STATEMENT OF MICHAEL COOKE
ISTEA REAUTHORIZATION
MARCH 19, 1997

Mr. Chairman, my name is Michael Cooke, and I am a Commissioner on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners in Colorado. I am here to testify today before your Subcommittee on the need for reform of the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO's) whose duties and responsibilities were enhanced significantly with the passage of ISTEA. The federal transportation funding process has fundamentally changed under ISTEA, which has provided certain benefits nationwide. However, the provisions of ISTEA have tended to treat all jurisdictions in the same manner; this system has not been advantageous for some local governments, particularly linkage communities like Douglas County. Although the intent of returning more power over the purse and decision-making on transportation priorities to local areas was admirable, its practical impact in areas such as Douglas County has in many ways created an unfair system for the citizens of Douglas County and, at the same time, has created a system that is difficult to modify or escape.

BACKGROUND ON DOUGLAS COUNTY

Douglas County, Colorado, is the fastest growing county in the State of Colorado and in the United States. As of January, 1997, the County's population is 123,000 persons. The latest census figures indicate that the County has been the fastest growing county in the United States for the first half of this decade and remains so today.

Douglas County's population has doubled since 1990, putting significant pressure on public services, from the need for more schools to expanding the transportation infrastructure to keep up with increased traffic. This growth particularly impacts us because approximately 72% of our total population resides in the unincorporated areas of the County and depend upon the County government for the provision of essential services. While the majority of the population lives in the northern tier of the County, rapid growth has been experienced all along the Interstate 25 corridor, linking Denver and Colorado Springs.

Our situation in Douglas County is not unique. We have an expanding population, and with that expansion comes a need to accommodate growth with the necessary public infrastructure, including adequate highway and transit capacity. We would contend that the MPO decision-making process for the approval of transportation funding is inadequate; it is subject to extensive bureaucratic inertia that protects the status quo and has created a system protected by federal mandates.

Before I go any further, let me say for the record that Douglas County has not come before your Subcommittee today without doing everything within its power to work cooperatively within the system and with our MPO, the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG). We will document the extensive number of times that we have tried to pursue project funding or project enhancements and have run into real or perceived roadblocks. The reason we are here today is because the current system makes real local decision-making illusory and the prospect for improving the system locally all but impossible without some sort of federal assistance.

THE NEED FOR MPO REFORM: NATIONAL ISSUES

There is no doubt that transportation planning is an essential element of any transportation program. MPO's were established to facilitate that planning and to help coordinate planning in a regional context, but in most cases the role of the MPO was strictly advisory and generally voluntary. However, in ISTEA MPO's theoretically took on a much more extensive role, including the actual approval of specific federal transportation funding projects and in some cases taking that direct authority away from local governmental entities who are responsible for providing services to citizens.

With the authority to approve specific transportation projects and to set priorities for overall transportation projects in a particular region have come problems with the local makeup of the MPO and whether one area dominates the other. This issue is at the very root of the problems that have been experienced in Douglas County and which I will describe in greater detail later in my testimony.

ISTEA gave allegedly more "flexibility" and "greater local decision-making" to local elected officials, but it failed to give local governments the ability to choose whether they wanted to be part of this federally imposed effort or not. Federal regulations require that in order to redesignate an MPO in a metropolitan area a jurisdiction must accomplish the following:

1.Obtain the approval of the Governor of the state;

2.Obtain the approval of local officials representing 75% of the population in the entire metropolitan planning area; and

3.Obtain the approval of the local officials in the central city within the metropolitan planning area.

Even if a jurisdiction were able to accomplish all of those federal requirements, the law goes on to say that if there is a redesignation of an MPO, this new MPO would still be required to cooperate, consult and coordinate with the state and other MPO's in the metropolitan planning area.

Therefore, if a local government believes that the MPO and its decision-making process is unfair and wants to have more control over its own future, the federal government makes it virtually impossible for the local government to make its own decisions. We believe that the national trend is to send more decision-making and responsibility for the allocation and management of resources back to the local government level. The MPO federal mandate tends to inhibit local decision-making and has resulted in a heavy handed bureaucracy that is in many ways worse than the process was before ISTEA. We believe the MPO process is in great need of reform.

DOUGLAS COUNTY'S CASE FOR MPO REFORM

The federal planning process has become extremely complicated and archaic, resulting in local transportation decisions being dictated by the planning bureaucracy. Federal regulations governing this process have become so burdensome that no one outside the planning professionals understands them, and the local elected decision-makers simply do not have the time to read all the regulations that are now on the books. Further, every time Douglas County staff meets with DRCOG staff, we seem to get different and contradictory information about how the transportation funding process works.

When MPO's served in an advisory role such a situation was tolerable. However, now that MPO's, in some cases, have taken on the role of allocating scarce federal transportation resources, the bureaucracy has become problematic. In the case of Douglas County and in its capacity as a fast growing, transitional community, the decisions of the local MPO could have disastrous short and long-term effects.

