This past Thursday I went to my last Corridor MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) meeting as a policy board member. My five year term feels like it flew by, but during that time I learned a lot about transportation planning, state and metro funding, and local politics.
When I first applied I had no clue what was going on, but I knew that I wanted to bring more focus to alternative transportation in our area. I didn’t expect to be appointed to an open position, much less get the longest term since I didn’t have any previous government experience. During my interview I basically scolded the Cedar Rapids council for how terrible our infrastructure planning was and how using the money appointed to this board for transit and trails would have a bigger impact on the metro area. Not expecting to be chosen, my final question during the interview was how I could continue to provide input if I was NOT chosen. I clearly remember one council member looking at me and saying, “oh, we’ll find you!” After I had been appointed, it also made me feel great to hear another council member say that I was the first candidate chosen the only candidate that was approved unanimously. <internal happy dance>
Anyway, I’m going to take a trip down my five year experience and share some personal thoughts. Some will be general about serving on a public board, maybe helpful for anyone considering doing this too, and some will be more specific about this particular board and the changes I’ve been a part of.
The first comment I want to share is first because if you stop reading after this, I hope you at least remember this part. Money is tricky in government. As a typical citizen, I used to view government money as one big pot that just gets moved around or distributed as needed. Buzz, wrong. There are hoops and criteria, and stipulations, and brick walls that guide the flow, or lack there of, for money. And this happens at every level. The federal government has their rules, the state then has their rules, and, in this case, the policy board they has its rules. So in short, you may want something funded, and at least one of your local government officials probably wants to fund it too, but it’s most likely not that simple.
However… that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. When I first joined the MPO I wanted to get more money to transit and trails. I remember the first allocation meeting where I made a motion to fully fund a bus for CR Transit. The rest of the policy board looked at me like I was eating roadkill and offering them some. The “policy” at the time was that our Technical Advisory Council would recommend the projects we should fund (almost all were road projects) and no more than 1% of our funding would go to transit because some research said that only 1% of our population used public transit. This thinking was, and still is, a large problem we have locally. Of course only a small number of people will use something that isn’t functional if you don’t make strides to improve it! Only 1% of the population would use a proper toilet if only 1% of the area had them available. Back on track now… the recommendations and thinking weren’t wrong, they just reflected what the TAC thought the policy board wanted (roads) and their ranking was based on numbers from congestion and safety studies. Hard data that engineers appreciate and can work with. The results, however, were that the MPO board would get a set of recommendations, and would basically rubber stamp them, meaning our budget allocation meeting would be us looking over the list, saying, “sure, looks fine I guess,” and we’d approve the allocations and move on. This was frustrating.
Next lesson, boards that frequently have new members swapping in mean that they need time to ramp up and learn the rules. I didn’t like this because major decisions were being made by people who didn’t really understand what was going on, and a year or two later, someone new would be in and we’d start the whole learning curve over with them. It’s great to have new people weighing in, in fact, I wouldn’t have had my chance to join if this didn’t happen, but there needs to be a better way to educate new members quickly and easily. Also, remember that people you vote for are likely going to be serving on these types of boards and they need to have some level of intelligence to wrap their heads around complicated, intertwining concepts and projects.
As representatives changed, some of us started to ask what our big picture goal was. We receive approximately $3.5-4 million per year for projects and yet it didn’t seem like we were making any tangible progress. An intersection here, a new lane there, but shouldn’t we have a PLAN? It also didn’t make sense to me to be funding so much sprawl, and then scrambling to try to maintain all of the roads we had, when we could instead be using our existing infrastructure and developed land to promote alternative transportation which would benefit our local budgets, our air quality, our health, and be amenities that would attract people and businesses. I’m not against roads, but I am for an overall comprehensive plan that is balanced and smart.
The big turning point was when the Cedar Rapids mayor proposed using all (100%) of our Surface Transportation Funds (STP) for trails. I will admit that I was not for this idea, not because I didn’t love it and want to see it happen, but because it sounded a battle cry to the other jurisdictions who thought our money should be used for roads since it came from the gas tax. By jumping to 100%, there was tons of opposition to the idea. After this was brought up several times, our meetings went from jovial gatherings to borderline political battles with side meetings, feisty comments, and and disgruntled members. I’m not saying that everyone should be happy, but the lines that were drawn were pretty much one jurisdiction against four. Each leader has a different way of leading, this just wasn’t my way.
During the following year, we debated how this would work, whittled down numbers, received our Long Range Plan that was pulled together by a consultant, and because our ratings were so poor in terms of trails (meaning all types, off road, on road, wide sidewalks, etc), and because Cedar Rapids had enough representatives to pull a majority vote, our policy was finally changed to support using 80% of our funding for trails and 20% for the rest of the projects. Huge deal! Unfortunately, public transit is still getting left behind, but perhaps it will get its day in the spotlight yet if the change in tides is any indication of our local government being open to alternative options. By focusing on our trails, and a SYSTEM of trails, not just individual segments, our metro area is developing a huge attraction for visitors and people looking to move here. I truly believe that this improvement will have a gigantic, positive impact on the area and I am proud to have been a part of it.
A part of me is sad to be leaving the MPO, and I’m going to explore that for a brief moment. I’m sad because joining the MPO takes a lot of learning, and it takes someone who is motivated and cares a lot to want to learn. I’m sure that the others representing will do their part, but I’m afraid that they won’t speak up and think beyond what they’ve been asked to do. All of the new representatives will be either city council members or city staff, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll do their part to think outside of the box. The board has become so political, that it would be hard for an average citizen to jump in, but yet it’s the average citizens that bring up things that are important! I don’t think that people understand the importance of this board until a road in front of their house is being widened and they don’t want it, and that is too late. More people are aware of the MPO now due to the trails publicity, and that is wonderful! But there is still rarely any input during open comment periods, and the default community response is to complain after a project has been completed. It’s certainly not easy to be involved since the open comment periods aren’t widely publicized, but after five years, I still don’t have an answer to that problem. What I want to see for representatives on the MPO is positive character focused on improving the metro area in a way that actually makes sense. If we’re funding a road project that covers an area that will also need sewage improvements soon, please please please try to sync the projects to save money and frustration of residents by not tearing up the same place twice! Just as an example of commonsense.
Although I am slightly sad to be done, I am very proud for one of my initiatives to have stuck, and be mentioned at almost every meeting now. The concept of selecting projects to fund based on an overall transportation SYSTEM. I hated the fact that our projects were so scattered and so hyper-focused on individual problem areas. If we were going to switch to funding trails as our main priority, I definitely wanted it to succeed and for us to end up with something that was functional. I knew that if we followed our old methods, we would end up with random trail segments throughout the metro area, but few of them would connect and the project would seem like a failure because few people would use separated segments. The idea is so simple, yet that it is a major focus of the MPO’s decision making process, and even a ranking criteria makes me beam within. I’m sure everyone else on the board became annoyed at one point by me constantly bringing up the concept of a system, but now they talk about it themselves and it’s remembered. There is hope!
My time served on the Corridor MPO was a great period for me. I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn and for the changes I was able to be a part of. At my last meeting I was asked to serve on the City Planning Commission, so my board time for the city is not over. I am told that this will deal more with zoning and developers, so, in theory, I can focus on making alternative transportation planning an important factor here. I am eager to see if this is a fit for me. Along with the CPC, I’ll still be chairing the Transit Working Group for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance Development Committee (longest. name. ever.), a board member for NTS, attending Transportation Advisory Group meetings when I can, and working on Transit Art projects. Any transportation groups I’m missing? Just kidding, I think my time is pretty well used up at the moment!