support one another.
    I burned down the church to atone for my transgressions.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    As for the MAPC, I believe it has an extreme environmentalist/anti-growth agenda (and I say this as a professional planner sympathetic to the role of urban planning). For nearly every project the regional planners at MAPC roll out the same prescriptions for “smart growth” in one form or another: high-density/mixed-use/transit-oriented development/new urbanism/healthy communities/complete streets, etc. They’re not short on lingo to express their displeasure with automobiles and suburban development patterns, what they are short on is common sense. It seems like they have a “zone it and it will happen” mentality, which rarely includes consideration of market forces. In red-hot Boston neighborhoods there’s might be enough dynamism for such an approach, but Boston is much more the exception than the rule. The 100 or so communities in the MAPC study area are usually presented with two options: either “urbanism at all costs” for the older cities and close-in suburbs, or “conservation subdivisions” for exurban communities. These are the type of are generic, off-the-shelf recommendations which seem to characterize MAPC planning reports.

    I’m curious what others on here think about RPAs. Do you believe they serve a useful purpose in your state? Do you agree with my objections to them, or do you think I’m off-base?
    I'm sorry your RPA is caught in the thrall of popular fetishes. Nevertheless, IME in several states they serve a useful purpose in that their analysis can be done without having a city manager looking over your shoulder. This is not to say vested interests don't try and influence them. I'd like more output from the one here, but you can't have everything.
    -------
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  4. #4
    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    Regional planning is frequently espoused by academic planner-types as a solution to various undesirable land use outcomes, even in the face of on-the-ground realities which invalidate regionalism as politically impractical. For one, land-use decision-making across the U.S. is the sole domain of local governments and subject to the individual prerogatives of each community, with very limited exceptions in states with growth management rules which may prescribe some development review authority to regional planning agencies (RPAs). Competition, not cooperation, is usually the rule as local governments vie for tax revenue from new development while attempting to ward off unwanted land uses. In this context, the notion of “master planning” for a region is thus a suspect one at best. Regional planners often counter that a regional plan will serve as a blueprint of sorts for state infrastructure investment, but this is rarely ever the case- here politics trumps planning once again. What, then, do we make of state-level RPAs which are tasked with engaging in regional planning?

    Based on my experience as a local government planner, there are a number of reasons I question whether state-level RPAs serve a useful purpose. To me, it doesn’t make sense to have planning agencies without any jurisdiction over land use, or any capacity to implement plans. Local governments already engage in enough planning and have professional staff, they don’t need what are essentially “nanny agencies” duplicating their efforts. My experience has also been that RPAs, particularly in Massachusetts, often have an agenda that local governments (and the planners that employ them) find to be untenable, which I will get to in a little bit.

    Greater Boston’s RPA, the Metropolitan Area District Commission (MAPC), is one of the 14 regional planning agencies in the Commonwealth. The MAPC declares as its mission: “promoting smart growth and regional collaboration”. MAPC goes about this by producing lots of plans/studies of the Boston region (arguably more than it knows what to do with), and by providing fee-based “technical assistance” to the 101 cities and towns under its purview. It is essentially a government-subsidized planning consulting firm, with direct access to federal and state grants for various planning initiatives. Thus it has an obvious competitive advantage over private sector planning consultants, and thus there are very few private sector planning consultants in Massachusetts. Other than, “this is MA and this is how we do things”, I don’t see any reason why private firms can’t fulfill this role of advising local governments on planning issues. Not only might private consultants do a better job, but they would also be free to give cities and towns unbiased planning recommendations, since unlike the RPAs they’re not constrained by a state-level political agenda.

