On December 15, 2016, U.S. DOT issued a final rule that will affect the metropolitan transportation planning process in the CMAP region.  The rule requires a unified suite of planning products – including the long-range transportation plan, the transportation improvement program, and performance targets – for each metropolitan planning area, which in turn must encompass an entire urbanized area as defined by the Census Bureau. 

The CMAP region is home to two urbanized areas – Chicago IL-IN and Round Lake Beach-McHenry-Grayslake IL-WI – both of which cross over into neighboring states.  As such, the rule would affect not only CMAP in northeastern Illinois, but also our counterparts the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC) and the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC).

To comply with this rule, urbanized areas that are currently served by multiple MPOs would require significant changes, including adjustment of planning boundaries, merging MPOs, or the approval of identical planning products by the affected MPOs and their respective governors.  CMAP would be required to comply with the rule two years after the release of the next decennial Census results, which is likely to occur sometime in 2024.  

Significant changes from proposed rule

The final rule includes two key provisions that had not been part of the proposed rulemaking.  First, the final rule includes provisions for affected MPOs and their respective governors to petition U.S. DOT to waive the new requirements, demonstrating that their current practices satisfy the intent of the rule and that further coordination would be difficult to implement due to extraordinary local circumstances.  CMAP had suggested that there be a waiver process adopted in the final rule.  However, the rule sets a high bar for such an opt-out to occur.  U.S. DOT has not yet issued guidance on rule implementation and is unlikely to do so in the short term.  The rule itself suggests that in our area, six parties would be required to participate in a petition, including three MPOs and three governors.  Even if all six parties can agree to a petition, there is still no guarantee that the U.S. DOT secretary would approve the request.

Second, the final rule extends the implementation timeline for the new provisions.  The original timeline for adjusting metropolitan planning area boundaries had been 180 days, but is now 2 years.  Further, the proposed rule had required the additional coordination activities to occur within 2 years of the final rulemaking – which would have been late 2018 – but that deadline has since been extended to the 2020s.  While appearing simple on their face, implementing the requirements of the MPO coordination and planning area reform rule will be a complex and lengthy process across multiple agencies, and so CMAP is encouraged that the final rule allows more time for implementation.

Moving forward

In reviewing the notice of proposed rulemaking earlier this fall, CMAP expressed concern over the potential impacts of the rule in our region, including an overly burdensome planning process, difficulty in meeting unique state and local regulations, and disincentives to pursue innovative or high-quality planning products.  Approving unified planning products across a vast tristate metropolitan area, with each MPO board and governor essentially exercising veto authority, is likely to be a complex and lengthy process.  Further, genuine public engagement across a vast region of over 500 municipalities, 10 million people, and dozens of counties poses significant challenges.

While the final rule includes new waiver provisions and a longer implementation timeline, CMAP remains concerned that the new rule would weaken the metropolitan planning process in the southeastern Wisconsin-northeastern Illinois-northwestern Indiana area.  This megaregion is already well served by three high-capacity MPOs, which have established methods to coordinate with each other.  Additionally, the planning context in each state is sufficiently distinct to make the sort of top-down coordination imposed by the new rule impractical.  Moving forward, CMAP will continue to coordinate with NIRPC and SEWRPC to determine appropriate steps to ensure the integrity of their existing regional planning processes.