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Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO): Active Transportation Funding Policy


Dissemination Category: The Nashville MPO Active Transportation Funding Policy is an emerging intervention based on its use of evidence-based strategies. Developed in practice, it shows promise but evidence in support of effectiveness is not yet available.

Intent of the intervention: The intent of the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (MPO) Active Transportation Funding Policy is to change the built environment to make active transportation easier and safer to use. The Active Transportation Funding Policy includes two key elements: (1) dedicated funding for active transportation infrastructure and education about active transportation and (2) the application of scoring criteria that incorporates active transportation indicators. Because of these environmental changes, it will be safer and more convenient for people to walk, bike or take transit.

The Active Transportation Funding Policy has potential to impact both the individual level of the socio-ecological model, through education and awareness activities conducted as part of the development of the policy, and the community environment by affecting physical activity behavior through the increased use of active transportation across the population.

Public health, transportation planning, and land use decisions: Research shows that transportation planning and policy can have a significant impact on public health. Transportation and health are linked in myriad ways. The availability of transportation options can connect people to essential services and goods, such as grocery stores and farmers’ markets, banking, and jobs. Different transportation options – biking and walking, mass transit, private vehicle – impact pollution and the air we breathe. Furthermore, transportation planning and land use patterns are inextricably linked.

Transportation is also linked to land use. Towns, cities and counties make decisions about separating or integrating different land uses – residential, commercial, workplaces – which affects peoples’ decisions about how to get from one place to another. When residential, commercial and workplaces are within walking or biking distance from each other, land use decisions facilitate active transportation. When residential areas are very far from commercial areas and workplaces, land use decisions are a barrier to active transportation. Sidewalks and bike lanes, therefore, are better used when they go to a destination, which is more likely to occur when multiple land uses are in close proximity.

Public health practitioners and transportation planners can become more integrated in practice by developing strategic partnerships. To that end, this template serves several purposes:

  • Provides public health practitioners insight into the process an MPO may follow to increase infrastructure for biking, walking, and mass transit;

  • Highlights “points of entry” for public health practitioners in the transportation planning process; and

  • Provides one specific approach to integrating health (specifically, physical activity through active transportation) into transportation planning, which could serve as one example for public health practitioners to share with other transportation planning organizations.

Working with an MPO: MPOs across the US work with local governments to establish the transportation priorities. Since public health is part of local government, public health can – and should - have a seat at the table when conversations about transportation priorities occur.  Some MPOs have to do things like monitor air quality, but have little understanding of how air quality affects asthma, heart disease and diabetes, or that being in a car for long daily commutes and errands restricts opportunities for physical activity. Public health can really help to paint the ‘rest of the story’ for transportation professionals, especially since public health (departments, non-profits, etc.) collects so much data on health behaviors and outcomes.  Much of the data collected by the public health and health sectors would be very useful for transportation planners, such  as where people live who have high rates of chronic disease, among other data.

Description of Policy: The Nashville MPO has developed an innovative strategy to increase funding for active transportation projects.

First, the MPO developed scoring criteria (called Project Evaluation Criteria) that favor projects supporting active transportation and public transit and that mitigate environmental effects. These criteria are applied to 70% of Urban Surface Transportation Program funds (U-STP) — the biggest source of funding the MPO receives (see Intervention Materials for Project Evaluation criteria).

Second, the MPO began targeting more of the U-STP money toward bicycle and pedestrian projects. While U-STP money has traditionally been used for roads/highways, these funds can also be used for multi-modal transportation and education/outreach. The new funding policy:

  • Immediately dedicates 15% of STP funding to active transportation infrastructure and education/awareness activities;

    • In the next 25 years, this dedicated funding, called the Active Transportation Program, expected to provide approximately $115 million for active transportation infrastructure. There is no other reserved federal funding for active transportation. On average across the US, about 1.5% of federal funding is used for active transportation projects, and dedicating 15% to active transportation is practically unheard of. This policy is aggressive and innovative, taking funding for active transportation to new levels. 

  • “Flexes” an additional 10% of the U-STP funding to public transit improvements/efforts.

    • The MPO considers public transit “the backbone” of an active transportation system since transit users often incorporate walking or biking into their use of transit. Transit is mostly funded through the Federal Transit Administration, but this 10% of U-STP funding supplements other sources of public transit funding.

