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Name Game: Agencies Involved in Regional Planning

February 24, 2015

This article is a section in the 2014 NADO Research Foundation report Moving toward Performance-based Transportation Planning in Rural and Small Metropolitan Regions.

In about 30 states, the state department of transportation contracts with regional agencies to conduct nonmetropolitan transportation planning activities in support of statewide planning. In some states, this practice was established in response to state statute, while in others, the process was established over time to help states meet increased federal requirements such as for public involvement and outreach to local officials. In many instances, these regional organizations are referred to as rural planning organizations or regional transportation planning organizations (RPOs or RTPOs), or other similar names. RTPOs are often housed in a parent agency that conducts other regional functions, such as a regional planning commission, council of governments, or regional economic development district. However, other organizational models also exist, such as a regional or county transportation commission, a county planning office that staffs an RTPO program on behalf of one or more counties, a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) completing rural planning tasks for its surrounding rural area, or a state DOT’s district or regional office staffing the RTPO.

For the first time in federal statute, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), the national surface transportation authorization passed in 2012, established a common definition for and list of required tasks for RTPOs. RTPOs established before MAP-21’s passage often already complete many or all of the planning elements required in statute and generally conform to the law’s requirement for institutional structure. Over time, these existing agencies may go through a process within their states to become formally designated as RTPOs according to the federal definition, and new organizations in other states might also become RTPOs. However, some states and organizations might choose to continue operating in a less formal practice of one or two-year contracts with no formal designation, to support a work program that contains some, but not all, of the required elements in MAP-21.

Regional planning and development organizations (often abbreviated as RDOs) can be the lead planning agency for an RTPO, but in states with no regional nonmetropolitan planning, they may be involved in other planning, economic development, and human service activities on a regional basis. Their responsibilities may include economic development planning or business retention and recruitment, technical assistance to local governments on planning, cooperative purchasing, public administration, assistance with public works, community development, or human services grants, and other tasks supporting local governments and communities. States that do not have RTPOs may still have regional agencies interested in taking an active role in public or local official outreach, in suggesting potential transportation projects that support economic development goals and are a shared priority for member jurisdictions, in collecting data, or providing administrative support for local transportation organizations such as a short line railroad or a corridor alliance. The performance of the transportation network is central to fulfilling the goals of each of these non-transportation planning functions, so these organizations may wish to become active in transportation performance management, even if not performance-based planning and programming. This report suggests roles for engaging in state and local transportation performance efforts even when regional planning is not occurring.

Regional transportation planning in nonmetropolitan areas usually includes tasks similar to work that metropolitan planning organizations complete, along with technical assistance to local governments on topics that rural localities may be less likely to have in-house expertise.

Rural, regional transportation planning organizations often complete public involvement and local official outreach, long-range planning, short-range transportation improvement programs or unranked lists of high priority projects, technical assistance to local governments on transportation issues, grant applications, and other tasks in support of statewide transportation planning and local transportation objectives.

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