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Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)

Planning for Transportation in Rural Areas

II. Our Rural Transportation System

This section increases understanding about how "rural" is defined, the characteristics of the rural system, and the conditions and challenges addressed by rural transportation plans.

A. What is "Rural"?

Rural America Comprises 1:

In reality, the concept of "rural" cannot be narrowly defined. In fact, many definitions of rural exist. The way people think of rural largely depends on where they are from and where they live. While many people in New York City and Los Angeles consider anything outside a large metropolitan area as rural, residents of sparsely populated agricultural areas think of even small cities as urban. In practice, the U.S. Department of Transportation defines rural in two ways: first, for highway functional classification and outdoor advertising regulations, rural is considered anything outside of an area with a population of 5,000; second, for planning purposes, rural is considered to be areas outside of metropolitan areas 50,000 or greater in population. This definition leaves a lot of room for significant differences within these categories. Therefore, it is prudent to describe rural based upon what we see across the country. For the purposes of this document, "rural" is considered to be non-metropolitan areas outside the limits of any incorporated or unincorporated city, town, or village. Three general forms are described below.

Three Types of "Rural":

1. Basic Rural

An empty, narrow paved road in a rural areaBasic rural is what we traditionally think of as "truly rural". These areas are dispersed counties or regions with few or no major population centers of 5,000 or more. The economies of these areas tend to be predominately agricultural or natural resource based, and are characterized by typical "farm-to-market" localized rural transportation. Populations in basic rural areas tend to be stable or declining. Appalachia, the central and northern plains states, and the Rocky Mountain States all have many vast regions that can be thought of as basic rural. These areas are typically interested in economic development and normally welcome transportation projects that may help stimulate growth. Tribal lands are generally basic rural in nature.

The fundamental issues facing basic rural areas are:

Planning needs in basic rural areas can be characterized as having less necessity for forecasting than other rural areas. These areas are generally most interested in preservation of existing transportation facilities and stimulating economic growth. Therefore, planning approaches for these areas should emphasize strategies that address these goals. Basic rural areas will typically have the least staff and least trained planning personnel to work with compared to other types of rural areas.

2. Developed Rural

An empty two-lane road through the trees in the wintertime with mailboxes on the sideDeveloped rural can be thought of as dispersed counties or regions with one or more population center(s) of 5,000 or more, and perhaps a metropolitan area(s) with 50,000 or more. There are developed urban areas in the county or region, but there is still a significant amount of the region that is basic rural. Economies in these areas tend to be mixed industrial and service based in the cities and agricultural and natural resource based in the rural areas. Populations in developed rural areas tend to be stable or growing. Much of the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest can be described this way. Transportation in these areas is more diverse than in basic rural areas, involving much more commuting, intercity travel, intercity freight, and other trip purposes. Some developed rural areas welcome growth and economic development, while others are interested in preserving the rural character of the area and are less interested in growth.

The fundamental issues facing developed rural areas are:

Planning needs in developed rural areas can be characterized as having an increased necessity for forecasting compared to basic rural. These areas are generally most interested maintaining an effective regional system and funding capacity improvements where traffic growth warrants them. Developed rural areas may be able to draw on staff resources and trained planning personnel from area cities and counties, and the state departments of transportation.

3. Urban Boundary Rural

A line of vehicles at a railroad crossing waiting for a train to pass.Some areas can be described as urban boundary rural, which refers to rural areas that are located just beyond the fringe of large urban areas. We see these "ex-urban" areas as rural areas beyond the suburbs that are experiencing growth across America. Travel patterns and population growth in these regions are greatly affected by the metropolitan area. Many of these areas are experiencing high rates of population growth from a low base in recent years, hence the impacts in terms of diminishing rural character and increasing transportation system requirements is great. Transportation in these areas is completely diverse, with high levels of commuting and intermodal freight movements. Many urban boundary rural areas have members of their communities who oppose growth and wish to maintain rural character in these areas, while others wish to realize the economic benefits of their locations.

