Elevating the Scale of Cross-Boundary Cooperation: Mechanisms for Cross-Regional Policy Coordination

By Soyoung Kim (Seoul National University of Science and Technology)

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of the STATE OF THE FIELD – American Regionalism and the Constellation of Mechanisms for Cross-Boundary Cooperation symposium.

This contribution focuses on metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to demonstrate that even in places where there are instruments of regional governance in place, there can still be a need to coordinate policies beyond those regional boundaries. This necessitates cooperation between regional governance organizations. In making this observation, Soyoung Kim (Seoul National University of Science and Technology) pushes us to think about metropolitan spaces and geographies of governance differently. In line with our call to consider the constellation of actors involved in regional governance, she argues that these geographies sometimes necessitate a patchwork of actors constructing and coordinating their own metropolitan spaces, which will often not align with those of other organizations. In so doing, she raises important questions about the appropriate, and optimal, roles for different types of actors. When should such cross-boundary activities be coordinated by or within a RIGO, for example, versus through a potentially more flexible and focused network of MPOs? When should states be involved in this coordinating effort? What do these collaborative mechanisms substitute for and at what scales? Furthermore, what are the limits of scale? How large can and should our conceptions of regionalism be when contemplating cross-regional collaboration? These questions and more should challenge us to understand regions and regionalism as multifaceted and to consider with a critical eye the alternative, competing, and complementary configurations of governance that may coexist. 


Around the globe, metropolitan regions provide increasingly important policy venues.  Metropolitan-level action has been deemed necessary to govern the fragmented landscape of cities, special districts, townships, counties, and other authorities.  An array of mechanisms are  available to address cross-boundary institutional collective action (ICA) problems that arise from the fragmentation of governmental authority in metropolitan regions (Feiock 2013).  The scale of these mechanisms is generally at the metro level or smaller, yet the geographic footprint of the urban problems these mechanisms are intended to address often extend far beyond the metropolitan region and impact multiple metropolitan areas.  

Studies of regional governance and of collaborative management claim a substantial share of the pages in policy and public administration journals, yet collaboration between regional organizations is underexamined.  Most agreements are among neighboring MPOs who’s territory encompasses a larger existing or emerging urban region. Even empirical work based on the ICA framework, with its focus on regional spillovers across multiple governments and authorities, has limited its attention to relationships within a limited geography – a critical deficiency. To date we know very little about the nature of cross-regional collaboration, the scope and frequency of collaboration, or what types of collaboration mechanisms are applied across regional organizations. 

This essay explores the relationship between neighboring metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to explore cross-regional collaboration.  It uses the ICA framework to develop hypotheses about what types of collaboration might occur most frequently and tests these using survey of collaborations between MPOs.  This research reveals significant collaboration between MPOs and provides evidence that there is both (a) a need for cross-regional coordination in metropolitan transportation planning and (b) that well-developed mechanisms exist through which to effectuate that coordination. It concludes with some thoughts about the implications of these findings for research on regional governance and how that can improve practice.

Cross-Regional Collaboration

Fragmentation of policy and political authority across urban regions produces inefficiencies in land use, infrastructure, and service delivery (Feiock 2013).  ICA dilemmas occur between independent governments as the consequences of one unit’s actions spilling over to another’s jurisdiction — such as when one government or regional organization in a metropolitan area makes a policy decision that affects neighboring regions. ICA dilemmas make integrated solutions to complex problems difficult.  The ICA theoretical framework systematically compares alternative mechanisms to mitigate these problems. Regional organizations (Miller and Nelles 2018) such as MPOs are one such mechanism (Feiock and Scholz 2010).  One focus of the ICA approach is to identify what factors influence the choice of mechanisms for collaboration among local authorities.  

Figure 1: ICA Regional Governance Mechanism Categories

 Source:  Adapted from Feiock 2013 and Kim et al. 2020

The vertical dimension of Figure 1 captures the complexity of ICA problems.  Complexity, and thus the decision costs of collaboration increase as the number of issues being considered and/or the number of actors involved in the collaborative situation increase. The bottom row defines mechanisms involving only a few actors or narrow policy issues. The top row defines mechanisms with more actors or more policy issues over which collaboration is necessary. The horizontal dimension captures the participant autonomy permitted by the mechanism.  While all integrative mechanisms may entail sacrificing some degree of autonomy, those mechanisms to the right of Figure 1 rely more on authority which imposes costly losses of autonomy by participants. Mechanisms to the left are more voluntary and include informal, self-organizing collaboration.  

