Prepared Testimony of Mr. Peter Gregory, Executive Director, Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, Woodstock, Vermont.
Representing the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC)
Before the Senate of the United States of America
Committee on Environment and Public Works
Hearing on Transportation Planning
May 15, 2002
Thank you Chairman Jeffords and members of the Committee for the opportunity to testify before you today. My name is Peter Gregory; I am the Executive Director of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission (TRORC), in Woodstock, Vermont. I am here today representing the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC), our members, and the local elected officials and citizens we represent. I am providing testimony on behalf of NARC on the importance of transportation planning to regional councils and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs). I would like to discuss the success of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, and changes necessary in its reauthorization to strengthen planning, the role of local elected officials, and specifically, how to better integrate rural areas into the process.
The topic of transportation planning and the processes MPOs and councils use to achieve it is important to my commission, NARC, and all of my colleagues across the country. In these processes transportation systems are first developed and discussed so I am glad to see this issue is important to the Committee as well.
The National Association of Regional Councils is a 32-year-old organization serving the interests of regional councils, and Metropolitan Planning Organizations. NARC is an umbrella organization comprised of planning commissions and development districts made up of large urban and small rural councils, and MPOs from across the country. NARC provides advocacy and technical assistance in and for environmental issues, economic and community development, emergency management, and transportation. NARC emphasizes regional intergovernmental cooperation to resolve common problems in all of these important areas.
Regional councils and MPOs are created by compact and enabling legislation as consortia of local governments. As such, regional councils and MPOs represent local elected officials from cities, counties, townships, and villages. Their mission is regional planning and coordination across multiple jurisdictions. Regional Councils and MPOs deliver a wide-range of programs and services such as, economic development, first responder and 9-1-1, health care, infrastructure development, aging services, air and water quality, land-use planning, work force development, emergency management and homeland security, and transportation.
Among all of these programs, transportation is key to the continued prosperity and health of all regions across the country. Access to employment and recreation, and the movement of goods and services, drive regional economies and serves to bridge communities otherwise separated.
An excellent example of regional coordination and service delivery is the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission (TRORC), which is one of 12 regional planning commissions in the state of Vermont. TRORC has planning responsibilities for 27 rural towns, most with populations of less than 1000 residents. TRORC performs emergency management, natural resource, land use and transportation planning across its jurisdictions.
Since 1992 when the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) was enacted, the State of Vermont has elected to obtain local input on transportation investment decisions by contracting with Vermont’s regional planning commissions. Each regional planning commission’s work is guided by a transportation advisory committee (TAC) comprised primarily of locally elected officials. These local officials provide the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) with a regional transportation plan and prioritized projects in all modes. In Vermont, local and regional transportation policy is developed locally and feeds into the statewide plan, thereby creating a seamless philosophy on transportation investment.
This comprehensive program to document local interests has served VTrans well since 1992. Successive Governors and Secretaries of the Vermont Agency of Transportation have all strongly supported the processes that regional planning commissions use to identify and support projects. In addition, the Vermont Legislature has demonstrated strong bi-partisan support for the inclusiveness of the process. They have understood that regional planning commissions are closer to the communities and bring a comprehensive and trusted approach to their constituents. This innovative approach to public participation has now been used by most of the agencies of state government as a cost effective means to obtain an accurate assessment of local desires. The regional planning commission relationship with the State of Vermont is strong and is serving Vermonters well. It has evolved and matured and has reacted to changing circumstances whether they be freight movement or homeland security.
As an example of this relationship and as enabled by ISTEA and TEA-21, Vermont took advantage of the opportunity to revisit highway design standards used by VTrans engineers. In the mid-1990’s, Vermont adopted new, context sensitive standards that replaced the previously used AASHTO standards. Highway, bridge and pedestrian and bicycle facilities now attain their purpose and need while enhancing the built environment and protecting more historic, social and environmental resources. Vermont’s regional planning commissions played the decisive role in ensuring adoption of these new standards.
Vermont’s citizens have also benefited by the formal involvement by regional planning commissions in transportation planning. Through the 10-year period, the level of understanding by the general public in transportation issues has grown steadily and dramatically. This, in turn, enables more meaningful input for VTrans on project scope, and allows the public greater understanding as to the constraints that are faced when developing transportation infrastructure.
Vermont’s regional planning commissions bring many unique talents to the process, not the least of which is the expertise in all the other disciplines that is needed when contemplating the rehabilitation or construction of infrastructure. Vermont’s regional planning commissions all bring years of experience in computerized mapping which delineates everything from sewer infrastructure to wetlands and wildlife habitat. Integrating the extensive knowledge base we have with the locally elected officials’ input enables projects to be designed and constructed substantially sooner than would have occurred in previous decades. This preserves the environment and saves tax dollars while meeting the mobility needs of the New England economy. Vermont is clearly a “best practice” in rural transportation planning.