The fundamental issues facing urban boundary rural areas are:

Planning needs in urban boundary rural areas can be characterized as having high necessity for planning, forecasting, and growth management. These areas are generally most interested in balancing economic growth and development with preservation of rural character. Traffic growth and its impact on maintenance and preservation of facilities is of key importance in urban boundary rural areas, hence the importance of forecasting. Growth management is often an issue in areas experiencing the environmental impacts of "urban sprawl". Urban boundary rural areas will typically have access to more and better-trained staff than other rural areas.

B. Characteristics of the Rural Transportation System

The rural transportation system is really a system of disparate parts. It is also very decentralized. Most roads are funded and maintained by different levels of government - cities, counties, states, and federal. While state and federal governments provide much of the capital funding for rural public transit in the United States, actual operations remain primarily a local responsibility. Rail rights-of-way are usually privately owned and maintained. Airports are usually owned by public or quasi-public organizations, but they also contain facilities that are owned by individual carriers. Both public and private organizations own terminals, stations, and other loading and interchange facilities.

Rural Geographic Challenges:

A transportation network functions properly when it helps form vital social and economic connections. This is especially true in rural America where distance and a scattered population make these connections even more important. Many rural areas are bridge areas between states or metropolitan centers. Rural transportation is essential not only for connecting people to jobs, health care, and family in a way that enhances their quality of life, but also for contributing to regional economic growth and development by connecting business to customers, goods to markets, and tourists to destinations. Commodities including timber, fuel, and agricultural products must be moved from rural areas where they are produced, to urban areas where they are consumed, processed, or sent out of the state or country. Ultimately, transportation is a rural community's essential connection to the nation and the world.

A multi-lane divided highway with a few vehiclesWhen you consider the geographic scale and population diversity of the United States, citizens, businesses, and visitors alike have a high level of mobility. Rural America in general has access to an extensive transportation system that serves local, statewide, and national functions. A good rural transportation system provides many benefits to citizens, communities, and businesses including passenger mobility, freight mobility, intermodal connectivity, economic development, and transportation safety.

An interesting issue faced by transportation planners is that most transportation infrastructure is provided by government while the private sector supplies automobiles, trucks, airplanes, and rail cars in response to demand. Transportation planners must develop plans that are practical for the long term and try to ensure that the resulting system meets the needs of the private sector, which makes countless short-term business decisions. An example of this is the rail mergers in the 1990's, which will have dramatic long-term impacts on many rural areas. This is a case where business decisions by rail companies have resulted in the abandonment of many rural branchlines. The result has been loss of rail freight service to these areas and increased trucking on the rural road system to compensate for this loss. Increased trucking on rural roads ultimately increases road maintenance needs and reduces the financial capability of the rural area and state to keep the roads in adequate condition.

1. Rural Roads and Bridges

Rural Roads and Bridges:

In general, the road system in rural America is well developed. In most rural areas, there is a well-established network of local roads, arterials, and county or state highways. These, along with interstate highways, provide for the movement of people and goods. Many rural areas have experienced declines in population as people have migrated to urban centers to seek employment. In these cases, the rural area has been left with a mature road system that is a legacy from a time when there was a large rural population.

Rural roads, comprised of 3.1 million miles, account for 80 percent of national road miles and 40 percent of vehicle miles traveled. About 50 percent of rural roads are paved and 90 percent are two lanes or less. City and county governments are responsible for funding and maintaining 95 percent of rural unpaved roads and 55 percent of rural paved roads.

In many cases, rural transportation alternatives have declined in recent decades - placing more and more demands on rural roads as the predominant system. In many parts of rural America infrastructure has become increasingly inadequate to accommodate these demands, and the condition of facilities is suffering.

Approximately 40 percent of county roads are inadequate for current travel, and nearly half the rural bridges longer than 20 feet are currently structurally deficient.

The most significant issues facing rural roads and bridges are:

2. Rural Freight System

Rural America's economy was built on a foundation provided by agriculture and natural resources. Today, service related businesses and tourism are becoming increasingly important. Demands for freight mobility in rural America are met by highway, rail, and air transportation, or a combination of these modes. Expanding trade and innovations such as just-in-time manufacturing often require the transport of goods by a combination of truck, ship, air, and rail modes in a short period of time. This places a great premium on a transportation system with a high level of intermodal connectivity. For this reason, transportation investments with the highest returns appear to be those that can produce what are called "network effects".

