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Planning for Transportation in Rural Areas

IV. Successful Rural Transportation Planning

This section provides an overview of issues to be resolved before starting the planning process, success factors and key elements to address for rural transportation plans, and approaches for public consultation and environmental review.

A. Getting Started...Questions to Answer First

Prior to preparing a rural transportation plan, decision-makers should be aware of the time, staff, budget, and other items that will be needed during the process. Preparing the transportation plan is a major undertaking. The best transportation plans will be the result of considerable effort during the preparation process. Extensive planning and thought will also be needed to successfully implement the process.

The answers to the questions listed below will help design your transportation planning process. Before beginning, decision-makers and staff should address the issues raised in each question. Planning for and addressing these questions will help ensure that adequate time and resources have been dedicated to the rural transportation planning effort.

B. Success Factors

The rural transportation planning process involves formalizing a decision-making structure to make informed choices that will ensure the best possible rural transportation system in the future, given available resources. The planning process will specify what the "best possible" system looks like.

Below are key success factors to strive for when developing a rural transportation plan. A rural transportation plan should:

Developing a rural transportation plan that addresses these success factors will help ensure that the significant energy involved in developing the plan will be worthwhile.

C. Public Consultation and Rural Transportation Planning

People gathered around a map showing proposed alternative routes for a new road.Public participation is a critical element of the rural transportation planning processes. It provides a structure in which citizens can develop an understanding of the state and regional transportation systems and how they operate. Successful rural planning requires a public consultation process that is proactive and provides complete information, provides timely public notices, and provides opportunities for early and continuous participation. Early issue identification and cooperative solution-building can reduce the potential for conflict later in the process.

Success factors for implementing an effective and inclusive public consultation process include:

The public involvement process provides for communication among all parties involved through public meetings, forums, and workshops. Citizens have access to information, plans, and programs for review and comment.

Key decisions to be made when designing your public consultation approach include:

The broad goals for public participation include keeping people informed and involved on a continual basis and facilitating cooperation and consensus building. Some of the public participation related responsibilities in developing rural transportation plans include:

1. Types of Involvement

Public involvement comes in many forms. Typically involvement comes from: outreach, data-gathering, and public participation. These broad categories can often overlap, with the understanding that their application to the planning process varies according to when they are used in the planning process.

Keep in mind that special techniques may also be appropriate for stimulating more participation. The public has grown very used to certain types of public involvement techniques. Introducing new or unusual public involvement techniques will help keep the process interesting and, hopefully, the ideas flowing. Examples of such techniques include sponsorship of special events such as transportation fairs, site visits, kiosks, videos, and so on. It is often effective to piggy-back plan related activities with ongoing community activities such as meetings of community groups, other organization newsletters, school activities, and so on.

Whatever techniques are implemented, take time at the end of the public involvement process to ask participants two key questions: what were some of the things they liked about the techniques(s), and what were some of the things that can be done better next time. This will help keep the process relevant and useful for all participants.

2. Transportation Action Model

The Transportation Action Model (TAM), initiated and designed by a national consortium led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is specifically designed for communities with a population of approximately 5,000 to 10,000. The TAM seeks to involve citizens at a grassroots level to plan for the future of their community. It was created with two guiding principles. First, sound transportation systems and the decisions behind them are critical to the social and economic well-being of communities. Second, informed community participation creates better transportation decisions.

The process, through a series of ten steps (including four meetings), facilitates improved understanding of, and involvement in, transportation planning by rural officials and citizens. The process is based upon a vision of transportation's future in the area as developed by the area's leaders and citizens through a "facilitated involvement effort" rather than upon traditional technical transportation planning procedures.

The TAM is a highly structured, 21-week process that includes creating public dialogue, identifying transportation issues, and developing solutions. Successful completion of the program should provide a blueprint for local action. Although it is specifically designed to address transportation problems, it intends to take a more integrated approach to identifying a community's needs and vision for its future.

More information on the Transportation Action Model (RRD 174) is available from:

North Central Regional Center for Rural Development
404 East Hall, Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011-1070

3. Systematic Development of Informed Consent

Some states have been using the Systematic Development of Informed Consent (SDIC) process, developed by Hans and Annemarie Bleiker of the Institute for Participatory Management and Planning, to help guide them in comprehensive public involvement planning. SDIC seeks to: 1) establish the public agency's legitimate role by casting its program as one aimed at problem-solving; and 2) communicate to the public the serious nature of the problem the agency is attempting to address. The premise of the SDIC process is that accomplishing these two objectives, in combination with a thorough public involvement process, will allow an agency to achieve informed consent. Informed consent is usually far short of unanimous support or consensus. It is, however, enough of an agreement such that each interest or individual with the capability of vetoing a proposed course of action is persuaded that they can live with the consequences.

The SDIC process identifies 15 citizen participation objectives aimed at developing informed consent. They are grouped into three categories: Responsibility Objectives, Responsiveness Objectives, and Effectiveness Objectives. It is critical to an effectively designed and administered public involvement program to ensure that the techniques and methods of involvement are connected to the objective that needs to be achieved.

