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Planning for Transportation in Rural Areas

Appendix A: Basic Steps Used to Develop Transportation Plans

This appendix presents the basic steps used to develop transportation plans, based on the statewide transportation planning process, as a guide for developing rural transportation plans. 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. Exhibit A-1 shows the most important steps that will be discussed in this section.

Exhibit A-1: Basic Components of Rural Transportation Planning

For a Given Rural Transportation System

Text Box: PUBLIC CONSULTATION Text Box: PUBLIC CONSULTATION A sequential listing of the eight basic components of rural transportation planning

Public consultation is perhaps the single most important component of transportation planning. Public consultation should take place throughout the entire planning process and it is an integral component to many of the steps. Detail on public consultation is presented in Section IV of this document.

Step 1: Establish Policy Goals and Objectives

Transportation planning is most significant when it establishes "top down" policy goals for the transportation system. These goals provide the overall umbrella under which the transportation system is operated, maintained and developed. To be most useful the goals should be specific enough to guide the development of the plan but not too inflexible to respond to changing conditions and implementation priorities.

Success factors for the development of policy goals and objectives include:

The greater the specificity of the goals, the harder it is to reach agreement. For example, most transportation plans include goals that address mobility or economic development. It is easy to reach agreement over broad goals but becomes more difficult when the goals are further developed to specify strategies or actions and priorities to address them.

When developing the policy statements for rural transportation plans it is not always necessary to be elaborate. For example, in a very effective transportation plan produced by Hutchinson County in Minnesota[8] the policy goals are straightforward. The goals are to "...establish a balanced and integrated transportation system that:

For the Route 16 Corridor study prepared by the DOT and four regional planning agencies in the state of New Hampshire[9], the policy goal was the following single statement:

To demonstrate an innovative approach to developing a long-range solution to the problem of providing an efficient transportation system which promotes economic vitality and high quality of life for the residents of communities and visitors to the regions served by the Route 16 Corridor.

Some plans establish measurable objectives for the transportation system. Below are a few examples of objectives that were developed for the Quad County Regional Transportation Planning Organization in Washington State.[10] Quad County is comprised of Adams, Grant, Kittitas, and Lincoln Counties in central/eastern Washington. This plan developed objectives under the categories of general, coordination, system capacity and improvement, roadway, public transportation, and land use. Some example general objectives are as follows:

  1. Support economic vitality and growth.
  2. Ensure that growth and change in the transportation system within and near local jurisdictions are consistent with the regional and local comprehensive and transportation plans for those jurisdictions.
  3. Provide a tool for the communities to use that will guide transportation system development to make it consistent with and supportive of area comprehensive plans.
  4. Ensure consistency with environmental rules and regulations.
  5. Emphasize the movement of goods and people rather than the movement of vehicles.
  6. Wherever possible, preserve existing rail lines and reserve abandoned rail lines through compatible use in accordance with the Washington State Rail Transportation Plan.
  7. Consider the most cost-effective mode or modes of transportation for the overall good of the region.
  8. Apply minimum standards for operating conditions, classification schemes, and performance measures uniformly on the regional system.
  9. Identify and implement strategies to resolve constraints to intermodal connections.
  10. Identify and implement strategies to take advantage of opportunities for new and enhanced intermodal connections and alternative transportation modes.

Every rural area will of course have different priorities and, therefore, different goals and objectives. The important thing is that they are developed in a consultative manner, are measurable, and are used to guide plan development.

Step 2: Conduct Conditions Analysis

Conducting a conditions analysis is the process of determining how your community or rural area will measure the condition of the system and the service provided for vehicles, transit, and non-motorized modes (bicycles and pedestrians). Service objectives for roadways may include consideration of roadway capacity, design, and safety. Examples of transit service standards are population coverage and frequency of service.