To the point, the population for the entire DRCOG region is approximately 2.1 million persons, based on DRCOG's 1996 estimate. Douglas County is about 5.27% of that total. However, projects in Douglas County have received only .35% of DRCOG transportation funding in the FY 1993-1995 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) cycle, only 1.2% of the FY 1995-1997 TIP funding cycle and only .4% of the FY 1997-1999 TIP funding cycle. In fact, the total amount of funding Douglas County has received for county-sponsored projects over the life of ISTEA is $250,000, compared with approximately $20 million in County requests that have been denied. This funding inequity and the unlikelihood of any real potential for change under the current MPO structure are the main reasons why we are here today.

The reasons for such funding inequities are complex. However, one clear factor that inhibits areas like Douglas County from obtaining a fair share of the funding is that there are no provisions in the funding process which address growth. Highways in Douglas County are impacted not only by the County's increased population, but also by the growth rate of the entire Denver and Colorado Springs areas, based on our linkage position between these two regions. This growth has significant effects on roadway safety and capacity, as well as air quality. However, the current funding process tends to favor core city projects, with extremely high costs and minimal improvements to roadway safety or air quality improvements, to the detriment of high-growth communities. The result is that the metropolitan region's infrastructure is not able to keep pace with growth, and impacted communities like Douglas County are not able to meet the transportation needs of their residents, nor the needs of the region. Trends indicate that future growth will continue to take place in suburban areas, and current and future needs in these communities must be addressed in the federal transportation funding process.

For the record, we would like to document for the Subcommittee the major issues that have arisen between the County and the MPO since the enactment of ISTEA that we hope will show the County's frustration with the current system:

-- during the preparation of the first DRCOG TIP under ISTEA in 1993, Douglas County applied for funding to complete a four lane section of Lincoln Avenue, the County's most heavily traveled road. The engineering was totally funded by Douglas County, and the project was in the final design phase. Nearly all of the right-of-way had been obtained, and the County had the local match identified. DRCOG denied funding for the project, declaring the project a "capacity enhancement." The reality is that the project simply would have widened a 2.5 mile, two lane section of road that was already four lanes on either end--a project designed to improve the safety of the roadway;

-- Also in 1993, the County applied for funding for a bicycle project that was originally planned to add a shoulder to 22 miles of Highway 105 under the County's jurisdiction. This project was intended to mitigate a significant safety issue by separating automobile traffic from bicycle traffic. The cost of the proposed safety project was $5 million. DRCOG unilaterally and drastically modified the scope of the project and narrowed the project to a 2-3 mile section of a roadway that was under the State's jurisdiction, not the County's. We were requested to pay a local funding match on a section of roadway we did not own. Therefore, the project that was dictated to the County by the MPO did not meet our stated needs and was rejected by the County;

-- DRCOG was not initially supportive and, in fact, was often an obstacle in Douglas County's efforts to have additional mileage on Highway 85 added to the proposed National Highway System in 1995. Douglas County approached DRCOG in July 1995 and was told that adding mileage to Colorado's request "was not possible", and, in fact, if such mileage were added it would mean deletion of other routes in Colorado. Obviously this was simply not factual.

Despite DRCOG staff reservations and with the much needed support of Congressman Joel Hefley, the DRCOG Board on September 20, 1995 gave direction to the staff to send a letter to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in support of the project. However, it was then determined by DRCOG staff that DRCOG's Transportation Committee must ratify the request. Ultimately, ten weeks after the County made the request a formal letter was sent by DRCOG on September 27, 1995 to the FHWA, only two days before the decisive action was taken on the NHS bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite DRCOG's actions, the FHWA approved the new NHS with the Highway 85 section added;

-- As further evidence of DRCOG's opposition to equitable highway funding, especially regarding the Highway 85 project in Douglas County, the County attempted to apply for NHS funds for a dangerous intersection at Titan Road and Highway 85. The County was not allowed to apply for funding due to the fact that DRCOG had set a deadline for applying for NHS funds of January 5, 1996. This application deadline was less than 20 days after the FHWA had allocated funds to the State and a little over 35 days since the NHS had been enacted into law. While we understand the need for deadlines, we consider this time frame to have been unreasonable;

-- On another safety-related issue, in early 1996 the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) submitted a request to DRCOG for $30 million to widen northbound and southbound I-25 from Lincoln Avenue to Castle Pines Parkway, in an area that has experienced a high level of fatalities and injuries from truck related accidents, including an 82-car pileup on February 6 of this year. DRCOG attempted to reallocate the construction funding requested to another project outside of Douglas County, without the knowledge of CDOT, and recommended instead that $300,000 be allocated for the roadway to be studied in 1999. When this action by DRCOG was discovered, CDOT and the County protested the action and requested that funding for the project be restored.

I am pleased to say that $7.5 million was placed back into the budget for that much-needed highway improvement, but it is still only 25% of what is needed. Since Douglas County has made attempts to strive for MPO reform and has begun to work closely with CDOT on this project, DRCOG appears to have become more responsive to the safety needs on this Section of I-25. However, DRCOG has also made it clear that no funding from the MPO will be available for a proposed truck safety lane to meet immediate safety needs.