Regional scale governance organizations have received increased attention over the last decade due in large measure to the path breaking work of Miller and Nelles (2018) that provided a precise definition of  Regional Intergovernmental Organizations (RIGOs) as voluntary, intergovernmental, multipurpose cross-boundary partnerships and identified nearly 500 such organization operating in the US. The geographic scope of RIGOs allows them to directly address these problems or to broker collaborative arrangements among local governments within their boundaries.   

What has escaped attention is the fact that urban problems, and the scale of collective action for problems, often extend beyond the boundaries of regional organizations.  For example, urban sprawl, infrastructure congestion, and pollution impact larger regions and thus often exceed the scale of any single MPO or other regional organization.  Nelles’ (2020) work on spatial dissimilarity hints at the magnitude of this disconnect. She found that while RIGOs were often larger than their MSAs, 106 contained parts of several MSAs. Because MPOs tend to be centered on MSAs, this means that those metropolitan landscapes are often divided between several MPOs. These will sometimes be coordinated by the RIGO, but because MPO geographies can vary substantially, collaboration among regional entities is frequently necessary to address these multi-regional policy impacts.  The next section provides an overview of MPOs as regional entities and their functions to demonstrate how they face collective actions dilemmas from problems that transcend regional boundaries.  

MPOs and Cross-Regional Cooperation

The 1973 Federal Aid Highway Act authorized the creation of MPOs to carry out regional planning activities for transportation. MPOs are charged with establishing a metropolitan planning process that is a “cooperative, continuous, and comprehensive framework for making transportation investment decisions in metropolitan areas.”  MPOs are the heart of regional transportation governance since they hold responsibility for transportation planning and have authority to allocate federal and state transportation funds (Sciara 2017). 

MPOs and other regional entities address transportation related dilemmas through comprehensive planning within the boundaries of their defined region (Lewis and Sprague 1997; Wolf and Farquhar 2005). Since MPOs were organized around central cities with their boundaries defined in the 1970s they often do not encompass the contemporary urbanized region.  Over the last four decades the reach and connectedness of urbanized areas has expanded beyond the boundaries of the geographic and political lines of the individual MPOs (Innes, Booher and Vittorio 2011; Kramer 2010).  For these reasons, MPOs provide an ideal type of organization for exploring cross-regional collaborations. 

The map of urbanized southeast Florida in Figure 2 illustrates that the boundaries of regional organizations often do not match the scale of the problems their plans are intended to address.  In Figure 2, the urbanized area and its attendant planning transit and mobility problems spans three individual MPOs.  

Figure 2: Boundary Mismatch between MPOs and Urban Area

The three MPOs in southeast Florida have worked together closely to create a multi-region council in 2005 focusing on regional coordination while keeping autonomy within their respective boundaries  (U.S. Department of Transporation, 2016).  Collaborative actions across MPOs include the prioritization of regional planning efforts including transportation plans, transit/freight systems, public involvement, and a coordinated transportation improvement program (Southeast Florida Transportation Council, 2018).  Southeastern Florida is not an anomaly with regard to this type of program, as multiple MPOs have created formal partnerships with one another throughout the US to address fragmentation of transportation planning in shared urbanized areas (Seggerman and Kramer 2012).  The study of collaboration emphasizes how the nature of collective problems shape the extent to which local government collaborate with various other actors (Youm and Feiock 2019).  The next section argues that similar forces operate across regions as evidenced by inter-regional cooperation across among MPOs.  

ICA Among MPOs

   The ICA framework argues that collaboration risk is defined by the nature of the collective problem, the composition and decision processes of the affected actors, and the institutions in place.  The specific characteristics of the underlying collective problem may determine whether costly mechanisms are necessary to ameliorate risk.  Fragmented authority in terms of the number of individual government units included in the boundaries of the MPO, and the extent to which an MPO is part of a larger urbanized area that extends beyond its boundaries make collaborations more difficult. Collaboration is difficult for ICA dilemmas involving goal conflicts because of potential defection from the agreement.  Where there is less conflict over goals, the problem is simply one of coordination on how to reach those goals.  

