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Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)

Frequently Asked Questions

March 31, 2003

In the May 1, 2002, Federal Register (HTML or PDF) the US Bureau of the Census issued the designations of urbanized areas (UZA) and urban clusters (UC) based on the 2000 Census. While the US Department of Transportation has no direct role in the designation of these areas, they are critical to the administration of the surface transportation program. Key FHWA/FTA program impacts for planning and environment are: designation of MPOs and application of metropolitan planning requirements; designation of Transportation Management Areas (TMA); application of conformity requirements; and, funding availability (STP attributable funds in UZAs over 200,000 population; transit providers serving UZAs of 200,000 or less may use FTA Urbanized Area Formula Program (49 USC 5307) funds for operating assistance; areas over 200,000 cannot use FTA 49 USC 5307 funds for operating assistance).

Below you will find a series of Q&As intended to assist FHWA and FTA staff implement these new designations in the context of the programs they administer. All questions concerning the criteria used and process of designating UZAs and UCs should be directed to the Census staff. Please contact the identified staff resource person at the Census Bureau for additional information. The impact of these designations upon the FHWA capital and planning and FTA planning programs is addressed below.

In developing this document, FHWA and FTA relied on statutory and regulatory provisions where they existed. However, a significant portion of the following is based upon a "reasonable implementation strategy" rather than statutory provisions directly. We have applied guidance, last issued in 1991 for the areas that became UZAs as a result of the 1990 Census, and adapted it where statutory or regulatory requirements have changed since that time. For additional information or for questions where a specific contact person is not identified, please contact: Supin Yoder (, FHWA, Office of Planning or John Humeston (, FHWA; or Candace Noonan (, FTA.











What is an Urban Area?
The term Urban Area has been ascribed two slightly different definitions by two different federal agencies. The Department of Commerce's Census Bureau uses the term Urban Area (UA) to refer collectively to the Urbanized Areas (UZA) and Urban Clusters (UC) designated by the Census Bureau for the 2000 decennial Census.

On the other hand, Federal transportation legislation (23 USC 101(a)(36) - (37) and 49 USC 5302(a)(16) - (17)) allows responsible state and local officials in cooperation with each other, and subject to approval by the Secretary of Transportation, to adjust the Census boundaries outward, as long as they encompass, at a minimum, the entire Census designated area.

The FHWA uses the term Federal-Aid Urban Area (FAUA) to distinguish the adjusted urban area boundaries allowed for transportation purposes from those designated by the Census Bureau.

What is an Urbanized Area (UZA)?
An Urbanized Area is a statistical geographic entity designated by the Census Bureau, consisting of a central core and adjacent densely settled territory that together contain at least 50,000 people, generally with an overall population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile. Within the transportation planning community Urbanized Areas are typically referred to as the UZAs. To learn more about Census geography, terms and criteria see

What is an Urban Cluster (UC)
An Urban Cluster is a new statistical geographic entity designated by the Census Bureau for the 2000 Census, consisting of a central core and adjacent densely settled territory that together contains between 2,500 and 49,999 people. Typically, the overall population density is at least 1,000 people per square mile. Urban Clusters are based on Census block and block group density and do not coincide with official municipal boundaries.

What is a Place?
A Place is a term used by the Census Bureau that includes both Incorporated Places (concentrations of populations having legally defined boundaries) and Census Designated Places (concentrations of population that are locally identifiable by name by not legally incorporated). A place can be of any size population or population density, because it is based on an administrative boundary, not statistical criteria.

Prior to the 2000 Census, the Census Bureau used the term Urban Place to identify any Place having a population of more than 2500. This term was incorporated into Federal legislation (23 USC 101 (a)(36) to define urban areas, outside the boundaries of urbanized areas, having a population between 5000 and 50,000. Beginning with the 2000 Census, the Census Bureau no longer uses Urban Place to identify smaller urban areas, and has replaced it with the Urban Cluster. However, the Census Bureau still disseminates geographic boundaries and reports population statistics for Places.

What is a Metropolitan Planning Area (MPA)?
A Metropolitan Planning Area is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations, (23 CFR 450.104) as the geographic area in which the metropolitan transportation planning process must be carried out. This term is further described in 23 CFR 450.308.