    As for the MAPC, I believe it has an extreme environmentalist/anti-growth agenda (and I say this as a professional planner sympathetic to the role of urban planning). For nearly every project the regional planners at MAPC roll out the same prescriptions for “smart growth” in one form or another: high-density/mixed-use/transit-oriented development/new urbanism/healthy communities/complete streets, etc. They’re not short on lingo to express their displeasure with automobiles and suburban development patterns, what they are short on is common sense. It seems like they have a “zone it and it will happen” mentality, which rarely includes consideration of market forces. In red-hot Boston neighborhoods there’s might be enough dynamism for such an approach, but Boston is much more the exception than the rule. The 100 or so communities in the MAPC study area are usually presented with two options: either “urbanism at all costs” for the older cities and close-in suburbs, or “conservation subdivisions” for exurban communities. These are the type of are generic, off-the-shelf recommendations which seem to characterize MAPC planning reports.

    I’m curious what others on here think about RPAs. Do you believe they serve a useful purpose in your state? Do you agree with my objections to them, or do you think I’m off-base?

    Well, if the focus is land use, then yes, I suppose that unless you have a special case like Oregon there may be some truth to your sentiment, but MPOs handle federal funding for a region, which seems to be useful to me since transportation problems are, by their very nature, almost always regional (or at least, they affect more than one municipality, if not an entire region).

    Of course, what I say may be taken with a grain of salt - all I have is an MCRP and a bunch of internships under my belt, not actual, full-time, long-term planning experience. But my favorite job in planning was at a regional planning commission. I thought they did really good work there, and I could appreciate what they did considering how polarized that metro area is.

    I think this is a good discussion worth having. My expectation is that your sentiments may be true for some RPAs and less true for others, but let's see where this goes.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian jdplanner's avatar
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    I work for a COG in a southern state that serves 6 counties and 46 towns. The area is predonminatly rural, and many of the local governments are greatly lacking in capacity. In this environment, the COG steps in and provides needed capacity in many areas that are most likely covered by local governments/other agencies in more developed regions. For example, we provide technical planning assistance (zoning, sub-division, comp plan, GIS, etc) to local governments at a much lower cost than they would get from the private sector. We provide project development and grant admin. services to local governments...(mainly USDA-RD, EDA, CDBG Non-Entitlement). We also provide services and manage pass through funding for many other different areas (Workforce Development, Aging, Transit, Housing) So in this sense, we do serve a useful and pratical purpose.

    In a purely regional planning sense, the only things we really do are transporation planning (RPO) and economic development planning (EDA requirment). The regional level is just a good platform for these issues. We have been involved in some sub-region multi-jurisdicational plans where land use was a primary consideration, and the value we added was in providing a forum for the different interests involved, while attempting to keep regional considerations in perspective in descision making and plan implementation. Other than that we have no teeth, like was mentioned. Major changes would have to occur in our enabling statues, political culture, etc for regional planning (as espoused by academics) to be meaningful in my area. Very unlikely!

  6. #6
    Also, I forgot to mention - regarding the choice of a regional planning agency doing a local comp plan versus a private consulting firm - the benefit I think that one would get in having the RPA do the work is that they are actually familar with the area and its needs, as opposed to having a private firm from out of state somewhere fly in, learn as much as they can, produce a report, and then leave as quickly as they came. Maybe that's not exactly how it works with a lot of the private firms, but it kind of seems that way. Either way, if a large or even mid-size private firm from out of state is competing with an RPA, it seems only natural that the RPA would be able to provide superior work, government-subsidies aside. They are comprised of people who actually live in the area and know the community's needs better than an out of state consultant, right?

