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Planning for Transportation in Rural Areas

III. Responsibility for Rural Planning

This section describes how various jurisdictional levels address rural transportation planning including roles, responsibilities, and alternative jurisdictional approaches. The Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century planning factors are also presented.

A. Areas of Responsibility

Rural transportation planning is undertaken by small towns and cities, counties, regional planning organizations (RPOs), and state DOTs. There is considerable variation between different states since they have different laws and jurisdictional structures. For example, in some states such as Alabama or Mississippi the county engineer plays a very direct role, stated in law, in rural planning and project needs identification. In other states there are regional planning organizations made up of a number of counties that prepare regional plans and identify project priorities for their region. In general, the agency that has jurisdiction over the area transportation system takes the lead in developing transportation needs, plans, and programs. However, this varies due to the fact that state and federal programs fund many projects that are not under the jurisdiction of the state. In the case of these projects, the state DOT often has a partnership role, if not lead role, in planning.

There are four general areas of responsibility for rural transportation planning. They are as follows:

How these four areas of coordination and public involvement planning, programming, and funding are navigated in developing rural transportation plans is different in most every state. In general, the following holds true for areas of responsibility for rural transportation planning:

Geographic scale is an important consideration for transportation planning. Local and regional agencies tend to plan for smaller, more localized projects, while the state DOT usually takes a system-wide approach. The system-wide approach often, but not always, generates projects of a larger magnitude than those developed through local and regional plans. While the extent of planning varies between small cities, counties, urban areas, regions, and the state, all of these jurisdictions develop transportation capital improvement programs of one form or another. In most small cities and counties, transportation projects are a component of the local capital improvement programs (CIP), while MPOs, RPOs, and the state DOT, through a cooperative process, produce a regional and statewide transportation improvement program.

B. Jurisdictional Approaches

The identification of rural transportation plans, needs and projects takes place at different levels. Where rural transportation needs are addressed in the hierarchy of statewide and subarea plans differs between states for many reasons. These reasons have to do with state law, geography, economy, population density, level of urbanization, and institutional roles. In general, there are three (3) different approaches to planning for rural areas. States often have different approaches for different modes.

Three Types of Rural Transportation Planning:

1. State-led Planning Approach

Under a state-led approach, rural transportation planning, project prioritization, and funding for state and/or federally funded projects is undertaken through a process led by the state DOT. The state DOT, through its region or district engineers, determines statewide rural project needs, develops transportation plans, and determines priorities and funding for state and/or federally funded rural transportation projects.

Under this approach, region or district engineers consult with city and county agencies or regional planning organizations and government officials to determine the needs and priorities for these jurisdictions. The planning process then makes trade-offs amongst the different projects from the jurisdictions to determine plan needs and project priorities.

This process often involves very direct public involvement from local agencies regarding their project priorities. The DOT often becomes involved in public consultation during the project development phase, especially where the project is sufficiently complex to warrant it.

The statewide planning process often provides the basis for making funding allocations between urban and rural areas and between different categories of roads. Ideally, these allocations are policy-driven and structured to target funds on meeting statewide and local objectives. However, funding is often prescribed by state laws to suballocations to systems and geographic areas.



  • It is clear who has responsibility for developing the Statewide Long Range Transportation Plan and the STIP.
  • State DOT can ensure that a statewide multimodal systems approach is maintained for the state (state system, transit and other modes, corridors, National Highway System).
  • State DOT generally has sufficient trained staff to do planning.
  • Often prioritization process is unclear for local and county projects - can be a "black box".
  • Local priorities can get lost in the process.
  • Local projects may not compete well against the state system.

2. Local- or Regional-led Planning Approach

Under a local- or regional-led planning approach, rural transportation planning, project prioritization, and funding for state and/or federally funded projects is undertaken through a process led by local municipalities, counties, and/or RPOs with the state at the table as a key stakeholder. Rural project needs and priorities are developed in regional plans. The local/regional plans are then used to build up the statewide plan and the STIP.

Under this approach the state DOT interfaces with the local and regional agencies to develop the long-range plan and the STIP. Public involvement for developing local and county project priorities is undertaken by the local and county jurisdictions under the local- or regional-led planning approach.

Funding allocations for state and/or federally funded projects are still generally made by state DOT headquarters under the local- or regional-led planning structure but the local/regional agencies have input or authority over how the funds are used in their jurisdictions.