  • Dedicates another 5% of the U-STP funding to technology improvements (such as pedestrian countdown signals or signs encouraging biking or walking on bad air quality days).

Combined, 30% of U-STP funding is dedicated to active transportation related infrastructure and scoring criteria favoring projects good for health and the environment are applied to the other 70% of U-STP funding. Through these two approaches, the MPO
formally integrates health into transportation decision-making.

Allocative in nature, this policy focuses on the distribution of funding to particular kinds of transportation projects. By virtue of its structure and mandate, the MPO is not responsible for coordinating the construction of the projects, but rather it facilitates the project proposal process and selects projects for funding. Once projects are funded by the MPO, the State Department of Transportation and the funded local jurisdictions coordinate construction.

The targeted outcomes for the Active Transportation Funding Policy are:

  • Increased infrastructure for walking (e.g., sidewalks and greenways)

  • Increased infrastructure for biking (e.g., bike lanes and greenways)

  • Increased transportation options for all users (especially zero-car households)

  • Increased use of active transportation (biking, walking, and transit)

Intended Population: The Active Transportation Funding Policy intends to reach all residents of middle Tennessee who use transportation infrastructure, and particularly those who already use or will/would use active transportation infrastructure (mass transit, bike lanes/greenways, and sidewalks). In areas where the implications for health equity are greatest, the MPO attempts to provide expanded transportation options.

Setting(s): This policy intervention would be implemented in community settings and transportation planning organizations (such as MPOs, Councils of Governments (COGs), or Associations of Governments).

This policy is implemented in community settings by way of transportation planning organizations and through partnership with multidisciplinary stakeholders, such as those from environmental/conservation organizations, public health organizations, and other transportation/transit-focused organizations. The physical environment in communities is the target of the Nashville Area MPO’s policy intervention. While the policy must be adopted by a transportation planning organization and not by a legislative body, it is a public policy insofar as transportation policy guides how the MPO spends transportation dollars and affects the entire population of the Nashville metro area.

Background and responsibilities for Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs): A Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is responsible for coordinating with local government on regional transportation priorities. MPOs help local government to establish transportation priorities, but MPOs are not local government entities. MPOs, established in the 1960s, receive federal funding through the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) through about 100 different streams, into the state DOT. The State DOT allocates some money to the various MPOs within the state; MPOs also apply to the State DOT for some of their funding. As stated elsewhere, the largest funding source is the Urban Surface Transportation Program (U-STP). There are 11 MPOs in Tennessee and about 385 nationwide. MPOs are mandated to do both long- and short-term transportation planning.

Every 5 years, MPOs must complete a long range plan (in this case known as the Regional Transportation Plan or RTP); the Nashville Area MPO’s RTP is the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. A shorter term transportation plan – the Transportation Improvement Program – has a four-year time horizon, and is the short-term programming and funding tool for the longer term Regional Transportation Plan projects. A significant number of the projects outlined in both the short- and long-term plans are funded through the U-STP.

It is important to note that MPOs have tremendous power and authority in transportation planning. As a recent report released by TransForm (a California-based transportation focused organization) points out, “These [regional transportation plans] plans don’t just sit on a shelf; they are tied to billions of dollars in state and federal transportation funds.”1 MPOs and their partners decide how this money is used to fund transportation projects. Given their decision-making authority and technical know-how, MPOs are an extraordinary partner for public health practitioners seeking to increase infrastructure for and use of active transportation.

Other organizations that serve the same function as an MPO are: Councils of Government (COGs), Regional Councils, Associations of Governments and Transportation Planning Organizations. In rural areas, Rural Planning Organizations work with local governments in small cities and towns, although in many states these RPOs do not budget funding like MPOs, but only submit project requests to a state DOT for consideration for state-controlled transportation funds.

Length of time in the field: The Nashville Area MPO’s Active Transportation Funding Policy and the scoring criteria were adopted in December 2010. All of the projects for the first round of the Active Transportation Program have to be completed before the fall of 2014.

1 TransForm. Creating Healthy Regional Transportation Plans: A Primer for California’s Public Health Community on Regional Transportation Plans and Sustainable Communities Strategies, 2012.