This case study initially appeared in the NADO Research Foundation 2012 report Aligning Strategies to Maximize Impact: Case Studies on Transportation and Economic Development.
The North State Super Region (NSSR) is an alliance of 16 counties in Northern California, formed in 2010 with the goal of identifying “common transportation, growth, and land use issues, and formulating unified strategies that can be advocated to implementing agencies and the public.”
Given its large geography (42,620 square miles) covering coastal, agricultural, and mountainous areas, the NSSR is mainly rural and economically diverse. While the many communities in the region may lack cohesion in some areas, “it’s really our transportation needs that unify the region,” says Dan Wayne, senior planner at the Shasta Regional Transportation Agency. California’s regional transportation planning agencies (RTPAs), similar in structure and responsibility to federally-designated MPOs, prepare regional transportation plans and work programs for a single county. Two of the RTPAs in the NSSR, including Shasta, are also MPOs.
Among such issues as high unemployment and population growth, limited funding for transportation infrastructure rose to the top of regional leaders’ list of topics to address. The allocation of transportation funding tends to favor populous regions with more economic activity and population centers. Rural areas like the NSSR in particular often have trouble competing for funding with highly urbanized areas when factors such as congestion are used. Other collaborative efforts in California, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, have been successful in bringing a large region together as a single grant recipient, explained Marilee Mortenson, senior environmental planner at the California DOT (Caltrans). In that example, several MPOs “organized to achieve joint benefits—public attention, community awareness, and political support and involvement” that helped the region attract more resources, she says.
NSSR’s first major project is the Transportation for Economic Development Study, supported by a $225,000 grant from Caltrans. Rather than duplicating research on the connection between the two fields, the study aims to apply research to the local context and make the “business case” for justifying rural investment. In particular, the study will develop a set of metrics appropriate for measuring the impact of transportation investments in rural regions. “With the recession, the competition for transportation funding is putting a greater emphasis on economic development and quantitative performance measures—figures that we don’t have a clear handle on,” says Wayne. Using the study, planners in the NSSR will be able to collect and include this data in grant applications and other regional documents.
Because of the very large size of the NSSR, planners must work to maintain a focus on issues of a regional scale. Martha Martinez, a transportation planner at Caltrans, advises concentrating work on specific topics and being clear about expectations. For projects such as the NSSR’s study, she says planners “shouldn’t expect to solve all transportation and economic development issues. It’s important to raise ideas and new partnerships” around regional issues. Attempting to address local concerns at the same time can detract from the project’s goals and add to its challenges.
Overall, the study’s aim is to align investments from a transportation perspective with existing or planned economic development strategies and investments. According to Mortenson, “The study is moving these regional agencies into new conversations with economic development planners, which is a positive outcome in itself.” Wayne described how transportation planning can support other objectives: “We work to find the spot where our interests collide with economic development interests, and focus our energies there. We’re committed to providing the mobility required for economic development to happen and prosper.”
This case study was researched and written by NADO Research Foundation Graduate Fellow Kate Humphrey under the direction of Associate Director Carrie Kissel and is supported by the Federal Highway Administration under contract number DTFH61-06-H-0029 through the NADO Research Foundation’s Center for Transportation Advancement and Regional Development (www.RuralTransportation.org). Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.