On April 25, 2013, the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) Research Foundation held the Rural Planning Organizations (RPO) of America Peer Symposium in Greenville, SC. This event was sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and was held in conjunction with the National Rural Transportation Peer Learning Conference, an annual meeting organized by the NADO Research Foundation and Development District Association of Appalachia. The Symposium brought together transportation professionals from across the nation and addressed how rural and small metro regions and their partners have improved the planning and implementation process of vital transportation projects by strengthening communications and collaboration across state, regional, and local agencies.
One presentation was by Patricia Steed, Executive Director, of the Central Florida Regional Planning Council (CFRPC). The talk described the Heartland Rural Mobility Plan (HRMP), a program responsible for the coordination of transportation improvements amongst stakeholders and service providers as well as connecting disadvantaged residents of the Heartland Region to transportation services.
The HRMP was initiated in 2007 and established a planning framework that would maximize funding partnerships to serve the mobility needs of the region’s communities and to optimize coordination across efforts. The plan includes an existing conditions assessment based on the following sources:
- U.S. Census (2000);
- American Community Survey (2006);
- Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) socioeconomic data forecasts;
- Florida Statistical Abstract (2006); and
- Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) District One Planning and Marketing Assessment Initiative Report (2005).
After an extensive analysis, the project team developed a public involvement process, concluding in a regional mobility needs assessment consisting of mobility goals, alternatives, and planning recommendations.
Need / Motivation
The Heartland is one of three Rural Areas of Critical Economic Concern (RACEC) designated by the Governor’s Office of Tourism, Trade, and Economic Development (OTTED ) in Florida, selected after a history of economic underperformance due to chronic conditions such as low wages, low educational attainment, higher than average unemployment, and in some cases, economic decline after a natural disaster. The OTTED formed Rural Economic Development Initiative (REDI) agencies for each RACEC. The Florida Heartland Rural Economic Development Initiative, Inc. (FHREDI) is the economic development organization for the Heartland and acts as a public-private partnership to promote economic development by overseeing, working with, and creating programs to assist existing business retention and growth.
FHREDI concluded that the deficit of economic development was due to a lack of transportation options that limited access to jobs and businesses, and travel for discretionary purposes. Steed noted that in all previous efforts to provide transit or paratransit within this area, planners focused on social service perspectives only, with no provision of support for economic development and general transportation. This may be a result of the Heartland region’s largest industries—healthcare and social assistance—but there has been a concurrent labor force population increase of 9 percent from 2000 to 2005. The study also revealed that nearly 50 percent of Heartland commutes are less than 20 minutes, the most frequent being county-to-county commutes between Heartland counties and urban areas outside the region. With limited public transportation options, it is difficult for the 10 percent of Heartland residents who do not own a vehicle to commute to their jobs and have access to needed services, recreation and education.
The process to develop the HRMP brought together planning organizations at the state, regional, and local levels as well as various stakeholder groups within the Region. The CFRPC staffs and manages the ongoing implementation of the HRMP project and mobility management strategies and initiatives designed to enhance and increase mobility options for the entire Heartland region. These activities are conducted in cooperation with the FDOT District One Modal Development Office, which helped direct the resources and funding to form the initial working group. This group, consisting of FHREDI, the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR), and Tindale-Oliver and Associates, conducted assessments and established the plan to develop future projects and continue to promote the overall goals and objectives of the Plan.
In 2005, before the HRMP was completed, FHREDI partnered with Enterprise Florida Inc. (EFI), a public-private partnership devoted to statewide economic development, to convene a summit that included board members, local government officials, members of the economic development community, advocacy groups, and state agency representatives. According to Sherry Carver, CFRPC’s Mobility Coordinator, “The feedback obtained from the summit set the stage for the actual public involvement process which began in the spring of 2008.”
The plan’s success relies on extensive public involvement, awareness, and agreement on the developed recommendations to be implemented. A HRMP Steering Committee was established to provide guidance on the plan’s development and direction. The Committee members include county administrators, Community Transportation Coordinators (CTCs) like Good Wheels and Veolia (which also provide paratransit services), as well as staff from FHREDI, CFRPC, Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council (SWFRPC), FDOT District One and District Four. Other key regional partners, such as local interest groups, representatives from the economic development community, and social services agencies also participated.
