Census Bureau Calculations Could Impact Transportation Funding For Cities

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ENDWELL, NY (WSKG) — The U.S. Census Bureau (USCB) is considering changing the way it determines what it designates as an urban area and programs that use that designation could be affected.

The change proposed earlier this year would essentially use housing density instead of population density to determine whether a community is considered an urban metropolitan area, though a number of situations and caveats make the actual calculation process much more complicated.

New methods of calculating urban areas could spell trouble for cities, like Ithaca, which may just be on the threshold for urban area designation. (Vaughn Golden/WSKG)

In the past, the Census Bureau would look at census blocks, which are relatively small chunks of land, such as a city block. If there were more than 1,000 people per square mile within the block, it was considered urban. The bureau would then map out all the urban blocks and draw a line around them as well as any developed areas considered to reasonably be part of that area’s makeup. That could include malls, parks and airports. If there were 50,000 or more people living within the line, it was considered an urban metropolitan statistical area.

The change to use housing density at the core of that calculation instead of population density has some urban planners on edge.

Over the years, other federal programs have tied themselves to urban areas as designated by the USCB, despite its gripes that the calculations should only be used for statistical purposes.

“The agencies that use the classification and data for such nonstatistical uses should be aware that the changes to the urban area criteria also might affect the implementation of their programs,” the U.S. Census Bureau wrote in the Federal Register, notifying other agencies of the potential change.

“In addition, the Census Bureau is not responsible for the use of its urban area classification in nonstatistical programs. If a federal, tribal, state, or local agency uses the urban area classification for nonstatistical purposes, it is that agency’s responsibility to ensure that the classification is appropriate for such use.”

One such program that is tied to the urban area classification is the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), which designates what are called Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOs, for any census-designated urban area. These MPOs act as arbiters of federal surface transportation funding, in lieu of the state having discretion in how that cash is spent.

As of the 2010 Census there were only around 54,000 people living within Ithaca’s MPO, the smallest of 14 in the state.

Fernando de Aragon, Director of the Ithaca Tompkins County Transportation Council, Ithaca’s MPO, worries what effects the new calculation method may have.

“The Census is not in the business of determining if MPOs stay or go. They’re just drawing a line,” de Aragon said. “Now we worry, I mean the reality is with me sitting here. If they draw the line in such a way that the number goes below 50,000 then I’m out of a job.”

Ithaca and the surrounding areas would then also have to work more with the New York Department of Transportation (DOT) to receive federal funding, which de Aragon said has been used on virtually every bridge project in the city in recent years.

“It gives the localities more clout. And the chances that the local priorities are going to be funded is much better,” de Aragon explained.

Not only is Ithaca just on the cusp of the 50,000-person threshold, de Aragon said there are a number of other geographic factors about the city that he is worried the USCB may overlook in its calculations. These include new housing developments in outlying communities, like the Village Solars apartments in Lansing. 

Several other MPOs in New York such as Watertown and Elmira may be in a similar situation, though both have more cushion since they have larger populations as of the last census.