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As groups like the National Association of Regional Councils await clarity on Trump’s infrastructure strategy, the organization wants a “mess” of a rule impacting metropolitan planning organizations eliminated.
WASHINGTON — How any new federal funding or financing options for transportation get structured is a leading concern for regional councils and planning organizations as President Trump’s term gets underway.
“The funding piece is where the interest of my members really lies. In getting some new money into the system,” Erich Zimmermann, director of transportation programs for the National Association of Regional Councils said during an interview earlier this week. Ensuring some of this money—if it does materialize—flows down to the local level is important as well, he added.
Along with regional councils, the association’s members include entities such as regional planning and development agencies and metropolitan planning organizations, commonly called MPOs. The association held its 2017 National Conference of Regions in Washington this week.
Zimmermann said the association will also be closely watching for policy changes that result in greater federal control over decisions now made at the local level.
Additionally, the group is pushing for the elimination of a rule affecting MPOs that went into effect toward the end of then-President Barack Obama’s time in office.
On the funding and financing front, Zimmermann noted the lack of certainty about how Trump’s plans for infrastructure might look and what types of proposals could win support in Congress.
“It’s just completely unclear right now what stomach Congress has to apply a huge slug of new money into infrastructure,” he said.
The president has voiced support for significant spending on U.S. infrastructure. Two of Trump’s campaign advisers released a paper before the election last fall that outlined infrastructure plans that would rely heavily on federal tax credits and private sector investment.
Zimmermann said new opportunities for project financing involving private money might help some of the communities represented by the National Association of Regional Councils. But he added: “A lot of our members aren’t working on enormous projects that are going to have the type of revenue generation that would be required” for public-private partnerships.
“Our number one point is that funding has to accompany financing,” Zimmermann added.
The rule affecting MPOs the association wants nixed went into effect on Jan. 19.
In urban areas with populations of more than 50,000 people, the federally-mandated organizations carry out planning processes that guide how federal transportation funding is used. There are about 400 metropolitan planning organizations around the country.
The rule was meant to promote more effective regional planning. It would require some MPOs to possibly adjust their boundaries, consider mergers, or to coordinate planning documents.
But Zimmermann said the rule was done “pretty ham-handedly” and was put in place despite strong opposition from National Association of Regional Councils members and other groups. “It’s a mess," he said.
The association, Zimmermann said, is hoping to see the rule eliminated through the passage of a bill, or under the Congressional Review Act, which lawmakers can use to roll back regulations.
Asked about why a regional view is important to incorporate into discussions about transportation and infrastructure funding, Zimmermann replied: “I think it’s about local control.”
“Regional organizations,” he added, “put the money and decisionmaking in the hands of local officials.”
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.