State government transportation policy can shape and constrain MPO collaborative behaviors.  Additionally, state associations of MPOs might facilitate collaborations.  Guidance from the U.S. Department of Transportation allows an MPO to develop multi-jurisdictional transportation plans and agreements across regional organizations to improve regional transportation and air pollution beyond the agency boundaries, reducing interruptions to essential coordination of solutions (U.S.Department of Transportation, 2016a).  Multiple examples of these coordinated cross-regional collaborations between transportation entities have arisen throughout the United States with relative success in formalizing agreements and handling smooth coordination to address a multiplicity of issues including rail, urban, rural, travel demand modeling, and air quality (U.S. Department of Transportation 2016a; U.S. Department of Transporation 2016b; Southeast Florida Transportation Council 2018). 

Figure 3: Interlocal Collaboration Efforts among Florida MPOs

Figure 3 graphically displays the geography of coordination efforts among Florida MPOs. Collaboration across regions is pervasive, as the majority of MPOs are engaged in cross-regional coordination efforts. Guided by the ICA framework, the next section uses a national survey of MPOs to identify the frequency with which specific type collaboration mechanisms are employed across regions.  

Survey of MPO Cross-Regional Collaboration

The mission of MPOs is regional, but limitations in the geographic scope of their authority means that collaboration with other MPOs in necessary to fulfill that mission and address regional and multi-regional problems. MPO collaboration activity data were obtained through a national survey of MPOs conducted by the Center for Urban Trasporation Research and reported in the U.S. Department of Trasnproation, Federal Highway Adminstration “Staffing and Administrative Capacity of Metropolitan Planning Organizations” (U.S. Department of Transportation 2017).  The survey was sent to MPO directors in 396 of the 409 MPOs in the United States. A total of 279 MPOs participated in the survey, a 70 percent response rate.  Included in a survey were questions asking repondents to identify mechanisms employed for collaboration with other MPOs including:  joint planning, joint purchasing, MOUs or interlocal agreeements, joint public events, a joint long range transportation plan (LRTP), joint regional transporation plan and planning linkage activities. The results of this survey are summarized in Table 1 below.

Table 1. MPO Collaborations and their Frequencies

VariableAdoptedPercentMeanStd. Dev
Joint Planning Tasks or Projects12448%.481.501
Joint Purchase Data, Software, Hardware, or Other Technical Service6224%.240.428
Signed MOU or Interlocal Agreement11243%.434.497
MPO Conducted Joint Public Involvement Activities5220%.202.402
Developed Joint MTP/LRTP229%.085.280
Joint Congestion Management Process187%.070.255
Joint Air Quality Planning Activities5722%.221.416

Table 1 reveals that cross-regional collaboration is common with the majority of MPOs. ICA theory would predict that collaborations in the lower left cells of Figure 1 – actions that are less complex and low conflict – will be easier to achieve and engaged in more frequently. That prediction is borne out here. Joint planning tasks, interlocal agreements and joint purchases are the most common collaborations. These MPO activities do not require them to surrender autonomy and involve little commitment of resources. MOUs and many joint planning tasks or projects or often constitute somewhat symbolic low-commitment collaboration actions.  Collaborative activities to the upper right of Figure 1 that involve multiple issues or for which goals conflict such a joint long range transportation plan or congestion management process are much less frequent. Collaboration on the core functions of long-range transportation planning have the potential to address regional scale ICA dilemmas, but involve sacrificing some control and require higher commitments of core resources.  

Problem Scale and Collaboration Mechanisms 

One insight from this analysis is that the survey analysis reported in Table 1 indicates it can take multiple forms that parallel the collaboration mechanisms engaged in by local governments within regions. Thus, it is important to identify how collaboration between regional organizations fits into the sets of regional actors involved in debating, shaping, and implementing regional policy. Cross-regional collaborations can substitute for or complement other arrangements. Once again, the lens of the ICA framework can inform discussion of the role of regions in the constellation of regional governance arrangements that includes local governments, states, and the national government. In theory, regional governments could substitute much of the service activities of local government, but in practice the role of regions is much more limited and confined to instances where problems spill over regional boundaries.  This limited role reflects the higher transaction costs imposed on local actors for collaboration as the scale and complexity of problems increase. Thus, cross-regional collaboration plays a complementary role to address problems for which local actors lack authority or collaboration is too costly. 