Success factors for conducting an effective conditions analysis include:

1. Measurement/Monitoring of Existing Conditions

The steps involved in the measurement and monitoring of existing conditions are as follows:

The types of condition information fall into the following categories:



Extent of the rural system - basic inventory

  • Physical inventory
  • Services available

Use of system

  • Traffic, ridership, etc.

Physical conditions/performance.

  • Pavement, bridges, transit equipment

Operational conditions/performance.

  • Mobility
  • Safety

2. Forecasting Future Conditions

Plans are future oriented. While they typically respond to a backlog of needs, they should address future conditions and plan for them. In rural areas, straightforward approaches can be used to forecast future conditions.

There are a number of ways to estimate travel demand within the rural transportation planning context. These range from simple techniques such as historical trend analysis to variants of more complex computer models that require large databases of demographic and socioeconomic information to forecast travel demand. Simplified demand estimation techniques and analysis are appropriate in most rural planning situations.

Historical trend analysis which estimates transportation demand by plotting historical demand levels over time and then extrapolating the trend into the future is one starting point for demand estimation in rural transportation planning areas. However, there are some drawbacks that need to be kept in mind as these numbers are developed. First, and foremost, the assumption under this proposal maintains that all factors and relationships affecting demand (such as transportation capacity improvements, demographic shifts, inflation, fluctuations in the price of fuel, etc.) remain constant over time. If one or more of these factors change, there could be a shift in demand.

In addition to the historical trend analysis discussed above, simplified versions of more complex techniques, which tend to focus on the impacts of a number of key factors influencing transportation demand, are now available and are being used by some transportation planners and consultants. These may also be appropriate for use in rural transportation planning. One approach is to take population and economic forecasts for your area and use the relationship between these corridors and travel demand to generate some growth factors.

The demand analysis should identify all perceived mobility issues, impediments, and opportunities in the region. For example, if a section of roadway is thought to be unsafe and safety improvements are proposed, a detailed accident history should be compiled to support the assessment. Or, if the transportation of the elderly and/or disabled is felt to be an important transportation need, then various findings from state, regional, and local transit needs and benefits studies should provide the supporting documentation. The state DOT will be able to provide modal data to assist in this analysis. This will include such things as traffic volumes, volume/capacity ratios, accident rates, transit ridership, the core rail system, etc.

Step 3: Perform Needs Analysis

Rural transportation system needs are most usefully assessed by evaluating the gap between the goals and objectives that are established for the transportation system and the baseline system conditions. The needs are the planned actions for addressing this gap. How much can be implemented over the planning horizon will depend in large part on finance levels. A successful needs analysis should:

1. Gap Analysis

The needs analysis can be used to determine broad but different categories of need for achieving planning goals. A first step in needs assessment is to measure the gap between the transportation system goals and current objectives and conditions. This requires a set of goals and objectives that can be quantified and relate to the operational and physical condition of the transportation system. The results of this gap analysis are often referred to as deficiencies.

2. Evaluation of Alternative Strategies and Actions to Address the Gap

The purpose of this step is to assess the cost and impacts on system condition of alternative strategies or improvements that address needs. For long range planning purposes the needs areas can be grouped different ways. They can be organized for the different elements of the transportation system (roads, bridges, rail, etc.) and different policy goal areas (mobility, safety, preservation, economic development environmental etc.) that are established in the plan. Evaluation can be undertaken at a "coarse" level to consider the full range of alternative strategies and identify those meriting further consideration. These can be then subject to more detailed analysis.

3.Select Strategies and Actions - Identify Costs

The strategies and actions selected to address deficiencies determine the magnitude of the plan needs. In most states, this decision making takes place at a combination of policy and planning levels. For the rural transportation plan, the evaluation of alternative strategies for addressing deficiencies is best considered as technical information that is an input into the policy and goal setting process that selects transportation system strategies. In this way the plan needs are driven by the overall policy goals and strategies established in the plan.