  7. #7
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Jazzman View post
    Well, if the focus is land use, then yes, I suppose that unless you have a special case like Oregon there may be some truth to your sentiment, but MPOs handle federal funding for a region, which seems to be useful to me since transportation problems are, by their very nature, almost always regional (or at least, they affect more than one municipality, if not an entire region).
    Regional Planning Agencies, at least in the northeast, are not the same as the MPOs. They are different agencies. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if there are some states in which the RPAs serve the function of MPOs as far as allocating federal funding for transportation projects.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    Regional Planning Agencies, at least in the northeast, are not the same as the MPOs. They are different agencies. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if there are some states in which the RPAs serve the function of MPOs as far as allocating federal funding for transportation projects.
    Don't get me started on the agency that allocates in federal transportation dollars in the Boston region. They make MAPC look engaged and helpful. I have sworn off ever going to another meeting with them again.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    As I'm sure you know, hilldweller, regional planning agencies in New York State have very little authority. A couple of them administer EDA and USDA funding programs, which can be a useful role, and some of them prepare comprehensive plans for small communities that don't have any planning staff (or money to hire a consultant). As in Massachusetts, though, they have no jurisdiction whatsoever over land use. I suspect that many of these agencies are left over from a time when there was a push toward regional planning at the state and federal levels. Today, some people consider "regional planning" to be code for "government takeover"...

    Quote Originally posted by jdplanner View post
    <snip> I work for a COG in a southern state that serves 6 counties and 46 towns. The area is predonminatly rural, and many of the local governments are greatly lacking in capacity. In this environment, the COG steps in and provides needed capacity...
    I remember from my grad school days down south that the COGs were well-regarded. There were some people in my class who served internships at COGs. I don't think you have as much of the "home rule" mentality down south as in the northeast... though that may have changed.

    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    <snip> thus there are very few private sector planning consultants in Massachusetts...
    Huh?? Been to the website of the MACP lately? There are quite a few planning consultants in your state, not to mention firms in NH, RI, and CT that go after projects in Massachusetts... Those of us in the Empire State have plenty of competition.

    Quote Originally posted by Jazzman View post
    Also, I forgot to mention - regarding the choice of a regional planning agency doing a local comp plan versus a private consulting firm - the benefit I think that one would get in having the RPA do the work is that they are actually familar with the area and its needs, as opposed to having a private firm from out of state somewhere fly in, learn as much as they can, produce a report, and then leave as quickly as they came. Maybe that's not exactly how it works with a lot of the private firms, but it kind of seems that way. Either way, if a large or even mid-size private firm from out of state is competing with an RPA, it seems only natural that the RPA would be able to provide superior work, government-subsidies aside. They are comprised of people who actually live in the area and know the community's needs better than an out of state consultant, right?
    I guess that's a common perception, but often an out of state consultant can be more objective, and offer a wealth of experience based on work in a variety of other communities, as opposed to someone who only knows the local area. And as far as an RPA being "naturally" able to provide superior work, I'm sure the quality of planners working for an RPA varies as much as it does anywhere else.

    Just my 2 cents.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    Regional Planning Agencies, at least in the northeast, are not the same as the MPOs. They are different agencies. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if there are some states in which the RPAs serve the function of MPOs as far as allocating federal funding for transportation projects.

    I thought MPOs existed within a regional planning agency?

    It probably does vary from region to region and from state to state, though.

    Quote Originally posted by Mud Princess View post

    I guess that's a common perception, but often an out of state consultant can be more objective, and offer a wealth of experience based on work in a variety of other communities, as opposed to someone who only knows the local area. And as far as an RPA being "naturally" able to provide superior work, I'm sure the quality of planners working for an RPA varies as much as it does anywhere else.

    Just my 2 cents.


    When I said "naturally" able to provide superior work, I based that solely on their knowledge of local concerns and issues that an out of state consultant would not have, not on general ability to write plans or perform planning related functions.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Mud Princess View post
    As I'm sure you know, hilldweller I suspect that many of these agencies are left over from a time when there was a push toward regional planning at the state and federal levels.
    If these agencies are operating as relics of a failed 1960s-era ideal- then what good are they? Get with the times man!

    p.s. I was wrong to state there is a lack of consultants in MA due to the RPAs. I just noticed that the RPAs here do a lot of planning work for local governments that would normally go to the private sector, based on my experience in other states.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    MAPC has done quite a good job with little power under its current leadership, IMHO. They are a little preachy towards municipalities, but that is their charge.