  • Local and regional priorities get reflected in the local and regional plans.
  • Local and regional agencies have a good understanding of their project needs.
  • In states with many counties, regional plans provide an efficient mechanism for state/local consultation.
  • Plans tend to focus on local and regional needs and may lose sight of overall system needs.
  • Transit and other modes may be centralized.
  • Local priorities can still get lost in the statewide plan and STIP produced by the state DOT.

3. Combination or Mixed Planning Approach

In reality, most states have some combination or mixed approach to rural transportation planning. Of course, there is a continuum of mixed approaches between the state-led and the local- or regional-led approaches. Generally under a combination approach the state DOT takes at a minimum a policy setting role, while local/regional agencies have varying degrees of control over planning, prioritization and allocation of transportation funds to specific projects.

There are differences in how project needs are identified according to the jurisdictional structure of a state. In states where there are RPOs, the state DOT might coordinate with the RPO, and the RPO with the counties and municipalities to consolidate and prioritize needs. Where RPOs do not exist, the state will generally have some sort of process for working with counties and municipalities to identify and prioritize needs to develop statewide plans.

Funding allocations under a combination planning approach will likely be made by the state DOT and, again, there will be differences in how this takes place depending on the jurisdictional and institutional structure of the state. For example, funding allocations may be made based on lane miles, population, other measures of need, geographic suballocation, political priorities, or some combination of these.



  • If structured well, can provide both local/regional and overall statewide systems perspective.
  • Can allow state DOT to perform a policy setting and technical guidance role.
  • What portion of the plan will be developed regionally and what portion centrally may not be well defined.

C. Statewide Planning Roles

Decisions made in the planning process determine the extent and level of detail of planning that will take place at the rural corridor and rural subarea levels, who will do the planning, and how rural transportation needs will be coordinated across the statewide, corridor, regional, and local levels. Exhibit III-1 shows the different levels through which transportation planning addresses rural areas.

1. Statewide Planning Role

Statewide transportation planning includes rural and urban areas, and includes the state system and federal-aid system. The passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991 for the first time required that statewide multimodal transportation planning occur as part of the federally supported transportation program. Specifically, states must prepare a multimodal long range plan and a short range transportation improvement program. Multimodal planning includes efforts to improve all components of a state's transportation system, including airports, transit facilities and services, intercity passenger and freight rail, ports, and inland water navigation. Congress reaffirmed this characteristic of statewide transportation planning when it passed the Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) in 1998.

Statewide transportation planning is the process of answering very basic questions about the future transportation system and what society wants for this future. This includes, at the statewide level, consideration of the rural system. A major product of statewide multimodal transportation planning is information to decision makers, stakeholders, transportation system customers, and the general public on the transportation and societal consequences of proposed actions (or inaction). There are different types of plans produced by the statewide transportation planning process.

Statewide transportation planning concerns not only state-operated transportation facilities, but also a variety of transportation issues that occur at the regional or local levels.

Policy plans - these plans provide a policy framework to guide transportation planning and decision-making. These policies should address rural transportation issues.

Action plans - these plans recommend action steps that will be undertaken to implement policies and goals. The action plan will describe the course of action for addressing the rural issues.

Exhibit III-1: Transportation Planning Jurisdictional Roles

Overall Statewide Planning

  • Multimodal Statewide Transportation Plan
  • Modal Plans
  • Policy Plans
  • System Level Needs

To and From

Rural Corridor/Regional/Subarea and Urban Planning

  • Needs
  • Plans
  • Priorities

Rural Corridor/Regional/Subarea

  • Level of planning detail must be determined.
  • Who will do the planning must be determined.
  • Process for integrating into the statewide planning process must be determined.


  • Urban planning done by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).
  • Established requirements and processes.

To and From


  • Statewide Transportation Improvement Programs (STIPs)
  • Local, Regional, and Urban Capital Improvement Programs (CIPs) and Transportation Improvement Programs (TIPs)

Corridor plans - These plans identify investment strategies at a macro-corridor level where the corridors are identified as being of statewide significance. These plans are usually a collaborative process and they often go through rural areas. They vary in their level of detail, but many specify the "level of development".

Systems plans - These plans provide a statewide systems perspective on the problems and opportunities associated with the transportation system. They develop an assessment of needs that are primarily associated with the condition of the transportation infrastructure. This approach focuses on the interrelationships among the different components of the system. System planning can provide a quantification of rural needs.

Modal plans - these plans are often components of the system plan and focus on long term needs, policies, and finance for individual modes (highway, rail, air, transit, etc.). These modal plans should address rural issues.

