More Dollars, More Say: Traverse City Becoming Metropolitan Planning Organization
By Beth Milligan | March 15, 2023
As of the 2020 U.S. Census, the Traverse City area has reached the population threshold required to become a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) – a status that will mean an influx of more federal dollars for road projects and the ability for local governments and agencies to come together on one board to make regional transportation decisions. Networks Northwest will give a presentation to Grand Traverse County commissioners today (Wednesday) on how northern Michigan’s first MPO will be formed – and what it will mean for the region’s future.
Going back decades, communities across northern Michigan have always been categorized as “rural” under the U.S. Census, according to Networks Northwest Regional Director of Community Development Rob Carson. In 2020, for the first time, enough people lived within a certain geographic area that it triggered the “urbanized” population threshold of 50,000 required to become an MPO. “How they compute it is a little complex, but they look at census blocks – and population and housing density within those census blocks – which can trigger the move from the category of rural to the category of urbanized,” explains Carson.
A map of Traverse City’s urbanized area (pictured, dark purple) shows the boundaries include the City of Traverse City and parts of Bingham, Elmwood, Long Lake, Garfield, Blair, Peninsula, Acme, and East Bay townships. Current gaps on the map – called “skips and jumps” – are due to areas where there are natural features like wetlands, rivers, or public lands that are generally unbuildable and separate some of the population centers. In the coming months, the map will go through a “smoothing process” to create a single uninterrupted boundary that will appear contiguous, Carson says. That boundary could include not only the urbanized area but contiguous areas around it that are expected to be urbanized in the next two decades. For the Traverse City MPO, for instance, that recommended boundary extends to include areas like Whitewater and Green Lake townships, in addition to the above townships and city.
Traverse City’s MPO will be the first of its kind north of Midland (there are over a dozen MPOs downstate). An MPO is charged by the federal government with overseeing regional transportation planning on a “3-C” basis: comprehensive, continuing, and cooperative. Local leaders will work together to create a long-range transportation plan (LRTP), a document that outlines transportation projects 20 or more years out. That plan is updated every five years and has a required public participation component. The MPO will also develop a short-term transportation improvement plan (TIP). That plan, which is approved by the governor, typically looks just four years out and is updated annually.
There are several benefits to having an MPO, Carson says. The most notable is funding. Traverse City currently receives $385,000 annually in federal Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds. As an MPO, that amount will be upgraded to $1 million annually. The Traverse City MPO will also receive an estimated $228,000 in annual Consolidated Planning Grant funds – replacing a current $23,000 allocation – and collect another $120,000 in Carbon Reduction funds. Traverse City’s new status also opens the region up for “specific grants that only MPOs can go after,” Carson says. MPOs are usually required to provide a cost match; dues from member units of government help cover that match. But “if you have a $2 million project, and only have to match $400,000 toward it, that’s a huge boost in funding,” Carson says.
An MPO also offers a new level of collaboration and decision-making power among local leaders, who can now jointly make transportation decisions that affect all of their communities, Carson says. “We need to remember that you can drive across a six-mile-by-six-mile township in minutes,” Carson says. “It’s important for townships to work collaboratively on decisions that might be outside their boundaries but can have an impact on them.” In both Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties, significant waves of individuals are traveling into population centers to work and then out to their homes in the evenings, Carson notes. Thus, “improvements to the whole transportation system benefits the population as a whole,” he says.
MPOs are typically housed within a regional planning entity – like Networks Northwest – so that dedicated staff and administrative support is available. The MPO policy board is comprised of an appointed member from each local unit of government that chooses to participate. In the Traverse City MPO, the city and townships within the approved geographic boundary, Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties, the road commissions of both counties, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and key transportation agencies like BATA and the Northwest Regional Airport Authority are eligible for membership.
While participation isn’t mandatory – occasionally, jurisdictions balk at paying membership dues or contributing to projects outside their specific boundaries – it offers local governments a crucial voice in determining which local transportation projects are prioritized and funded, Carson says. MPOs also have an advisory technical committee that offers seats for other community members to weigh in; in Traverse City, that could representation from groups like TART Trails and Groundwork Center, Carson says.
Networks Northwest is currently embarking on a “road show” to provide presentations to all the potential members – such as Grand Traverse County commissioners today – on the MPO’s formation. In the coming months, the MPO’s boundaries will start to be formally delineated, and an official MPO designation request will be sent to the governor and then the federal government. Local governments interested in joining will need to sign intergovernmental agreements, and Traverse City’s MPO and the Michigan Department of Transportation will also sign an interagency agreement (likely to take place next year).
Once established, the MPO board will begin working on Traverse City’s long and short-term transportation plans; those are slated to be developed by the end of 2026. The census change also has implications for BATA: In addition to being on the MPO policy board, BATA’s own status is being upgraded from a rural transit system to a small urban system. BATA highlighted the change in a release this week about major moves ahead for the organization in 2023 and 2024, including breaking ground on a new headquarters and operations center this spring and expanding its board to include more community members.Comment