Metropolitan Planning Organization

In 2020, the Helena area received an important designation through the Census Bureau. The Helena area exceeded the 50,000-person threshold, which meant that we were no longer categorized as micropolitan. This entrance into metropolitan status also meant that we are federally required to create a Metropolitan Planning Organization, commonly known by its acronym, MPO.

A large group of partners has come together to form the MPO. These organizations include:

  • City of Helena
  • City of East Helena
  • Lewis and Clark County
  • Montana Department of Transportation

MPOs are federally mandated transportation planning organizations comprised of local government organizations that work together in transportation planning for the area. While MPO status may not provide additional transportation funding, they can provide more direct access to federal funds and improve planning coordination.

As of 2023, this group is working on designating the MPO. This is a formal process led by the state Department of Transportation that ensures all federal requirements are met and ultimately approved by the Governor. Upon designation, the group will enter the formation phase, which establishes the structure and operations of the new MPO.

Frequently Asked Questions

Designation FAQs

1. What is an MPO and what is its purpose? A Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is an organization created and designated to carry out the metropolitan transportation planning process in accordance with federal statute. The purpose of an MPO is to provide a forum for continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive transportation planning in the MPO planning area between all agencies responsible for transportation.

2. Must an MPO be developed? Title 23 USC 134 requires urban areas with populations of 50,000 or more determined by the decennial census to form an MPO, in order to continue receiving federal transportation funding directly, or indirectly through project development and delivery by MDT.

3. What are the benefits of an MPO? The creation of an MPO provides a forum for increased cooperation and coordination, and enhances relationships between MDT and local governments responsible for transportation planning. MPOs receive financial assistance, Metropolitan Planning (PL) funds, to carry out the required planning activities, and Transit funds (5303) to provide funding for transit planning.

4. What are the challenges to being an MPO? MPOs have specific federal requirements for transportation planning that non-MPOs are not subject to. The limited federal financial assistance provided to the MPOs may not be sufficient to cover costs to address the requirements.

5. What happens if a Census-designated urban area with a population greater than 50k chooses not to designate an MPO? Designation of an MPO in an urban area with a population greater than 50k population is required in federal statute. If an urban area that meets this definition elects to not form an MPO, federal transportation funding cannot be received or spent on programs, planning or projects within the Census-delineated urban area. In short, if MDT and the affected area want to continue seeing federal transportation funding spent in the area, an MPO is required. 2 | Page

6. “MPO designation shall be made by agreement between the Governor and units of general-purpose local government that together represent at least 75 percent of the affected population (including the largest incorporated city, based on population, as named by the Bureau of the Census) or in accordance with procedures established by applicable State or local law”. [23 CFR 450.310(b)] What is meant by the “affected population”? Affected population means the people within the urban area boundary drawn by the Census Bureau for the decennial census with 50,000 or more population. What role do the other affected jurisdictions play if they are not designated as the MPO? Regardless of who is designated as the MPO, all affected local governments that are part of the metropolitan planning area have representation on the MPO policy board and participate in all aspects of the federally required planning process.

7. Areas outside of the census urban area are growing rapidly, at what point would the census boundary adjust to the point where those areas/communities would be encompassed in the MPO? The MPO metropolitan planning area is created for the purposes of carrying out the federal planning requirements and encompasses all areas outside of the census urban boundary anticipated to be developed in the 20-year planning horizon. Census urban area boundaries are delineated every decennial census and all jurisdictions within the census urban area boundary, regardless of previous MPO participation, are required to be part of the MPO. Please note if a jurisdiction is included in the MPO planning area boundary, they are bound by all of the requirements that come with being part of an MPO.

8. What is the difference between MPO Designation and MPO Formation? MPO Designation is the process of executing the federal requirements to secure the Governor’s agreement to establish the MPO. This is MDT-led due to the department’s responsibility for federal transportation program implementation and oversight within the state. MPO Formation is the locally-led process, that occurs after the Governor’s designation, to establish the structure and operations of the new MPO with technical assistance and oversight of federal requirements provided by MDT.

Funding FAQs

1. What funding does an MPO receive? MPOs receive an annual allocation of federal metropolitan planning dollars called PL funds and transit planning dollars called 5303 funds to carry out the federally required transportation planning process.