Public Involvement Plan for the HRMP ensured all members of the public and stakeholders would be informed of decisions throughout the planning process. It also included a rigorous public outreach strategy consisting of numerous methods. Those which had the most significant contribution in forming recommendations were the project steering committee, the public input surveys, the 10 public workshops and discussion groups, along with the regional community forums.
Prior to the public involvement process, the current conditions assessment identified a number of existing transportation facilities and providers including CTCs, paratransit services, fixed-route and intercity transit providers such as Amtrak and Greyhound, as well as commuter, social service, volunteer and faith-based agencies and associations. Based on the existing mobility conditions and with public input, an assessment of mobility needs was conducted. Four key market groups were identified as needing improved regional mobility. These groups included low-income residents and seniors, workers, the transportation-disadvantaged, and other passengers who chose public transit.
With this information, the steering committee was able to develop recommendations that could strengthen and expand the existing transportation network. The recommendations consisted of 12 pilot projects, the majority of which would provide new deviated fixed bus route service to better connect the transportation network and enhance mobility. In addition, there are proposals to pursue federal, state, and local funding options to implement these pilot projects and to establish a coordinated regional process so that mobility needs and options for the region’s residents and visitors can continually be identified, evaluated, and improved. The final recommendation is to implement a mobility working group, which would be the equivalent of the technical advisory committee under a regional transportation planning organization (RTPO), to formulate implementation strategies and to explore innovative funding options. According to Steed, it is important to bear in mind that there is currently no prioritization process for the recommendations. She noted, “It comes down to opportunities. Sometimes the need arises and really connects with finding the resources to meet that need. Other times, there are new funding opportunities so we look for where it can best be deployed.”
The HRMP was funded by the FDOT, and coordination and support for the recommendations that have been implemented thus far come from FTA 5311 Mobility Management Capital Funds Grant. These resources are federal formula funds intended for supporting public transportation in rural areas and provide 80 percent of the costs, with the remaining 20 percent being matched by the region. This grant is scheduled to continue to be the main funding source for various activities related to future implementation strategies. Some funding during program startup came from the FTA 5316 Job Access and Reverse Commute Program, which is no longer available, following the passage of MAP-21 in 2012.
Since the Plan’s inception in 2007, two recommended pilot projects have been implemented and are now permanent services to improve mobility for the transportation underserved residents who, due to economic situation or physical limitation, have limited or no mobility options. These include:
Lake Region Commuter Route (also known as the Clewiston to Belle Glade Community Bus Route). The route was developed as a demonstration fixed-route transit service linking Clewiston, South Bay, Belle Glade, and Pahokee (all in Palm Beach County) to West Palm Beach. In 2002, at the request of a concerned group of local citizens and officials, the FDOT initiated a new bus route between the cities of Clewiston and Belle Glade that would provide reliable fixed-route public transportation access to job training centers and work locations in the region. Representatives from the Work Force Alliance, Palm Beach State College, the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), FHREDI, Lake Okeechobee Regional Initiative (LORI), and FDOT Districts One and Four worked cooperatively to provide this service, which was originally funded entirely by FDOT and managed by Palm Tran. (Palm Tran is the fixed-route bus system run by the Palm Beach County Government, serving Palm Beach County.) In late 2008, when the service was going to be discontinued based on a lack of available funding, FDOT Districts One and Four led a collaborative effort to identify funding to keep the Lake Region Commuter Route operational. The HRMP documented the need for, and recommended the continuation of, the Clewiston to Belle Glade Community Bus Route that connected to the Palm Tran routes in Belle Glade. Currently, the service is funded through a combination of state and federal funds and is administered by FDOT District One. The current operator of the service is Good Wheels, a nonprofit provider who uses FTA 5311 Rural Public Transit Funds to support and manage this route, and current ridership for this route is approximately 2,000 each month. Regional coordination efforts are continuing to identify sustainable funding for this service.
