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Tennessee

Number of Rural Planning Organizations: 12 Total annual funding: $60,000 – $100,000 (80% federal funds, 10% state match, 10% local match) Date established rural transportation planning program: 2005 – 2006 Prior to establishing a statewide network of RPOs, Tennessee DOT (TDOT) formed regional working groups to improve transparent and responsive decision making.  These working groups were intended to bring information to citizens and local leaders and get their feedback on project priorities.  This feedback proved to be a valuable effort for a state with far more identified transportation needs than available funding, and a policy not to take on debt such as bonding.  When TDOT initially reached out to local stakeholders for input, the agency displayed maps showing the transportation projects that had been identified in the statewide plan to determine whether those were still priorities.  Many local jurisdictions reported that they were planning trip-generating facilities such as new schools, municipal golf courses and subdivisions on other corridors, rather than the corridors already slated for improvement.  This offered an opportunity to discuss and revise project priorities and to generate an interest in ongoing interagency coordination on those issues.[1]

Through this effort to enhance feedback, TDOT heard from local officials and the public in the state’s nonmetropolitan regions that they would like to continue the dialogue that had begun through the working groups.  This led to the creation of the RPOs as a platform for sustaining communications and bringing local information into statewide planning through annual contracts with TDOT.

Map of Tennessee's MPO, TPO, and RPO planning areas

Click to enlarge (Courtesy Tennessee DOT)

The RPOs have a two-tier organizational structure: an executive board comprises mainly local elected officials and includes a state senator and state representative; and a technical committee includes modal representatives such as short line rail, public transportation agencies, community airports, and inland waterway stakeholders, as well as county highway superintendents, city and county public works directors, local planners, and other local government staff.  The involvement of economic development actors has been key to coordinating transportation improvements with other projects, as has the ex officio participation of neighboring MPOs and RPOs, including regional planning and development organizations located in neighboring states.

The exact duties of the RPOs vary according to local needs, and the contract amounts are determined by a formula based on population.[2]  Generally, the RPOs maintain databases of members, stakeholders, and interested parties to use in their public outreach regarding meetings or hearings, general announcements, information requests and surveys, and input on transportation issues.  The RPOs summarize the input received through their outreach efforts to share with TDOT on a regular basis.  TDOT and the RPOs may coordinate on special studies on particular issues or proposed projects, with TDOT staff often completing technical analysis and RPO staff coordinating input and identifying key stakeholders and site visits.[3]

The RPOs roles and relationship with TDOT has continued to evolve over time.  In 2013, TDOT created an Office of Community Transportation with community planning staff and resources in each of TDOT’s District offices to improve delivery of planning services, especially outside of MPOs.  “Working with TDOT staff in the regional offices has made a difference in planning and projects.  Since then, we’ve had more opportunity to work with TDOT on developing projects, and analyzing safety and other impacts through our RPO,” says Chris Craig, assistant executive director of the First Tennessee Development District.  One example of this heightened collaboration has been in the road safety audits performed on roads within RPO service areas.[4]

Another opportunity for collaboration came about through the update of Tennessee’s 25-Year Long-Range Transportation Policy Plan, initiated in 2013 and adopted as final in 2016.[5]  The last statewide long-range plan update received feedback from just 100 people, but the new long-range plan had over 20,000 community inputs through an extensive outreach effort that included the state’s RPOs.  This outreach took place through multiple methods, including interactive presentations TDOT called “book-a-planner” presentations that gathered feedback from participants on their greatest transportation needs and priorities for policies, projects, and funding.[6]  Using the statewide network of RPOs was one way for TDOT to get the word out about the presentations and other methods for gathering input, including other in-person and online engagement strategies.  The RPOs booked presentations for their own committees to participate in, as well as for local governments, local planning commissions, or other stakeholder groups that work with the RPO.[7]

For more information on the state’s RPO program, visit https://www.tn.gov/tdot/article/longrange-regionalruralplanningoffices.

[1] NADO Research Foundation (2011). National Symposium for RPOs and MPOs, https://www.nado.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/2010symposium.pdf

[2] Personal communication with Stacy Morrison, July 2016

[3] TDOT (2013). Scope of Services

[4] Personal communication with Chris Craig, January 2016

[5] Personal communication with Angie Midgett, March 2016

[6] Stacy Morrison and Jonathan Russell (2016). TDOT 25-Year Long-Range Transportation Policy Plan, presented to the 2016 National Regional Transportation Conference, June 14, 2016

[7] Personal communication with Chris Craig, March 2016