2. What are PL Funds? How is the PL funding amount determined for an MPO? PL stands for Metropolitan Planning Funds, which are reimbursable federal transportation planning funding allocated to the MPO. The funding is used to pay for MPO staff and transportation planning activities. The eligible activities for PL funds include carrying out the MPO planning requirements, developing management systems including asset management, and performance-based planning and programming (PBPP). MDT receives a set amount of PL funding for Metropolitan Planning. These funds are distributed among the MPOs in the state by a proportionate share of the population of all state MPOs. Population numbers are determined by the decennial census population within the census urban area boundary.

3. Is there funding available to an MPO for capital construction projects? There are no direct allocations of federal transportation formula funding available to MPOs for capital construction projects.

4. Can an MPO and its member agencies secure federal funding for projects that they didn’t qualify for previously? Yes, there are federal discretionary grant opportunities that an MPO is an eligible applicant. Additionally, MPO member agencies could pool resources to be able to secure the required non-federal match for awarded discretionary grants.

5. What is the difference between the census, adjusted and planning boundaries?

  • Census Urban Area Boundary - Census delineates urban areas for statistical purposes, based on population density and land use, regardless of political boundaries. This boundary determines the identification of Census-defined urban areas as well as their population.
  • FHWA Adjusted Urban Area Boundary – For transportation planning purposes, the Census-delineated boundary is adjusted or “smoothed” to create a contiguous urban area by removing any irregularities in the Census geometry that are created by following Census tracts or blocks. The adjusted boundary is generally similar to the census urban area boundary.
  • Metropolitan Planning Area (MPA) Boundary – MPO metropolitan planning area is defined for the purposes of carrying out the federal planning requirements and encompasses all areas outside of the census urban boundary anticipated to be developed in the 20-year planning horizon.

6. Does the State receive additional PL funding or do the current funding levels get split between the existing and new MPOs? The state does not receive additional PL Funding when new MPOs are brought on, the current funding levels will now be distributed among five MPOs as a result of the 2020 decennial census.

7. Are there funds available for local government expenses incurred through the MPO designation and formation process? There is no federal funding available to local governments through the designation and formation process. Once the MPO has been established and has an approved Unified Planning Work Program (UPWP), PL funding will be available to the MPO for expenses on a reimbursement basis. Note that much of the designation process responsibilities will fall to MDT. The state is responsible for the administration of the federal program; therefore, MDT is tasked with leading this designation process.

8. How will we know how much our PL allocation is for the MPO? What are the match requirements for PL funds? When will PL funds be available for reimbursement? In June of every year, MDT will provide the MPO with their PL allocation for the federal fiscal year. PL funding has an 86.58%/13.42% non-federal match ratio. Currently, MDT is providing the non-federal match for this funding. PL funds will be available to reimburse MPO costs incurred after approval of the MPO’s first UPWP.

Planning Processes FAQs

1. Why is it recommended to dissolve the TCC prior to MPO designation? Can we sequence to dissolve the existing TCC at the time of the formation of new MPO committees? It is recommended to dissolve the existing TCC prior to MPO designation to allow the designation process to become streamlined by leaving the technical and administrative work required, at the staff level, and having one point of contact between local governments and MDT. It is important to note, that the MPO designation process is an administrative process that does not require planning or decision-making. MPO planning and decision-making will not occur until after designation once the new policy and technical committees are formed. Not dissolving the existing TCC until after designation is possible, however doing so may result in increased complexities and potential challenges that may impact the designation timeline.

2. What does it mean for current TCC priorities if the TCC is dissolved and replaced by the PCC? Any priorities at the time of dissolution of the current TCC remain. In the interim, if there is business that needs to be addressed, the decision-making authority reverts to all Government entities that make up the current urban area. 

3. How is the membership of the Policy Board of the MPOs determined? Federal statute only specifies who must be part of the MPO, beyond that, the local officials determine the makeup of the Policy Board.  

Timeline FAQs

1. When do we have to have the MPO designated by, and how long do you expect the designation process to take? FHWA guidelines state that governors should designate new MPOs within 12 months of the Census Bureau releasing new urban area boundaries. MDT anticipates following the 12-month timeline in the guidelines, meaning new Montana MPOs should be designated by December 2023.

2. How flexible is the MPO designation timeline presented by MDT in the MPO Designation Kickoff Meeting? MDT created the MPO timeline based on FHWA guidelines and federal code and regulations. However, the timeline is flexible if additional meetings, discussions, or time on the designation process steps are needed. Similarly, if there is a desire to speed up the process locally, we can determine ways to do so as well.