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About RTPOs

Photo showing US Interstate 40.  Photo courtesy Northern Arizona Council of Governments.

Regional Transportation Planning Organizations (RTPOs) generally operate in non-metropolitan areas to conduct outreach to the public and local officials and provide transportation planning support under contract to state departments of transportation (DOTs). Sometimes, they are also called Rural Planning Organizations (RPOs), and some states may refer to them as Regional Planning Affiliations, Regional Transportation Planning Agencies, or simply as general purpose Councils of Governments or Regional Planning Commissions who have a rural transportation planning program. They generally exist to assist state DOTs with completing their requirements for statewide planning in rural areas and to enhance the outreach conducted to local officials and the public.  More details about individual state transportation planning efforts are available here.

Emergence of Regional Transportation Planning

The field of regional-level rural transportation planning has existed in a very small number of states since the 1970s, around the same time that many metropolitan areas were solidifying their approach to transportation planning through metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that were formed following the 1962 Federal-Aid Highway Act. Rural transportation planning greatly expanded after Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991, with its emphasis on local participation, and the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) that elevated the role of rural local officials in statewide planning. In order to meet new federal requirements, states developed new outreach methods, including supporting the work of rural, regional transportation planning organizations (often called RPOs or RTPOs). The majority of these rural transportation programs were established in existing regional planning and development organizations, which typically conduct multiple forms of planning and community and economic development work. Some rural transportation programs were also set up in county planning offices, state DOT district or regional offices, MPOs serving surrounding rural areas, other parent agencies already serving multiple local jurisdictions, or as standalone organizations. Some of the regions staff an MPO as well as an RTPO within the same regional agency.

The federal planning regulation 2003 (and again in 2007 after the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) was passed) outlined the required process for nonmetropolitan local official consultation in statewide planning. From the federal policy perspective, RTPOs were considered a stakeholder to the planning process, but they were not defined until the 2012 law Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) established a common set of tasks and institutional structures for the voluntary organizations. This provided a pathway for federal recognition, with prescribed responsibilities and relationships. The nation’s first RTPOs were designated according to the federal definition in January 2016 in Ohio.

A Federal Policy Framework for Regional Transportation Planning

In January 2003, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) issued a new rule to guide the consultation process between state transportation officials and nonmetropolitan local officials.  The regulation implemented the congressional intent of the 1998 TEA-21 law to enhance the participation of rural local elected and appointed officials in the statewide transportation planning and decision-making processes.  Highlights of the rule include:

  • Each state must develop a documented process for local official input into statewide transportation plans and investment programs, and states must seek feedback from local officials and others regarding the consultation process every five years
  • The consultation process must be “separate and discrete” from state processes to obtain input from the general public, giving weight to local government officials in recognition of their significant transportation responsibilities, including ownership of roads, bridges, and transit systems
  • The rule modified the definition of “consultation” to require states to confer with local elected and appointed officials before taking actions, consider the officials’ views and periodically inform them about actions taken
  • States that choose not to follow recommendations provided by local officials during the comment period are required to make the reasons for their decisions public

Developing regional planning partnerships in nonmetropolitan areas has been one method states have used to complete their local consultation efforts.  The 2012 law MAP-21, 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, and planning regulation finalized in 2016 elevate the role of local officials in statewide planning, so that states must “cooperate” rather than “consult” with local officials or, if applicable, through RTPOs.  This provides an enhanced level of communication between states and local officials.

MAP-21 also defined RTPOs’ structure and responsibilities in federal statute for the first time.  Governors may choose to establish RTPOs, but where they exist, they must be multijurisdictional and establish a policy committee and fiscal agent.  RTPOs must complete the following duties:

  • Develop regional long-range multimodal transportation plans
  • Develop a regional TIP for consideration by the state
  • Foster the coordination of local planning, land use, and economic development plans with state, regional, and local transportation plans and programs
  • Provide technical assistance to local officials
  • Participate in national, multistate, and State policy and planning development processes
  • Provide a forum for public participation in the statewide and regional transportation planning processes;
  • Consider and share plans and programs with neighboring RTPOs, MPOs, and, where appropriate, Indian Tribal Governments
  • Conduct other duties

Sources: Federal Register, January 23, 2003; Technical Corrections February 14, 2003; May 27, 2016