PACTS members get a lesson in acronyms as MPO prepares to become a TMA
By Kathryn Buxton
As you venture forth into new territory, it’s good to know the local dialect. That was one of the lessons learned at the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS) 2012 annual meeting, June 26 at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center in Portland. The language in question is the uncanny amalgamation of acronyms that dominate whenever the 15 PACTS community members gather: USDOT (United States Department of Transportation); FTA (Federal Transit Administration); FHWA (Federal Highway Administration); MaineDOT (Maine Department of Transportation); GPCOG (Greater Portland Council of Governments); SMRPC (Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission); RTP (Regional Transportation Program); CBITD (Casco Bay Island Transit District); NNEPRA (Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority). . . and the list continues.
The hot topic at the meeting was the impact of the recent announcement that the MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) would soon become a TMA (Transportation Management Area). According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an MPO is an urbanized area defined in the most recent decennial Census with a population of more than 50,000 people. A TMA is an area designated by the Secretary of Transportation, having an urbanized area population of more than 200,000. Both designations affect the amount of federal transportation dollars allocated to an area, as well as the governmental structure required to determine how those dollars are spent.
Nathan Poore, Falmouth town manager and chair of the PACTS Policy Committee, made this comparison during his opening remarks: “When I think about it, I think of the MPO as flexibility. I think of a TMA as home rule.”
Poore was speaking of the provision that means PACTS will receive an additional $6 million in federal funding directly allocated by Congress over which the organization will have discretion.
PACTS Director John Duncan provided a brief history of the organization, established in 1975 with just seven communities. PACTS has since expanded to include 15 communities, and soon will add two more: Arundel and Raymond. The group oversees the expenditure of $13 million in local, federal and state transportation spending on infrastructure and planning, including $2.3 million annually spent on transit. Duncan also offered elected municipal officials, state lawmakers and local citizens a look back at the organization’s challenges and achievements. Those have included work at several high traffic and critical transportation corridors in the 15-region MPO including: Dunstan Corner in Scarborough; the Route 1 corridor in Biddeford; Bill Clarke Drive in Westbrook; improvements to Riverside Avenue at Warren Avenue in Portland; and $8 million in paving projects in eight PACTS towns.The organization has spearheaded a series of recent transportation studies, as well. Chief among its recent efforts has been working with member communities to cope with decreased funding and increased demand on the region’s transportation system. To that end, PACTS has developed a system to better preserve the region’s collector roads before they further deteriorate.
Duncan also introduced the group to the structural, funding and organizational issues that face PACTS, as it makes the transition from MPO to TMA. Will PACTS committees include elected officials? Will the organization, which is adding two new members, break down into regional subgroups to improve efficiency? How will the group integrate congestion management processes into its operations? Will the new TMA continue to receive the $10 million in federal funding it currently receives via MaineDOT, in addition to the $6 million allocated by Congress? How will the organization comply with federal performance measures? The annual meeting concluded with a panel that addressed some of those questions, as well as others posed by members of the audience. On the panel were: Noah Berger from the Federal Transit Administration; John Duncan from PACTS; Steven Gayle from Resource Systems Group; Cheryl Martin from the Federal Highway Administration; and Herb Thomson from MaineDOT.
Berg, whose firm specializes in consulting with TMAs throughout the country, summed up what appeared to be the consensus opinion in the room. “Think of this as an opportunity, not a threat,” he said. “PACTS is a good MPO. You need to figure out how it can be a good TMA and become the best, most representative forum for cooperative decision making.”