Network effects, as opposed to local improvements, raise the productivity of the system as a whole. Increases in network capability benefit everyone linked to the network, even those located at points far removed from the point where improvements are made. For example, a strawberry grower in California and a restaurant diner in New York may benefit from highway improvements in Nevada. Unfortunately, network benefits are often overlooked when developing plans in favor of the site-specific and local benefits of new projects.

An 18-wheeler on the roadHighway Freight. Rural America's highway system plays an important role in the shipment of freight. The heaviest concentration of interstate or intrastate truck movement is along the interstate highway corridors. The vast majority of manufactured goods are shipped into and out of states by truck. Due to the flexibility and the door-to-door service provided, the highway and road network is vitally important for shipping freight. This is evidenced by the shear size of the trucking industry in America.

Rail Freight. Rural areas depend on rail freight to transport heavy and bulky commodities such as lumber, wheat, coal, and heavy equipment. For heavy, large volume bulk commodities the cost of shipment is much less by rail. In addition, transport by rail reduces the damage to local rural roads that would take place if these commodities were hauled by truck. There are 19,660 miles of regional freight railroads and 27,550 miles of local freight railroads. Railroads move 40 percent of the nation's total intercity freight (measured in ton-miles), more than any other mode (trucks move 28 percent; water, 14 percent; pipelines, 18 percent). Railroads move 70 percent of the motor vehicles shipped from manufacturing sites, 65 percent of the nation's coal used to generate 56 percent of our electricity, and 40 percent of the nation's grain and farm products. Today, there are more than 500 railroad companies many that could be called "small" railroads. Some are operations with a few miles of line and only a few full-time employees.

Air Freight. Air freight plays a significant economic role in rural areas. Air freight can connect rural freight shippers to major cities, and to domestic and international destinations. Although low volume, it has high value and has grown considerably in recent years. Air freight is increasingly important to the economy for shipping low weight high-value-added items. In addition, in a just-in-time economy with low inventories aviation plays a key role in the supply chain. Development in high technology industries is an example of where future growth can be anticipated to drive air freight growth.

Water Freight. Inland waterways, such as the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway, inland rivers, and coastal waterways, are part of the rural transportation network. The first long distance system for moving goods and people, inland waterways remain a cheap alternative for moving heavy bulk commodities such as grain and iron ore. Forty-one states, 16 state capitals and all states east of the Mississippi River are served by commercially navigable waterways.

The most significant freight issues facing rural areas are:

3. Rural Passenger Transportation

Public transportation includes all passenger transportation options available other than driving alone. This includes rural transit, demand responsive transit for the elderly and disabled, passenger rail, intercity bus, ferries, commercial scheduled air service, and car and van pooling. Passenger transportation in rural areas is provided by a variety of private sector, not-for-profit organizations, and various public agencies.

Intercity Bus. In the past, many rural communities were served by bus. Restructuring of the intercity bus transportation industry, combined with reductions in air fares and declining populations in many rural areas, has led to reductions in rural bus service. Intercity bus services are not subsidized and are not required to keep lines open if they are unprofitable. Therefore, many smaller communities have no bus service.

Today, there are approximately 4,500 communities with daily bus service compared to 23,000 communities in 1965. According to ridership surveys, intercity bus passengers tend to be lower income, female, minority, less educated and older than air and rail passengers. This decline has implications not only for passenger service, but also for essential freight services. In many rural communities intercity buses provide a scheduled daily package express service and, therefore, are a vital freight transportation link.

Public Transit. In rural areas, public transit services are provided primarily to transit dependent groups such as the elderly and disabled, however, there are some general public access services in rural areas across America. Public transit includes buses, commuter rail, demand response services (usually vans), light rail, and vanpools. This service is primarily local in nature and, largely, is not connected to the nation's passenger service network. In 1998, some 1,600 local agencies provided rural and public transportation services using 10,000 vehicles, mostly buses or vans. However, some 38 percent of the nation's rural residents live in areas without any public transportation, and less than 10 percent of federal spending for public transportation goes to rural communities.