More information about the SDIC process can be obtained by contacting:

The Institute for Participatory Management and Planning
P.O. Box 1937
Monterey, CA 93942

4. Process for Involving Local Elected Officials

In the 1990's, the federal government's surface transportation programs underwent a significant restructuring. These statutory changes began with ISTEA in 1991, and carried through into the 1998 reauthorization of federal surface transportation programs in TEA-21. Prominent among the programs was changes to metropolitan and statewide planning processes. These changes include revised language addressing the long-standing requirements for involving local officials in both (1) planning transportation systems, and (2) programming the use of federal-aid funds at least three years into the future for highway and transit purposes, consistent with the long range plans.

Outside metropolitan areas (i.e. in rural areas), the state DOTs are required to conduct their statewide planning and programming "in consultation with" local officials, and to make decisions about spending certain federal-aid funds "in cooperation with" local officials. No particular methods or structures are required in the law or related regulations for accomplishing these consultations and cooperative activities.

There is a wide range of approaches in place in different states that meet this requirement. Regardless of the approach used, it is important that how input from local officials is to be included be established early in the planning process and documented. There are a number of benefits of involving local stakeholders in rural transportation planning, including:

A useful resource that provides insights on public involvement coordination and the involvement of public officials in the rural transportation planning process is the Federal Transit Administration's Planning Guidelines for Coordinated State and Local Specialized Transportation Services.

How to Give Effective Community Presentations[6]

Public presentations can be one of the most effective methods of conveying messages and addressing community issues. Here are some ways to make your community presentation interesting and effective:

  1. Know your audience. Understand who they are and what their concerns are. What matters to a group of seniors will be different from what matters to a PTA group. This will require some research and will determine everything about how you prepare the presentation.
  2. Customize your materials to suit your audience. Some audiences respond better to a slide show, others better to charts and graphs.
  3. Time is of the essence. Keep your presentations as short as possible and avoid going over the allotted time.
  4. Avoid being too technical. Keep in mind that in most cases you're much closer to the issue than the audience is. Your presentation is likely being dome to familiarize and educate a group on issues that most directly affect them. Save the more technical explanations for one-on-one meetings, and avoid acronyms!
  5. Leave it to the experts. Once you've determined what is going to be presented, make sure it is going to be presented by a credible source.
  6. Prepare an outline. Your points will be most effective if made in an orderly fashion. Good outlines keep you from skipping important points and prevent rambling presentations.
  7. Practice, practice, practice. Schedule a practice run at least two days before the presentation. This will leave enough time for any changes or adjustments that may need to be made. All people involved in the presentation should participate.
  8. Be flexible. Sometimes the audience wants more or something other than what you've prepared. Go with the flow.
  9. Anticipate questions. Start by writing out a list of questions you're likely to be asked, then ask others to help you practice. Make sure you know the answers. If you don't know the answer, be honest, but get back with an answer ASAP.
  10. Don't let all of your preparation go to waste. Make sure that you have the equipment necessary to present your materials. Be sure you bring and test overhead projectors, VCRs, outlets, easels, extra light bulbs, and batteries if they aren't going to be provided.
  11. Leave them something they can reference. Bring handouts of material presented and contacts for further information.
  12. Follow up while the issues are still fresh in their minds. Be certain that any requests for additional information or contacts are immediately returned following he presentation.

D. Key Transportation Planning Elements to Address

A key decision for your rural planning process is to determine the network of transportation facilities to be addressed by the plan and to identify the other plans with which coordination needs to take place. Successful rural transportation planning should address the following important planning elements:

1.System Performance and Preservation

2.Mobility and Access for People and Goods

3. Environment and Quality of Life

4. Planning Coordination

As a guide for developing rural transportation plans, the basic steps used to develop statewide transportation plans are presented in Appendix A. The steps outlined are not to be considered prescriptive, nor are they required. Each rural transportation planning process is unique and should be tailored to best meet local circumstances and needs.

E. Incorporating Environmental Review

Beyond the planning stage, environmental considerations play an important role in the development of a rural transportation project. Only when a proposed transportation project can be shown to not adversely affect the environment, or have its impact avoided, minimized or mitigated, can a transportation project advance into the construction phase of the STIP. Most Federal and state laws, rules and regulations, and policies relating to transportation attest to the importance of maintaining the quality of the environment. Therefore, it is useful to have a general understanding of the region's environment, as well as state and federal environmental regulations and requirements, when developing transportation plans.

It is useful in the early stage of plan development to compile existing information on the study area environment as part of the base on which the proposed regional transportation improvements will be superimposed. This will, at a broad level, allow planners to understand the likelihood of any potential adverse impacts associated with construction. Areas of concern include the potential impact on air quality, land use, noise levels, water quality, wetlands, flood plains, threatened and endangered wildlife, historical and archaeological sites, and hazardous materials sites. Where possible, identification of sites where proposed transportation improvements may potentially impact the environment or are presumed to be environmentally sensitive should be highlighted for more detailed analysis. It is important to note that the potential environmental impact of a plan development should not, in and of itself, be the reason to remove a project from the proposed rural transportation plan.

If it is determined that a project from the rural transportation plan is to be proposed for construction using federal funds, it is required that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) be followed. It is within these NEPA documents that various alternatives and mitigation measures relating to environmental concerns will be fully addressed. The findings from an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Study (EIS) are the legal basis that determine if, and under which conditions, a transportation project can be built.

The Environmental Guidebook produced by FHWA in November 1999 is a useful resource for understanding environmental regulations and environmental review as it relates to transportation planning. The guidebook is available on the World Wide Web at

Updated: 10/20/2015
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