The MPA boundary shall, as a minimum, cover the UZA(s) and the contiguous geographic area(s) likely to become urbanized within the twenty year forecast period covered by the transportation plan. The boundary may encompass the entire metropolitan statistical area or consolidated metropolitan statistical area, as defined by the Census Bureau.

What is a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO)?
A Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is defined in Federal Transportation Legislation (23 USC 134(b) and 49 USC 5303(c)) as the designated local decisionmaking body that is responsible for carrying out the metropolitan transportation planning process. An MPO must be designated for each urban area with a population of more than 50,000 people (i.e., for each Urbanized Area (UZA) defined in the most recent decennial Census).

What is a Transportation Management Area (TMA)?
A Transportation Management Area (TMA) is an area designated by the Secretary of Transportation, having an urbanized area population of over 200,000, or upon special request from the Governor and the MPO designated for the area.



The Census Bureau issued its list of qualifying Urbanized Areas (UZAs) based on population counts from the 2000 decennial Census in the May 1, 2002 Federal Register. (This, and other related Federal Register notices pertaining to urban area designations are posted on the Census Bureau web site Each UZA listed by the Census Bureau must be represented by a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in order to carry out the metropolitan transportation planning process specified in Federal transportation legislation (23 USC 134 and 49 USC 5303).

When must new MPOs be designated?
Each UZA listed in the May 1, 2002 Federal Register notice must be represented by an MPO on or before May 1, 2003. Any UZA identified after May 1, 2002, must be represented by an MPO within 12 months of its official listing by the Census Bureau.

What is required in order to designate a new MPO?
Designation of a new MPO consists of a formal agreement between the Governor and units of general purpose local government that together represent at least 75 percent of the population to be included in the metropolitan planning area (MPA). The agreement should, at a minimum, identify the membership structure of the policy board and establish the metropolitan planning area boundaries (23 USC 134 (b) and 49 USC 5303 (c)).

A newly designated MPO does not need to develop a Long-Range Transportation Plan (TP) or Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) within the first 12 months. However, an initial MPO work plan (23 CFR 450.314) should include tasks and a schedule to develop a TIP and TP.

Where can I find examples of by-laws and the composition of policy boards for new MPOs?
The FHWA/FTA Metropolitan Capacity Building web site includes several case studies that document the experiences of MPOs that were established during the 1990s, after new urbanized areas were defined following the 1990 Census ( Because formal designation requirements may vary by state, it is best to use examples from existing MPOs in your state.

Must a new MPO be designated for each new UZA?
No. UZAs that are located within the metropolitan planning area (MPA) of an existing MPO are already represented, and do not require designation of a new MPO.

Can a new UZA, which is currently included in the MPA of an existing MPO, designate its own new MPO?
Except under extraordinary circumstances, the new UZA will remain with the existing MPO. Separation from an existing MPO would involve redesignation of the existing MPO. A request for redesignation requires agreement between the Governor and representatives of local jurisdictions that together comprise at least 75 percent of the population of the MPA (23 USC 134(b)(5) and 49 USC 5303 (c)(5)).

If a new UZA adjoins an existing MPA, does a new MPO need to be established?
Not necessarily. The existing MPA can be modified to incorporate the new UZA rather than establishing a new MPO. However, the Governor and MPO should review the previous MPO designation, State and local law, MPO bylaws, etc. to determine if this can be accomplished without a formal redesignation (23 CFR 450.306 (k)).



When do MPA boundaries for existing MPOs need to be updated to reflect the changes in urbanized area boundaries?
Consistent with the guidance provided by FHWA/FTA in 1992, the MPA boundaries of current MPOs should be updated no later than the next scheduled plan update after 10/1/02, or within 3 years, which ever occurs first.

What geographic area must be included within the MPA boundary?
The updated MPA boundaries must include the entire UZA boundary identified in the 2000 decennial Census and the contiguous geographic area likely to become urbanized within 20 years. The MPA may include the entire metropolitan statistical area or consolidated metropolitan statistical area as defined by the Census Bureau.

The MPA boundaries for urbanized areas designated non-attainment areas for ozone and carbon monoxide may be further adjusted to include the entire non-attainment area identified under the Clean Air Act (42 USC 7401 et seq.).

If the new UZA boundary lies entirely within an existing MPA boundary, must the existing boundary be adjusted?
No. The existing MPA boundary does not need to be adjusted if it contains the entire UZA boundary identified in the 2000 Census. However, the MPO may still choose to adjust its MPA boundary to include new areas that are likely to become urbanized within 20 years.