For problems that cross regional boundaries but are contained within a single state, state agencies and cross-regional collaboration might be substitute for each other. If the problem involves land use, municipal services, or other functions for which local governments have primary responsibility, then cross-regional collaborative arrangements may be preferred because regional organizations are advantaged in coordinating actions among their member jurisdictions.  If the use is one for which state government can exercise direct authority, then integrated action by a state agency action would be advantaged.  In some instances, cross-regional problems cross state boundaries as well.  In these instances, interstate compacts could substitute for cross-regional collaborations. 


Although mostly overlooked until now, multi-region collective action and collaboration are central to the future of urban governance.  History shows us that once regional governments or regional governance organizations are established, their boundaries become institutionalized and difficult to change as existing entries are unwilling to be dissolved or absorbed into a larger entity. As the scope or urban problems spill over local government boundaries, expansion of regional organizations’ authority and resources is desirable, but movement in this direction faces stiff headwinds.  In the US, local governments are creatures of the state. In recent years, states have aggressively attacked local home rule, reducing local autonomy and asserting state primacy.  Despite the short-term political constraints on regionalism, regional entities’ impacts have expanded, both through their actions and through their coordination of local government action. In the longer term, collaborations among regional organization are likely to be central to addressing issues of poverty, transportation, and services. 

Thus, it is critical that scholars begin to fill the lacuna in research on regional governance arrangements.  A first step is to examine the scope of activities undertaken at the regional level and determine what gaps exist for each region. Because of differences in urban geographies, their alignment with governance structures, and the geographical scale of cross-boundary issues there will be not be one-size fits all solutions. A next step is to identify what factors lead to greater regional collective action and how these may vary by intensity and type of collaboration. Some actions may be mostly symbolic, while others embody costly commitment to collective goals, and each increment in between those extremes creates incentives and challenges. Finally, it is important to identify the levers that lead to substantive collective action and translate impetus into action. While the field is rich with theoretical and applied research on collective action and cross-boundary governance, it is important to extend these to explore relationships between entities of cross-boundary governance and to conceptualize regions as the patchworks of governance arrangements they are rather than as watertight compartments.


Feiock, R. C. (2013). The Institutional Collective Action Framework. Policy Studies Journal, 397-425.

Kramer, J. (2005). Review of MPO Long Range Transportation Plans and Regional MPO panning Activities and Products. Tampa: Florida Department of Transportation.

Jen Nelles (2021) Alternative manifestations of metropolisation: spatial dissimilarity and the tensions between heuristics and realities of metropolisation, Urban Geography, 42:1, 21-36, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2019.1670572

Sciara, G.-C. (2017). Metropolitan Transportation Planning: Lessons From the Past, Institutions for the Future. Journal of the American Planning Association, 262-276.

Sagerman, K. E., & Kramer, J. (2012). Regional MPO Alliances in Florida: A Model for Setting Megaregion Transportation Policies? Tampa: Center for Urban Transportation Research.

Southeast Florida Transportation Council. (2018). About. Retrieved from Southeast Florida Transportation Council: https://www.seftc.org/about

U.S. Department of Transportation. (2016, November 7). Regional Models of Cooperation. Retrieved 2019, from Center for Accelerating Innovation: https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/innovation/everydaycounts/edc-3/regional.cfm

Youm J. Feiock R. 2019. Interlocal Collaboration and Local Climate Protection, Local Government Studies, 45:6, 777-802.  DOI: 10.1080/03003930.2019.1615464

For more information about how we are using language in this colloquium, see this link:

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. STATE OF THE FIELD – American Regionalism and the Constellation of Mechanisms for Cross-Boundary Cooperation – Urban Affairs Forum
  2. Water Utility Districts as Facilitators of Regional Climate Change Partnerships – Urban Affairs Forum
  3. STATE OF THE FIELD – American Regionalism and the Constellation of Mechanisms for Cross-Boundary Cooperation [Updated] – Urban Affairs Forum

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s