Vermont’s regional planning commissions need a consistent and predictable funding source to provide the services that we provide. Although they all have close working relationships with VTrans today, it is imperative that the process TRORC has undertaken over the last ten years does not falter due to changing economic or political situations.
Guaranteed funding for rural areas to carry out planning is essential. As in Vermont, councils need funding to plan the best transportation systems possible. NARC will ask Congress to provide states with meaningful incentives to move toward the Vermont example of seeking rural officials’ involvement. NARC is proposing new funding streams in the next Bill, to make this a reality – including a Rural Set-Aside for planning and projects.
This Committee can appreciate a system that works well. Vermont is an example of where ISTEA and TEA-21 were implemented successfully. This success, however, is not replicated in all regions across the country. Local elected officials, councils, and MPOs, in many cases and in many places, have less say in the transportation planning and decision-making process, then those in Vermont.
NARC proposes changes in TEA-21 to allow all States and regions to replicate the success of Vermont. The association asks Congress to smooth inconsistencies among States by adopting clear and concise law incorporating local governments into the transportation decision-making process. Local elected officials, cities, counties, and regions, should not be left out of the system because, at the Federal level, there are not clear voices sounding on their importance in the process. For example, in many rural areas across the country, there is no Federal statute that requires States to formally engage local elected officials in the planning process. NARC would like to see law and regulation requiring this process. Congress did ask the United States Department of Transportation to promulgate their proposed regulation on local official consultation. NARC asks this Committee to reemphasize the importance of this regulation and urge the Department of Transportation, in the strongest sense possible, to move forward on its release.
NARC is urging Congress to consider all its partners, not just rural councils as important to building and maintaining the best transportation system in the world. NARC seeks more funding for MPOs, better coordination within State and Federal programs, and new and innovative programs aimed at alleviating urban transportation problems such as congestion, funding flexibility, and air quality. Congress should guarantee States the flexibility to spend funds and program projects based on their priorities and extend that same responsibility and authority to all local elected officials.
Air quality, planning coordination, and finance and fiscal constraint are of particular interest given new directions in air quality regulations, the need to better coordinate planning cycles, and fewer resources at the regional and local level. These new regulations will impact urban and rural areas in ways not yet understood. First and foremost, Congress should consider air quality conformity as a tool to achieve clean air quality goals.
The conformity process as currently legislated neither readily achieves air quality nor facilitates an easy solution. The current process opens regions to poorly defined legal challenges, faulty science, and consigns many of them to a bureaucratic quagmire. While conformity is well intended, and necessary, its application should be reexamined. Of no less importance to regions is the assurance of well-timed plans.
Both conformity and transportation plans should be timed together to achieve maximum results. Required plan updates, plan lifetimes, and conformity checks should be synchronized, and required less often. By doing these two things MPOs and regional councils can conserve planning resources and make plans more meaningful to the public and their elected officials. To ensure MPOs and regional councils have the ability to plan in the first place they need concise revenue forecasts and tight internal control of their resources.
Fiscal constraint on MPOs and councils is absolutely necessary, as long as revenue forecasts are precise and fiscal standards consistent. MPOs and regional councils are held to higher fiscal standards in their planning and programming processes then the States that fund them. Congress should require States to provide accurate revenue forecasts to MPOs and councils and engage them in calculating these forecasts as well.
NARC will also urge Congress throughout this and the coming year to consider greater emphasis on safety in rural and urban communities, a balanced and intermodal approach to Federal funding, comprehensive review and consideration of technology deployment, and greater consideration of freight movement as an essential part of the transportation planning process.
Of particular concern to NARC members and the citizens they represent are the tens of thousands of accidents and deaths on rural roads each year. Coupled with increasing safety concerns in urban areas, this presents a sobering picture of travel on America’s roads. NARC is urging Congress to apply resources in new and innovative ways to lessen this tragedy.
NARC is urging Congress to consider ways to streamline the project delivery process, while ensuring the health of our natural environment. The ability to move projects quickly, especially those that will make our roads safer, is of key concern. Bound intimately with safety are new concerns for security.
Given the fact that many regional councils are currently involved in emergency management planning, NARC will also urge Congress to consider regional councils and MPOs as primary recipients of homeland and surface transportation security funding.
NARC would like to help all councils achieve the same success as those in Vermont, and in other places, through a balanced, intermodal, comprehensive, and locally and regionally led process of planning, programming, and project selection.
NARC will be happy to elaborate at any time and assist Congress in any way. Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Committee members for allowing the National Association of Regional Councils time to present its views.