    Although what Mass. needs is some true regional government, like the Cape Cod Commission. It will not happen for a long time, tough, if ever.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Masswich View post
    Although what Mass. needs is some true regional government, like the Cape Cod Commission. It will not happen for a long time, tough, if ever.
    The Cape Cod Commission is the only RPA in MA that has land use jurisdiction, at least in terms of reviewing DRI-type projects.

    I don't share your confidence in regional government though.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Jazzman View post
    I thought MPOs existed within a regional planning agency?
    They can be independent organizations. MPOs are just whatever board is designated by the state to allocate funding for a given metro area. They can exist in many different formats--hosted by local governments, independent, hosted by an existing independent agency, hosted by states, etc. Often, if there is a pre-existing regional planning agency, the state will simply designate that organization to take on the MPO role. That's why the arrangement to you refer to above is so common.

  15. #15
    Quote Originally posted by DrGrant View post
    They can be independent organizations. MPOs are just whatever board is designated by the state to allocate funding for a given metro area. They can exist in many different formats--hosted by local governments, independent, hosted by an existing independent agency, hosted by states, etc. Often, if there is a pre-existing regional planning agency, the state will simply designate that organization to take on the MPO role. That's why the arrangement to you refer to above is so common.

    Yes, according to some quick research I've done, it seems that housing MPOs within regional planning agencies is a common arrangement in mid-sized to large metro areas, especially in the South and West. The Northeast and New England are different in a number of ways regarding local and regional government and planning.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Here in MA the regional planning agencies have been receiving federal grants under the auspices of "sustainable communities" planning. Apparently the spigot from HUD is flowing freely for pie-in-the-sky regional planning

  17. #17
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    I think a major problem with regional planning agencies is how they attempt they to navigate the often competing priorities of "regional cooperation" and "smart growth". Most of their funding is in the form of state and federal grants under the auspices of "sustainability/livability", in effect money that is aimed at repopulating cities. Can you see how suburban jurisdictions might be skeptical of RPAs as honest brokers in regional cooperation? Their raison d'etre is to save cities, is it not?

  18. #18
    Cyburbian Doberman's avatar
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    Not to cop out, but I am sure it's case-by-case dependent. Yes MPOs, and I am sure RPAs, are disenfranchised with Suburban developments.

    I live in the South, but I assume RPAs also distribute federal and state funding. The MPO here does offer consulting services for a fee, and yes, no doubt their agenda is included with their .02. However, I live in a fairly diverse region with Upper-Middle class, rural, and lower-class urban municipalities all under the same MPO. Suburban cities are not obligated to get MPOs as a consultant and can still contract that out with private interests. The real value being added by the MPO is consulting to rural, and poor urban areas that otherwise would have no vision or direction if it weren't for the MPO; which is most likely cheaper.

    There is a certain level of self-interest and competition that is healthy for the region and the individual city that will always take place. What the MPO should be doing is filtering the best interests of the region. For instance, the two wealthiest suburbs adjoining the city here went on record for their disdain of a high rise overpass going down the busiest highway corridor in the state. Despite the fact that both cities have alternate routes to commute in the city, they thought the high rise overpass would be an "eye sore." This sort of mentality drifts into selfishness, not self-interest. Especially given this is a state highway.

    From my understanding (here at least, I don't know about RPAs), every region with X number of population must have a MPO to recieve federal funding. Unless we are debating the merits of state and federal funding, it's a difficult argument to make that federal grants to states distributed to municipalities should not be filtered through the overall best interest of the region; if not the state, but not just the municipality. Especially when those funds can be used to the detriment of surrounding towns. The best rule for grants is not to apply for anything you wouldn't have otherwise done on your own accord.