Does an MPA boundary adjustment require redesignation of the MPO?
No. Expansion of the MPA boundary to reflect changes in the UZA boundary, or the addition of new members to the MPO policy board to provide representation for newly included areas, does not automatically require redesignation of the MPO. To the extent possible, it is encouraged that these changes be done without a formal redesignation. However, the Governor and MPO should review the previous MPO designation, State and local law, MPO bylaws, etc. to determine if a formal redesignation is required (23 CFR 450.306).

If an existing MPO expands its MPA to include a new UZA, what changes need to be made to its governing board?
The MPO should take into account changes in its geographic area in reviewing representation on its governing board. Current MPO by-laws would be the basis for determination of any board changes (23 CFR 450.306(k)). The FHWA and FTA will not define any specific required changes or approve them other than those affecting TMAs.

Do FHWA and FTA need to approve MPA boundary changes?
No. Approval of MPA boundaries by the FHWA or the FTA is not required. However, MPA boundary maps must be submitted to the FHWA and the FTA after their approval by the MPO and the Governor (23 CFR 450.308(d)).

The new UAZ boundary extends into an adjacent MPA. Must both MPA boundaries be adjusted to ensure that the UAZ lies entirely within a single MPA?
No. There are at least three options available to handle this situation:



When will new TMAs be designated?
The Secretary of Transportation designated new TMAs in the Federal Register on July 8, 2002. (An update based on additional information from the Census Bureau will be reissued in the Federal Register.)

What happens when an area is designated as a TMA?
An area designated as a TMA enjoys certain benefits and incurs additional requirements beyond those of smaller urbanized areas (23 USC 134 (i))

Does an existing MPO in an area that is designated as a TMA have to modify its policy board?
At a minimum, the policy board of an MPO that serves a TMA must include local elected officials, appropriate state officials, and officials of public agencies that administer or operate major modes of transportation in the metropolitan area. The MPO should review its policy board membership to determine if all of these groups are represented and add new members, as appropriate (23 CFR 450.306).

When must an area that is designated as a TMA establish a Congestion Management System (CMS)?
Newly designated TMAs need to implement a CMS within 18 months of their designation by the Secretary of Transportation.


Will my TP and TIP need to be modified immediately to assure that projects located in the new UZA boundary are eligible for advancement in existing MPO areas?
Because the MPA should have included the 1990 Census-defined urbanized area PLUS any additional area anticipated to be urbanized within the next 20 years, it is most likely that no changes will be needed immediately to the TP or TIP. However, in cases where the UZA boundary has increased significantly, the MPO should review and adjust its MPA boundary by the next TP update after 10/1/02 or within 3 years (which ever is sooner) to incorporate new urbanized areas outside the current MPA, as well as additional area expected to become urbanized in the next 20 years. New MPA boundaries must be approved by the MPO and the Governor and submitted to the FHWA and the FTA (23 CFR 450.308 (d)). Projects in this expanded area could then be added to the TP and TIP in the future.

How should projects be programmed for FTA and FHWA approvals in new urbanized areas?
Until an MPO is officially designated, the State, in cooperation with locally elected officials and officials of agencies that administer or operate major modes of transportation in the expected metropolitan planning area, should meet to jointly determine an interim program of projects. Until a TP and TIP are approved by the new MPO, an interim program of projects should continue to be programmed annually in the STIP for all projects to be funded under the Federal Transit Act and Title 23. This interim program of projects should be separately identified in the STIP.

MPOs in newly designated urbanized areas will be given until 10/1/05 to establish a planning process meeting all the requirements of 23 CFR 450 and 49 CFR 613, including a TP and TIP.



How is conformity assured in non-attainment and maintenance areas that were previously isolated rural areas, but are now designated urbanized areas as a result of population growth recorded in the 2000 Census?
Newly designated urbanized areas, which are designated as air quality non-attainment or maintenance areas, would have already been demonstrating conformity. Before being designated as an urbanized area, these areas were considered isolated rural non-attainment or maintenance areas, and would have been demonstrating conformity according to the requirements for these areas in 40 CFR 93.109(g).