An AMTRAK trainPassenger Rail. Passenger rail service is an option in some rural areas for longer trips. Currently, the only supplier is the federally subsidized, for-profit Amtrak. Amtrak's passenger rail network encompasses 24,000 miles stretched across 45 states, serving approximately 530 communities. Amtrak tends to concentrate on larger markets. Although predominately serving urban centers throughout the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, Amtrak also serves about 180 destinations in nonmetropolitan communities. Amtrak provides train service to approximately 10 percent of the communities that have intercity bus service. With the recent announcement of its new Acela Express service, Amtrak appears to be concentrating on high-speed service, which necessarily means less focus on service between small, rural intermediate points.

An unpaved roadCommercial Scheduled Air Service. Rural populations depend on scheduled air service to conduct business, travel for medical reasons, take vacations, and visit family and friends. According to a comprehensive survey conducted by the Regional Airline Association, 71 million passengers boarded airplanes operated by regional airlines in 1998, representing an increase of 7 percent over the previous year. In total, regional carriers serve 95 percent of all the airports receiving commercial airline service in North America. Air service is seen by many as an important factor in attracting and retaining business in rural communities but the high cost of subsidizing such service limits its availability. At the time of deregulation, the Federal government retained Essential Air Service subsidy program. This subsidizes services to 26 communities in Alaska and 78 in the rest of the US in order to ensure that small, isolated rural communities have passenger air service.

Pedestrian Transportation. According to many experts, bicycling and walking are often the "forgotten modes" of transportation planning - especially in rural areas. The National Bicycling and Walking Study, finds that bicycle use is up 89 percent and walking is up 13 percent since 1990. Approximately 131 million Americans bike or walk for a variety of reasons, including transport to and from work, recreation, and other reasons. In more and more communities, pedestrian transportation is gaining importance from a planning perspective. Many small rural communities were built with a main street and at a density in which walking is a very viable means of transportation.

The most significant issues facing the rural passenger transportation system are:

C. Conditions Addressed by Rural Transportation Plans

Although it is difficult to generalize, there are several trends occurring in rural America that will impact future rural transportation system needs and, therefore, need to be considered in rural planning efforts. These trends are divided into rural transportation system trends and social, demographic, and economic trends. A number of these trends are discussed below.

1. Two snowplows clearing a roadRural Transportation System Trends

Rural Transportation Safety Concerns. Rural transportation safety is a challenge that should be one of the highest priorities for those developing rural transportation plans. Rural America has significant highway safety needs. These arise as a result of long distances between population centers, deficient roads in many areas, and a combination of high vehicle speeds and/or mix of vehicle speeds. The fatality rate for rural areas (per 100 million vehicle miles of travel) is more than twice that of urban areas. This is due to a number of factors including speed, alcohol use, and accident response time and/or time to receive medical treatment.

Bicycling and walking are prevalent methods of transportation in some rural areas and they also constitute a safety problem. Thirty-five percent of bicyclists' fatalities occur in rural areas and, although fewer pedestrians are injured in rural areas than urban areas, they are more likely to result in fatalities because of the time it takes to get to the hospital. At-grade rail crossing crashes are also important safety issues in rural America.

Backlog of System Maintenance and Preservation Needs. While America's extensive interstate highway system and most state highways are in good condition, many rural jurisdictions are having difficulty keeping up with maintenance and preservation of local and county roads. Approximately 40 percent of county roads in rural America are inadequate for current travel, and nearly half the rural bridges longer than 20 feet are currently structurally deficient. Funding for low volume road maintenance and preservation is difficult for many rural areas, as there is often little state assistance. Most rural counties have a limited financial base from which to levy taxes to generate maintenance funding. In some cases, counties are reverting low-volume paved roads back to gravel to reduce maintenance costs. Additionally, in some cases, counties are opting not to take on maintenance responsibilities for new subdivisions.

Similarly, most states have an extensive network of general aviation (GA) airports. General aviation plays an important role in providing access and mobility to many parts of rural America. General aviation is important for search and rescue, medical emergencies, as well as for providing recreation and other economic benefits. Another rural planning issue relates to maintenance and preservation funding for general aviation. A historical lack of local funding for maintenance and preservation has led to a significant decline in GA airport pavements at many airports across the country.[2]

Limited Funding for System Expansion. In addition to maintenance and preservation, some rural areas, particularly those located near large urban areas, are struggling to find funding for system expansion in places where traffic growth has outstripped the capacity of roadways. Given the high cost of expansion, these projects may have a difficult time competing against highways of state and national significance.