    I agree the New Urbanism and Sustainable Development trends come with costs (gentrification being my biggest concern), but the merits of these concepts outweigh further suburban development. Rarely are entire metropolitan regions interconnected under one county, and it requires a MPO to ensure New Urbanism is pursued. Otherwise suburban municipalities would fight against it tooth and nail to preserve their tax base and property values.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
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    I think I've been lucky. The ones I've worked with have either been MPOs that offer some regional problem solving and places like Kansas where they just try to get grants for things like rural sewer systems and economic development.
    Thanks for reminding me why I don't want to work around the New England states.
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  20. #20
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Doberman View post
    I agree the New Urbanism and Sustainable Development trends come with costs (gentrification being my biggest concern), but the merits of these concepts outweigh further suburban development. Rarely are entire metropolitan regions interconnected under one county, and it requires a MPO to ensure New Urbanism is pursued. Otherwise suburban municipalities would fight against it tooth and nail to preserve their tax base and property values.
    So are you saying that New Urbanism should be a government initiative pursued by RPAs?

    It seems that MPOs are a separate agency from the RPAs in most states. Unlike RPAs, my sense is that MPOs usually have less of an agenda given their supposed non-partial role in distributing transportation funding.

  21. #21
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    So are you saying that New Urbanism should be a government initiative pursued by RPAs?

    It seems that MPOs are a separate agency from the RPAs in most states. Unlike RPAs, my sense is that MPOs usually have less of an agenda given their supposed non-partial role in distributing transportation funding.
    Technically, the MPO is separate from the RPC, RPA, or whatever other agency it is (sometimes) structured with. In practice, that isn't always the case.

    The agenda of any particular MPO is driven by their Policy Council, which are usually made up of elected officials. Depending on their level of understanding and interest...there can be some serious agendas that have huge regional implications.

  22. #22
    Cyburbian Doberman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    So are you saying that New Urbanism should be a government initiative pursued by RPAs?

    It seems that MPOs are a separate agency from the RPAs in most states. Unlike RPAs, my sense is that MPOs usually have less of an agenda given their supposed non-partial role in distributing transportation funding.
    Depending on the characteristics of the region such as traffic congestion from suburban corridors, urban blight, etc. Then yes I do. It's unlikely that suburban municipalities that are holding most of the regions wealth and thus influence will initiate change that will decrease their ad valorem taxes, residency, and influence.

  23. #23
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Doberman View post
    Depending on the characteristics of the region such as traffic congestion from suburban corridors, urban blight, etc. Then yes I do. It's unlikely that suburban municipalities that are holding most of the regions wealth and thus influence will initiate change that will decrease their ad valorem taxes, residency, and influence.
    I'm not sure what New Urbanism has to do with taxes, residency, influence, etc., but I see your point in that you believe regional planning agencies should push N.U. I don't agree with this, but I bet a lot of planners would take your side rather than mine.

    It seems like lately RPAs are engaged mostly in planning which is driven by federal and state grants. My experience has been that, rather than work with communities to identify needs, regional planners are trotting out projects based on the availability of federal/state funding. The solution may not be practical for a given community, but the planning process is driven more by the funding source criteria than actual need. In addition, there are often bureaucratic strings attached to the project that can be burdensome for the municipalities to manage (similar to a lot of the nonsensical CDBG requirements). In my opinion, this type of top-down planning is wasteful and ineffective. Rather than have the regional planners decide what is best for the communities I would like to see this money returned to local governments where I believe the money could be used more effectively. If the funding source is a sustainability grant, for instance, why does it have to be used for an energy audit and not stormwater improvements or improving recycling facilities?

  24. #24
    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
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    I like my regional agencies to be more advisory than as an added layer of regulation. It's good for MPOs to handle streets and other regional issues, but the local government knows - or should know - what type of design and lifestyle they want. I think it would be a disaster to push NU standards globally. It just doesn't work for every situation.
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  25. #25
    Cyburbian Faust_Motel's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    Regional Planning Agencies, at least in the northeast, are not the same as the MPOs. They are different agencies. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if there are some states in which the RPAs serve the function of MPOs as far as allocating federal funding for transportation projects.
    In Vermont around the Burlington area the RPC and the MPO have merged into the same organization, and they also do have the ability to participate in the review of projects that require a state land use permit or other state permit (like utilities, solid waste facilities, etc).

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