Project plans - these plans identify and evaluate specific projects that have been determined to have statewide significance.

Statewide Plan Documents: The statewide planning process sets statewide transportation policy and usually provides high level direction for the type, magnitude, and timeframe of improvements that will preserve and/or enhance the state's transportation system. The planning documents produced cover at least a twenty-year horizon and are statewide in scope so that system connectivity is achieved. The statewide process usually:

The statewide planning process aims to reflect the needs and desires of a wide variety of stakeholders and transportation system customers. Through comprehensive public involvement efforts, those most affected by the performance of the transportation system, along with those who provide transportation services, are given numerous opportunities to contribute to the development of the plan.

Statewide Transportation Improvement Program: States in cooperation with other units of government produce the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) that describes those projects that will be implemented over (at least) the following three years. The STIP includes all capital and noncapital projects or phases of transportation project development that will use federal transportation dollars. In addition, the STIP must include all regionally significant transportation projects requiring federal approval or permits, even if no federal dollars are to be used in the construction.

The type of information provided for each project in the STIP includes project description, estimated cost, federal funds for each year, category of federal funds and source of nonfederal funds for year one, likely sources of funding beyond year one, and responsible agency for project implementation. Importantly, the STIP must be financially constrained to available revenues for each year found in the document. This means that information should be provided on which projects will be implemented using available revenues and which are to be implemented using proposed new revenues.

Rural Improvement: The main issue around statewide planning from a rural perspective is how are rural needs addressed as part of the process, as shown in Exhibit III-2. Rural needs generally make their way into the Statewide Long Range Transportation Plan and STIP from corridor and regional/subarea plans developed in rural areas. The process through which it happens varies from state to state.

Exhibit III-2: Rural Needs as Part of the Statewide System

Picture of a puzzle. Title: Rural needs are a part of the Statewide System. Puzzle piece text: Rural System.  How are rural needs identified? How are rural priorities addressed? Main text: Statewide system: Addresses statewide system needs, federal-aid system. Level of detail varies (policy plans, system plans, modal plans)

2. Role of Corridor and Regional/Subarea Plans

Rural transportation needs are often identified through corridor and region/subarea plans developed in rural areas. Statewide needs analyses that address rural areas are often drawn from these rural area plans. Regional/subarea plans include those developed by small cities and towns, counties, councils of government, or Regional Planning Organizations (RPOs). At the corridor and regional/subarea levels, cities, counties, and RPOs develop area capital improvement programs (CIPs) or transportation improvement programs (TIPs) for projects both on and off the state and federal-aid system. Projects geared toward the state and federal-aid system are often the ones which the rural area wishes to be considered for the statewide plan and STIP. Often, projects off the state and federal-aid system are funded by a variety of revenue sources in different states. Those include local general funds, sales taxes and transfers from the state for local transportation projects.

The main jurisdictional issues for corridor and regional/subarea plans are:

D. TEA-21 Planning Factors

The statewide planning process must comply with the federal law governing statewide planning. Section 1204 of the Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) provides the planning factors to be used in the development of statewide transportation plans. Understanding these planning factors and incorporating them to the extent possible in rural areas will ensure that rural transportation plans will integrate with and enhance the development of statewide plans. The TEA-21 planning factors are as follows:

(a) Each statewide transportation planning process shall provide for consideration of projects and strategies that will:

  1. Support the economic vitality of the United States, the States, and metropolitan areas, especially by enabling global competitiveness, productivity and efficiency;
  2. Increase the safety and security of the transportation system for motorized and nonmotorized users;
  3. Increase the accessibility and mobility options available to people and for freight;
  4. Protect and enhance the environment, promote energy conservation, and improve quality of life;
  5. Enhance the integration and connectivity of the transportation system, across and between modes throughout the State, for people and freight;
  6. Promote efficient system management and operation; and
  7. Emphasize the preservation of the existing transportation system.

(b) In addition, in carrying out statewide transportation planning, the State shall consider, at a minimum, the following other factors and issues that the planning process participants might identify which are important considerations within the statewide transportation planning process:

  1. With respect to nonmetropolitan areas, the concerns of local elected officials representing units of general purpose local government; and
  2. The concerns of Indian Tribal Governments and Federal land management agencies that have jurisdiction over land within the boundaries of the state.

These requirements are addressed through a variety of planning approaches and processes in different states.

Updated: 3/28/2012
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