These are specific examples, including the denial of over $20 million in project requests, of how we have tried to work through the system and cooperate with DRCOG. At nearly every turn, our efforts are frustrated, and we have reluctantly reached the conclusion that the system is not a democratic decision-making process and that change within DRCOG is nearly impossible.

The size and complexity of DRCOG also hampers our efforts to proceed with necessary infrastructure projects. DRCOG is made up of 39 municipalities and 8 counties, with the City and County of Denver, our central city, having a seat on the board for each category. This structure makes it particularly difficult for county governments because of the control of the municipalities. It is extremely problematic for Douglas County due to the percentage of our population which resides in unincorporated areas of the County.

While DRCOG maintains that local government elected officials make transportation decisions and that DRCOG is responsive to local government needs, Douglas County and other jurisdictions have not had such positive experiences with the MPO process. In fact, as noted above, DRCOG staff has hindered Douglas County's ability to obtain support for transportation priorities. Further, municipalities, which represent over 80% of the local governments in the MPO, have a stronger voice than suburban counties, like Douglas, in regional planning efforts.

This inequity is even more extreme regarding the role of the central city, Denver; because it is a city and county, Denver receives two votes on the DRCOG Board. DRCOG's weighted voting system, which has never been invoked, provides even more power to the central city. Douglas County is not alone in its frustration; other jurisdictions have also expressed concerns with the current MPO process and have indicated support for the legislative reform that we are advocating today.

State departments of transportation provide a consistency that MPOs cannot, as MPO's vary from region to region and state to state. In Colorado, MPOs do not design, engineer or construct projects. Why then, should they be responsible for the selection of those projects? As an elected official, I am accountable to the citizens I represent. As an organization, DRCOG is not. It is clear that DRCOG is a federally mandated and protected local decision-maker that is staff driven. We do not believe that was the intent of ISTEA, and for that reason we believe national reform is needed.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR NATIONAL MPO REFORM

For the reasons specified above, we would ask this Subcommittee to consider the following reforms for MPO's in the reauthorization of ISTEA:

1.Lower the unreasonable barrier for a jurisdiction's withdrawal and redesignation from an MPO to the approval of local officials representing 50% of the population in the entire metropolitan area outside of the central city. Problems in suburban communities are drastically different from the central cities, and if their colleagues agree that further involvement with that MPO is not meeting the needs of those communities, they should be allowed to withdraw, be redesignated, or join an adjacent MPO;

2.Assuming that the above criteria are achieved, there is no justification for the official of the central city having a veto power over that decision. If this is allowed to continue, why are other local officials surrounding the central city not given the same veto power over a proposal by the central city? This central city veto authority should be eliminated;

3.If a jurisdiction seeking to determine its own transportation planning future should satisfy the above criteria, it is again required, by federal law," to cooperate, consult and coordinate with the state and other MPO's in the metropolitan planning area. " In our judgment, this would completely negate whatever effort there would be to make one's own decisions. We would recommend that this language be modified to read only that the new MPO "consult" with the other entities; and

4.Because state departments of transportation have the knowledge, experience, and expertise to assure project selection based on sound data and engineering analysis, the authority for project selection should be returned to those entities. MPOs should have an expanded role in research and development that focuses on problems and technology transfer and that answers back to state and local governments responsible for solving problems.

5.As long as the federal government is going to be involved in the planning process and assuming that the intent is truly to foster greater local decision-making, there should be a requirement that an MPO must have a process in place for equitable, agreed upon local decision- making and that the process should be utilized. If it can be shown that a democratic locally accepted voting process is not being utilized, such an inequitable voting process would be a basis for the MPO's federal certification not to be renewed.

Again, these proposed changes will help make the MPO process more responsive to local government transportation needs, as we believe is the intent of ISTEA. We are proposing these changes today not as an attempt to circumvent the current process, but to ensure that all jurisdictions will be able to determine transportation priorities and meet local needs equitably. Congressman Joel Hefley has introduced H.R. 477, a bill we call the "Local Transportation Decision-making Empowerment Act," which incorporates many of the items we just mentioned.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to see that the Administration is moving in the proper direction on these issues. The Administration's version of ISTEA, that was sent to the Congress last week, includes the following recommendations:

1) Decreasing the threshold for MPO redesignation to 51% from 75%;

2) Having local officials acting through the MPO and the Secretary determine whether redesignation is possible instead of having the authority rest solely with the Governor; and

3) Require "coordination" instead of "cooperate, coordinate and consult" between two MPO's.

Overall, Mr. Chairman this is a positive direction, and we believe this shows the strength of our cause. Washington simply cannot dictate local decision making any longer, and we hope you will strongly consider all the provisions in H.R. 477 for inclusion into your version of ISTEA.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for this opportunity to present our views and I would be glad to try to answer any questions that you may have.