Within three years of an area's designation as an urbanized area by the Census Bureau, the area's MPO must develop a new TP and TIP, and the MPO and the USDOT must make a conformity determination for the TP and TIP. A new conformity determination cannot occur until a TP and TIP is in place. A conformity determination would be required to advance:

If a TP and TIP and conformity determination are not completed within three years, then the area would be in a conformity lapse. (See the joint FHWA/FTA Guidance in the February 7, 2002 Federal Register notice, for more information on conformity lapses.


When will the distribution of Metropolitan Planning (MP&PL) funds have to change to account for new urbanized areas?
The apportionment of metropolitan planning (MP&PL) funds to the States based on new urbanized areas will begin with FY2003 funds apportioned on or after October 1, 2002. States need to evaluate and, if necessary, revise their intra-state formulae immediately, using the population figures from the Census Bureau released on May 1, 2002 and revised on August 23, 2002. FHWA and FTA will request that States and their MPOs reaffirm the existing formula, or agree on a new intra-state formula. Each State should work cooperatively with the existing MPOs (and elected local officials in new Urbanized Areas) to review the formula and submit it for approval to the appropriate office (for PL to FHWA Division Office and for MP to FTA Regional Office). Currently, FTA guaranteed and authorized funding levels for each State over the life of TEA-21, based on the 1990 Census, are posted at FTA has posted revised FY2003 funding levels based on the 2000 Census for each State at This information should be utilized0 by each State when reaffirming or revising their intra-State formulas.

How will the new urbanized area populations impact the apportionment of Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds?
STP funds are suballocated within each state between urbanized areas with a UZA population over 200,000 and the rest of the state in proportion to their relative share of the total state population. This suballocation formula will use population totals from the 2000 Census, beginning with FY2003. Each UZA over 200,000 population receives a share of the funds suballocated for such areas based on the area's share of the State's total population in areas over 200,000.

In some instances, where an existing UZA has been split, or other UZAs in the state have grown at a faster rate, the population share, and therefore the UZA's share of STP funds, may actually decrease.

How will STP funds be suballocated between two or more MPOs that cover the same TMA that includes an urbanized area over 200,000 population?
There is no specific provision in Federal transportation legislation for STP funds among multiple MPOs serving the same TMA that includes an urbanized area over 200,000 population.

Can FY2002 PL funds be set aside for areas expected to be designated as urbanized areas in May 2002?
No, the new urbanized area definitions will be used to allocate FY2003 PL funds. However, a State may provide State Planning and Research (SPR), National Highway System (NHS), Surface Transportation Program (STP) and Minimum Guarantee (MG) funds to support "start up" planning activities in anticipation of MPO designation.

Can a new urbanized area receive PL or MP funds (FY2003) if an MPO has not yet been designated?
No, a new urbanized area cannot receive PL or MP funds until its intra-State formulae have been approved by the FHWA Division Office or FTA Regional Office respectively, and an MPO has been designated. FY2003 funds allocated by the adopted intra-state formulae to the proposed MPO would be reserved by the State and allocated upon MPO designation.



Do I need to adjust the Census designated urban area boundaries?
No. While Federal transportation legislation allows adjustments to the Census designated urban area boundaries, there is no Federal requirement to do so. States and MPOs may choose to use the Census designated urban area boundaries without adjustment.

Adjustments to urban area boundaries had significant funding implications when Federal-Aid Highway funding included separate apportionments for Federal-Aid Urban and Federal-Aid Rural Systems. These funding classifications were eliminated in 1992 under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA).

Today, the Federal requirements for urban versus rural classifications are limited mostly to highway statistical reporting, highway functional classification, and regulation of outdoor advertising. These requirements are described below. However, a number of States have included urban versus rural classifications in their intra-State apportionment formulae. These State requirements should be reviewed before deciding whether or not to adjust urban boundaries.

What Federal transportation programs are impacted by adjustments to urban area boundaries?
The following FHWA Programs still distinguish between urban and rural areas:

Can I adjust urban area boundaries to include less area than the Census designed boundaries?
No. Federal Transportation legislation specifically requires that any adjustments to urban or urbanized area boundaries must include, at a minimum the entire urban area designated by the Census Bureau. For urbanized areas (above 50,000 population) this means that the entire Census designated urbanized area boundary must be included in the FAUA.