An increasing concern in many areas of the United States is road failure due to truck traffic. This is especially true for areas that have corridors bordering Canada and Mexico. Since the passing of NAFTA in 1994, truck traffic on some of these corridors has increased by as much as 80 percent. Most of these corridors are located in basic rural and developed rural areas and funding for new or upgraded roads in these areas is difficult.

Rural areas with growth needs, or where there are needs for expansion or major reconstruction (whether for new industries, large-scale agricultural facilities, or other needs), are having difficulty funding these projects. In many cases, these local projects have difficulty competing for state and/or federal funds against roads of statewide or national significance.

Decline in Rail Service. The restructuring of the rail industry has led to the abandonment of many branch lines, which has cut off service to many rural areas. This is a significant planning issue for many rural areas that depend upon rail service. For example, rail branchline abandonment has led to grain elevator consolidation along mainlines in many areas which has also increased truck travel on rural roads to get wheat from farms to these facilities.

The restructuring of the rail industry has also meant that many smaller rail companies have taken over branchlines. Maintenance has lapsed on many of these branchlines since some small rail operators lack sufficient funds for adequate maintenance.

Environmental Issues. In rural areas environmental issues include preserving and protecting the natural, historic, scenic, and cultural environment, including productive rural working farmlands. Some rural areas on urban fringes are facing environmental challenges similar to those faced by cities - challenges that are the inevitable byproduct of growing travel demand and increased sprawl. Air quality is a particularly important issue for these areas. Improvements in air and water quality not only have positive environmental benefits, but also recreational and economic benefits as well, particularity for those areas largely dependent on tourism.

2. Social, Demographic and Economic Trends

The demand for transportation is known as a "derived demand". This demand is derived from economic activity that is the result of peoples' requirements to earn a living, enjoy leisure activities, and consume goods and services. The production, supply, and distribution of goods and services create the demand for freight movements. Thus, the social, demographic, and economic factors that create the demand for transportation will also determine the type of transportation system that will be necessary in the future. This means that these factors must be considered when developing rural transportation plans. Some of the major social, demographic, and economic trends that will affect rural transportation demand and, therefore, future rural transportation system needs are presented below.

Changes in Agriculture. Many rural economies were built on a foundation of agriculture, mining, and forest products. These "basic" industries are heavily dependent on a network of highways, railroads, and intermodal transfer facilities for exporting their products. They will continue to be major users of the existing transportation system. Preserving the existing network of highways, branch lines, and mainlines will be important for these industries.

There have been profound changes in the agricultural sector of rural economies. This has resulted in higher productivity, the use of larger and heavier machinery, and the consolidation of many activities. The industry has sought to realize economies of scale that have a large impact on transportation demands. For example, livestock production is changing and moving toward larger operations that seek to maximize economies of scale. Some of these operations, such as hog pounds in the mid-west, are tremendous in size and have changed the typical "farm-to-market" requirements for rural transportation. Instead, these operations can create significant heavy truck traffic on rural roads and they tend to locate where rail service is also available - making them intermodal facilities.

Changes in Industry and Employment. One major economic change creating new and different demands on the rural transportation system is the growth of the service sector. Private service industries such as health care, recreational activities, legal services, and business/financial services are among the fastest growing sectors in many rural communities in America. Much of this growth is due to an aging and more affluent population, growth in health-related services, a growing demand for business support services, and most importantly, growth in tourism and recreation. Although the service industry is diverse, we can generalize and say that service industries generate relatively large numbers of trips. New service industries are more likely to use package delivery services, air transportation, and electronic media to support their day-to-day business activities.

Tourism and recreation are generating considerable new travel demands nationally and this growth is expected to continue over the next decade. The growth in tourism and recreational travel can also be linked to an aging and more affluent population. Of particular concern to rural transportation planners are key attractions, such as national or state parks, lakes, ski areas, etc. that generate high seasonal traffic. In these areas, special management strategies may become necessary for dealing with tourism-related travel demands.