DeSoto – Arcadia Regional Transit (DART). The DART system formed as a pilot project and launched service in November of 2012. DART operates a route-deviated public transit service in and around the city of Arcadia, 11 hours per day and six days per week. The small city area consists of minimum wage jobs and no transportation options. The HRMP Executive Summary reports that the program provides transit opportunities to patrons within that area, “providing access to life sustaining activities, including health care services, jobs and employment opportunities, government services, commercial centers, and connections to various destinations and activity centers. The service became a reality through funding provided by FDOT. The project will be funded for three years with a combination of state and federal funding, as well as fare box revenues. The service is operated by Veolia Transportation, Inc. and ridership per month is over 1200.” Carver added, “Staff here at the regional planning council provided marketing support for the new DART service.”
According to Steed, there are more implementation projects to come, but many are on hold since the cities of Sebring and Avon Park in Highlands County have grown to over 50,000 in population and are now classified as ‘urbanized’. This designation means “CFRPC is currently in a transitional phase, a awaiting an agreement between local governments and the state to form as a multi-county transportation planning organization that would be a comprehensive umbrella organization serving both rural and metropolitan communities under which the HRMP could operate,” Steed points out.
In addition, the HRMP is moving forward into broader plans and implementation as its goals and objectives run parallel with the Heartland 2060 transportation efforts. The Heartland 2060 is a visioning effort that began in September 2007 to form a regional sustainability plan for the next 50 years, funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Steed said, “Bicycle and pedestrian options play into the Heartland 2060 Vision, which includes comprehensive planning for the individual counties by establishing existing sidewalks and bicycle lanes and connections to the routes by working with the local government and or resources to help fund sidewalk gaps or request the incorporation of bicycle lanes during state road system improvements.”
There is a main focus on economic development and regional network development to improve the economy through access to jobs and education to ensure healthy communities within the region. Steed mentioned, “We’ve also been connecting employers as well as training centers and colleges with state resources to help in potentially forming new services to accommodate their needs.” Another opportunity which will be explored in the near future, Carver noted, is more volunteer transportation programs open to anyone. Steed agreed, stating, “We have certain programs that have eligibility requirements which the average person wanting to go somewhere cannot qualify.” To meet this aim, they will look for partnerships between other agencies and from non-traditional funding sources. Steed mentioned one volunteer transportation service, Elder Point Ministries, which has been very successful in the region and has its own fleet, bought through FTA grant applications with volunteer drivers, to help the senior population.
Benefits of the HRMP include coordination among transportation providers that has allowed them to share resources as well as implement joint marketing and outreach, subsequently maximizing economic development, growth management, funding eligibilities, promotion of partnerships, grant opportunities, and education and awareness campaigns.
HRMP funding constraints pose obstacles to project viability, while looking for new opportunities and meeting national and grant match requirements. Steed reinforced that persistence pays off saying, “It almost always means transportation organizations have to creatively fund another way to match.” She continued, “The need for the plan was talked about for years and when it finally came together it was like how will we ever implement it? But we kept at it until we all found a way to actually have ongoing mobility coordination and that is what I think makes us unique. There are lots of plans that have been written but unfortunately a lot of those have not moved into a phase of ongoing implementation. Thankfully this one has.”
Much of the U.S. is rural and is lacking in dependable, convenient public transportation, but individual counties are not always capable of providing this service. Steed sums up the main obstacles and promotes cooperation across counties as a way forward:
“Generally, transportation consists of a service that supports the transportation-disadvantaged area agencies or has a transit service using FTA dollars for general transportation, but these cannot be utilized in rural areas because they don’t have the resources to plan, coordinate, and manage grants. Not to mention, the risk involved in service startup is a major deterrent. By pooling information, manpower, resources and the ability the RPC has to manage grants and come up with funding which has not been used such as 5311 capital for coordination, this is a model that could be replicated in other rural areas.”
- Heartland Rural Mobility Plan Executive Summary, Florida Department of Transportation (prepared by the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) and Tindale-Oliver and Associates, Inc.), July 2009
- Patricia Steed Symposium Presentation, April 2013
- Heartland Rural Mobility Plan webpage, Central Florida Regional Planning Council
- Personal Communication with Patricia Steed and Sherry Carver, July-August 2013
- Heartland 2060 Vision webpage, Central Florida Regional Planning Council
- Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged webpage, Florida Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged
This case study was researched and written by NADO Research Foundation Fellow Agnieta Sharpe under the supervision and direction of Associate Director Carrie Kissel. This work is supported by the Federal Highway Administration under contract number DTFH61-10-C-00050 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.