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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: East-West Gateway, often-ignored, gets major role in use of federal funds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 9, 2009 - The economic stimulus package lurching its way through Congress has tens of billions for transportation projects. Although the national government and state departments of transportation will decide where a majority of these funds go, metropolitan planning organizations — for the St. Louis region, that’s the East-West Gateway Council of Governments — will make the call for several billions targeted for municipal and county initiatives. Locally, the pot should have about 100 million to divide.

The spend-it-quickly clichés abound: fast track, shovel ready, create jobs. Attempting to stay a few hours ahead of the curve, East-West Gateway started soliciting proposals on Jan. 28. The deadline is 5 p.m., Friday, Feb. 13. Its board of directors is expected to announce allocations at the Feb. 25 meeting. There should be no shortage of applications because the national government is picking up the entire tab. No local match is required.

What are metropolitan planning organizations? Why are they being given control over some of the decisions?

The story begins in 1968. After almost a decade of administering a raft of federal aid programs, the national bureaucracy tired of being dragged into intra-regional disputes and haggling with representatives from multiple cities and counties. It was all-politics-is-local on steroids.

The White House mandated that every region establish a clearinghouse to screen and coordinate all applications for infrastructure projects, most notably transportation. To sweeten the plate, the feds agreed to absorb most of the staffing costs.

Three years earlier, St. Louis Mayor A.J. Cervantes, St. Louis County Supervisor Lawrence Roos and East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Fields had formed a council of governments and invited elected officials from a few other jurisdictions to join them periodically for informal discussions about regional matters. It became the natural candidate to morph into the region’s metropolitan planning organization.

At that time, the St. Louis metropolitan statistical area had eight counties, five in Missouri - Franklin (7 on the map), Jefferson (8), St. Charles (4), St. Louis City (5), St. Louis County (6) -  and three in Illinois - Madison (1), Monroe (3), St. Clair (2). Although the number of counties in the statistical area has subsequently expanded to 16, East-West has retained its original geographic footprint.

The East-West Gateway board of directors has 18 elected and appointed officials and six others dubbed “regional citizens,” each segment divided equally between Illinois and Missouri. The elected officials include the chief executive of each county, counting the St. Louis mayor as the equivalent for that jurisdiction. This eight-person group traditionally dominates decision-making and typically one of its members serves as chair. Currently, that is St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

From their inception, the relationship between metropolitan planning organizations and the state departments of transportation has often been tense. In East-West Gateway’s case, that is especially so for its interaction with the Missouri Department of Transportation. Left to its own allocation politics, MODOT’s track record has been to use most federal dollars for state roads and bridges. That leaves little or nothing for local roads and bridges, not to mention public transit. Moreover, since state roads play a greater role in rural areas, it also tilts the spending away from urban Missouri, especially the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

East-West Gateway has always been alert to this. Its bylaws, for example, make the MODOT director a board member but one without a vote. Along with its counterpart metropolitan planning organizations, including Kansas City’s Mid-America Regional Council, East-West Gateway has over the years made some progress in the national legislative process to carve out separate control for at least part of the kitty.

The biggest victory came with the 1991 passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Act, more commonly called by its phonetic acronym (“Ice Tea” for ISTEA). That legislation required state transportation departments to give metropolitan planning organizations a fixed share of the allocation for all surface transportation projects and, simultaneously, allow more flexibility in shifting funds between categories such as from highways to public transit. It is that provision that is driving East-West Gateway’s role in the economic stimulus spending.

The metro-state transportation funding war goes on. Already, the metropolitan planning organizations are gearing up for the next transportation reauthorization. Through their national association, those representing the 50 largest metropolitan areas — a classification that of course includes St. Louis — are asking for “project selection authority for all federal funds within their areas.” If that happens, you can expect a lot more political traffic at East-West Gateway and a bit less at MODOT. 

Terry Jones is a polling expert and professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

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