Regional Population and Demographic Changes. Many rural communities in America have experienced population declines in the past decade. This is especially true for midsize rural communities in the 3,000 to 7,000 population range. Some of the trends in these communities include:

Many midsize rural communities have experienced an aging population since it is mostly younger people moving to urban centers to take advantage of employment opportunities. Declining rural population has led to a situation where many of these areas would welcome growth and economic development. These areas are generally supportive of transportation improvement projects, which potentially help foster area economic growth.

Some rural areas are experiencing limited growth based on people choosing a lifestyle alternative from urban centers. Improvements in telecommunications are a factor in this growth, allowing people to locate away from urban areas while still conducting business with them. Indications are that this lifestyle choice could become more popular in the future.

Economic Development Issues. The need to maintain linkages between rural and urban areas is very important to the economy, public health and safety, and the social structure of the country. Activities such as building new roads, widening existing roads, putting in new interchanges, or constructing bridges can result in various benefits for rural areas. These benefits include improved access to services and jobs for rural residents, better access to customers for businesses, and reduced transportation costs. Other potential benefits include reductions in travel time for motorists, lower vehicle operating costs, safety and environmental gains, and cost savings for local consumers as goods and services become more competitively priced. If an improved transportation network leads to growth for an area's economic base, it may also bring higher wages for workers and greater net income for owners of local businesses.

Another important economic development issue for many parts of rural America is supporting tourism development. The rural transportation system plays a central role in each state's tourism industry, connecting visitors to urban areas and to key attractions, including state and national parks. Tourism and the service industry are becoming increasingly important to many rural areas - and this trend is forecast to continue in the future. This is especially true for areas that have parks, attractions, and natural scenic environments. Also, "value-added" tourism such as outfitting, hunting and fishing tours, and "eco-tourism" is becoming increasingly popular. These types of activities generate significant local economic benefits.

Currently, some areas that are experiencing urban sprawl spillover are not in favor of transportation improvements because they want to control growth and to maintain the character of the area. Meanwhile, a great number of communities that have lost population due to migration to urban centers promote transportation improvements and the corresponding economic development benefits. Along with the local economic benefits of transportation improvements, it is important to keep in mind the interregional and international trade benefits that can occur through the network effects of the improvement.

Investing in transportation may entail development risks. Road construction projects or highway improvements may actually harm some areas if new investment diverts activity from an existing corridor within the region. Some areas may also be harmed as transportation system development results in "sprawl" in some previously undeveloped rural areas. And because transportation projects often include a variety of unknown or unexpected costs, underdeveloped regions that lack adequate financial resources may be particularly vulnerable to cost overruns.

Welfare Reform. Providing transportation options for low-income citizens is important for the success of welfare reform in rural areas. Rural areas face many unique challenges in meeting the work requirements under the welfare legislation passed in 1996. Unlike urban areas, there are often fewer jobs available in rural areas, and there may be greater distance between job sites. Many individuals have to drive "into town" or to the closest population center to find employment. Low population size and low population density can make it difficult to provide services locally, such as job training, child care, and skills classes that are essential to making the transition from welfare to work. Transportation to these services will also be critical for successfully transitioning individuals away from public assistance. Many states, especially in the Southeast, have been implementing a variety of programs to help welfare recipients get transportation to work. These include alternatives such as ride sharing and public transportation vouchers.

D. Challenges for Rural Transportation Planning

The objectives for rural transportation planning are to answer the following questions where are we now, where do we want to go, what will guide us, and how will we get there? Where we are now concerns trends and conditions relating to population characteristics, demographics, and the transportation system. Where we want to go involves major issues, public outreach results, obstacles, and opportunities. What will guide us is the mission statement, goals, and long-range objectives. Finally, how we will get there concerns revenue estimates, program and resource plans, and implementation steps.

1. Considerations for Rural Transportation Planners

There are several important considerations to be addressed when developing rural transportation plans. These include:

Planning for the Multimodal System. Rural planning needs to maintain a system-wide perspective at the local, regional and statewide levels. Many times when local and regional agencies perform planning, there is a natural tendency to focus on projects in the local area that address local concerns and technical needs. Many plans have a tendency to be project lists. Instead, plans should take a long term strategic perspective and reflect local, regional, statewide, and national priorities. How a particular improvement fits into the local, regional and statewide system is a key planning question. A good rural plan will address this.