For smaller urban areas with a population between 5000 and 49,999, FHWA will allow a State to use either the newly defined (with the 2000 Census) Urban Cluster or the Place as defined by the Census Bureau as its minimum area for inclusion for planning, highway functional classification, and statistical reporting. Whichever area type (Urban Cluster or Place) is selected, however, must be used consistently throughout the State. However, Federal regulations on outdoor advertising control will continue to allow use of only the Census defined Place as the minimum area for inclusion.


How often can I make adjustments to urban area boundaries?
Although there is no specific FHWA policy on how often urban area boundaries can be adjusted, States are strongly encouraged to make such adjustments as infrequently as possible and only when deemed absolutely necessary.

Maps showing proposed adjustments to urban area boundaries must be submitted to FHWA for approval.

What impacts do adjustments in urban area boundaries have on Highway Functional Classification?
Once the adjustments to urban area boundaries are adopted, highways that are impacted by the new boundaries must be functionally reclassified. The guide on classifying highways continues to be Highway Functional Classification: Concepts, Criteria and Procedures. Rev. March 1989.

Since the anticipated adjustments resulting from the 2000 Census are relatively minor, unlike the national reclassification required by ISTEA, FHWA is not planning any workshops or training in this area. It is the responsibility of the FHWA Division Offices to approve any changes in the classification of highways. If a state does propose major changes to their principal arterial system, those changes should be submitted to FHWA's Office of Planning for further review prior to Division action.

For further information on Highway Functional Classification, contact: Bob Gorman (202-366-5001).

What impacts do adjustments in urban area boundaries have on HPMS reporting?
Adjusted urban area boundaries adopted by the State and MPOs should be used for HPMS reporting at the earliest time possible after the adoption decision.

Any changes to the rural/urban roadway location and functional class that result from adjustments to urban area boundaries should be reported in HPMS Data Items 13 and 17, Rural/Urban Designation and Functional System Code, respectively.

The size of urban area is determined based on the latest decennial Census (or special inter-decennial) designation, not on the population within the adjusted urban area boundaries. Areas meeting the 200,000, 50,000, or 5,000 census- determined population thresholds should use codes 4, 3, and 2, respectively, for reporting HPMS Data Item 13. [Ref: HPMS Field Manual, page IV-11, at]. HPMS Frequently Asked Questions can be found at: For further information on HPMS reporting, contact: Paul Svercl (202-366-5036).

How will the new Urbanized Areas and Urban Clusters impact other data reporting?
There could be impacts on other data reporting like FHWA's Fiscal Management Information System (FMIS) and National Bridge Inventory (NBI). Please direct your questions to Ms. Minnie Baskerville at (202) 366-2924 and Ms. Ann Shemaka at (202) 366-1575, respectively.

What impacts do adjustments in urban area boundaries have on Outdoor Advertising Control?
The term as defined covers Places of 5,000 or more in population. As the Census Bureau has now released the information to continue to identify Places, there is no basis to utilize the concept of Urban Clusters in the Outdoor Advertising Control Program. States will continue to use the Census Bureau data to map and control signage as it relates to places of 5000 or more population in the manner defined by 23 CFR 750.153(t) and 750.703(m). For further information concerning outdoor advertising control, contact Glenn W. Bridger at (360) 619-7690 or Bryan O'Neill at (202) 366-9881.



Will data from the American Community Survey be used by the Census to define new Urbanized Areas, and therefore result in new MPOs?
NO. The American Community Survey is a replacement for the Census "Long Form" to report on characteristics of the population. It is not an official count of persons, and does not have block level population counts that are needed for urbanized area definition. Urbanized Areas are defined based on population density at the census block level.

My region is growing very rapidly and I believe it would meet the requirements for a new Urbanized Area. How can I get the Census Bureau to define it as a new urbanized area?
You would need to have the Census Bureau conduct a special census in your area. Material is available at the Census Bureau website: The Census Bureau charges $200 to prepare a cost estimate for conducting the special census. The governmental units in your region would contract with the Census Bureau for the full costs of conducting the census. The special census would need to cover the region, not just an area with new housing units.

For example, Flagstaff, Arizona conducted a special census between the 1980 and 1990 decennial Censuses, and was subsequently added as an Urbanized Area.

When will new Urbanized Areas be defined?
The Census Bureau will define new Urbanized Areas AFTER the 2010 Census.


Updated: 1/31/2017
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