Coordination of Transportation Plans. One of the most important issues for rural planning is the coordination of the transportation plans created by different levels of government. It is critical for successful rural planning that all plans are coordinated. This means that, to the extent possible, policies and technical analysis should be consistent and comparable.

Coordination with Land Use and Development Process. There is growing local interest in the coordination between transportation and land use planning. However, in most rural areas there is very little land use planning with which to coordinate. While most local governments have local comprehensive plans, many of these do not have a transportation element. However, rural planners should determine how best to coordinate with the development review process and other land use decisions that affect transportation, such as incorporated area boundaries and subdivisions review, among others.

Ensuring Adequate Resources to Perform Transportation Planning. A common issue amongst many local and regional agencies performing rural transportation planning is a lack of technical expertise to perform planning. These agencies often "borrow" staff from the state DOT. These agencies are not always clear about how much technical expertise is required to do the planning. Documents such as this one are helpful with the process, however the state DOT planning practitioners often provide specific guidelines and data for technical analysis such as forecasts, pavement condition analysis, traffic and accident statistics, project evaluation criteria, and so on. Many states also have handbooks for such purposes.

2. Rural Planning Challenges

The FHWA conducted 10 rural transportation planning workshops involving 47 states in 1999. These workshops provided perspective on how different states are addressing rural planning challenges. These include mechanisms used by states to identify needs, develop plans, and program projects in rural areas within the context of the statewide, regional, county, and local planning processes. Exhibit II-1 summarizes the general conclusions, based on the FHWA workshops, which can be drawn regarding the challenges that face rural transportation planners.

Exhibit II-1: Challenges for Rural Transportation Planning

Challenge Findings
Making Plans Multimodal
  • Planning for different modes of transportation may be fragmented.
  • Rural transit plans appear to be mainly focused on keeping the existing system operational.[3]
  • Efforts to develop multimodal and intermodal plans are hampered by a variety of factors, including the lack of funding flexibility, the lack of a need to coordinate the plans, and the fact that different modes have different sponsors.
Planning and Prioritization
  • In many instances, the plan is the program.
  • The process for generating projects at the local and regional levels may be different depending on whether the project is eligible for Federal aid or not.
  • Much of rural planning involves extensive coordination with local officials, agencies, and other stakeholders.
Funding the Rural Transportation System
  • States' funding and maintenance responsibilities vary widely.
  • States vary in how the non-federal match is provided.
  • Most states share their Federal aid with local governments.
  • Some states using a regional approach suballocate some or all of their funds to the regions and then allow each region to actually select their own projects.
Coordinating Transportation Plans and Programs Successful rural transportation planning processes:
  • Establish a periodic process of meeting with planning counterparts to exchange information.
  • Using each plan as input into the development of other plans.
  • Develop a shared and consistent data collection and analysis strategy.
  • Develop a common set of assumptions for socioeconomic and demographic forecasts.
  • Establish common measurement and evaluation criteria for system and project selection.
Coordination with Economic Development Typically, economic development affects rural transportation planning in two ways:
  • Efforts to upgrade interregional highways (usually four lane divided highways or freeways) with the hope that they will induce business to relocate.
  • Efforts to accommodate a specific new plan proposal.
Land Use Coordination[4] The main land use trends facing rural areas that planning is addressing can be grouped into three categories:
  • Those rural areas that are experiencing urban spillover.
  • Those areas that are not experiencing growth and are interested in economic development issues.
  • Accommodating travel demands of new development.
Regional Planning
  • States that use Regional Planning Organizations(RPOs) are generally satisfied with them.
  • RPOs can be an effective mechanism for coordinating with Metropolitan Panning Organization (MPO) and statewide planning processes and plans.
  • For states that have instituted a regional approach to developing their transportation plans, the key element is what portion of the overall planning process is conducted regionally and what portion centrally.
  • Some states may use a regional approach but focus mainly on individual counties rather than regions (several counties).
  • Where RPOs are engaged in transportation planning, the staffing may be relatively independent from the state DOT, or may operate under contract to the state DOT.
  • The role of an RPO may also vary. Some are advisory while others have control over some of the transportation funds.
  • At the regional level, each agency may have different geographic boundaries.
Updated: 3/28/2012
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