Once a plan strategy is developed, the cost of implementing this strategy defines the needs. The total cost of the plan improvements is important for determining implementation. This is developed by determining the cost of implementing the selected strategies. On the highway side, there are well-established unit costs that can be applied to develop needs estimates for improvements. Unit costs can be developed and inflation accounted for. For other modes there are less well established methods, however, most state DOTs are now working on developing consistent assumptions and a rigorous approach for developing cost estimates for other modes.

Step 4: Set Priorities

Since rural transportation needs typically outweigh expected revenues, it is important to prioritize the needs identified during the rural transportation planning process. Given the often overwhelming number of potential improvements it is important that the planning process has an agreed upon approach to project prioritization. This approach will need to consider whether to apply the following type of prioritization methods: (1) sufficiency measures, (2) benefit-cost analysis, or (3) multiple criteria analysis.

The key success factors for setting priorities are:

1. Sufficiency Measures

Sufficiency measures allow the comparison of projects that have different characteristics. They are used primarily for programming highway and bridge projects. Sufficiency ratings/measures for highway projects are based upon weightings assigned to different categories of need - for roadways this often includes:

Scores for each characteristic are added and then projects are ranked according to their relative importance. Weights are assigned to each characteristic according to its importance. For example, if condition has a weight of 40, safety has a weight of 30, and service has a weight of 30, then a project receiving 100 points would be in excellent condition, safe, and traffic would move smoothly.

Some of the issues with sufficiency ratings is that the rating systems must often be modified to account for projects with critical deficiency in one category and/or social, economic, and environmental considerations.

2. Benefit-Cost Analysis

Benefit-cost analysis typically considers only direct benefits and costs of transportation improvement projects. The approach is generally well understood, however it is important that all assumptions be documented. There are three main factors in traditional calculation of benefit-cost ratios: time savings, vehicle operating savings, and accident reduction.

Current dollars should be used in calculating benefit-cost ratios. Inflation and the time value is accounted for by using discount rates. They are important to benefit-cost analysis because benefits and costs occur at different times, there is a time value of money, and there is an opportunity cost of capital. A discount rate of 4-8 percent is typically used in benefit-cost analysis. One of the issues associated with the use of benefit-cost analysis is that it can be criticized for its narrow focus of benefits/costs and excluding externalities or full costs.

3. Multiple Criteria Analysis

Multiple criteria analysis evaluates transportation projects based on factors other than those related strictly to the direct use of the facilities. These include social, economic, and environmental factors. The following are example criteria for this type of project prioritization:



Public Support

Projects have the support of the transportation stakeholders and the general public as a result of focusing on customer service and obtaining their early and ongoing involvement in the planning of the project.


Projects reduce congestion either by reducing demand for trips, shifting the demand to alternative modes, or implementing operational improvements.


Projects enhance transportation safety by emphasizing the security and safety of the traveler or by addressing existing or potential hazardous or unsafe situations.


Projects avoid and minimize if necessary, impacts to water, air and other resources; minimize energy use; and minimize noise pollution.

System Continuity

Projects address gaps in the transportation system and improve regional connections.

Preservation of System

Projects maintain and preserve the existing transportation infrastructure in order to repair or replace inadequacies or to extend the useful life of a facility.

Economic Impact

Projects support regional economic development goals.


Projects improve connections between different modes of transportation or support modes other than the single occupant vehicle.

Ability to Implement

Projects should be technologically sound and have achievable acquisition and approval requirements.

Once it has been decided on the criteria to use, a decision should then be made as to how each criterion will be weighted. The weight assignments should be determined by assessing the importance of each criterion in meeting the transportation plan's visions and goals. An example might be to weight "system preservation" with a weight of 15; while assigning a weight of 10 for "inter/multimodal", depending on the plan's vision, values, and goals. The sum of the weights should total 100.

In addition to the weighting, a score should be applied to each criterion. The scoring could range from one to three, for example, with 1 representing poor impact and 3 representing good impact. The score is then multiplied by the weight to determine the Total Weighted Points for each project. The projects can then be ranked to represent the priority for project funding consideration.

Step 5: Establish Funding Plan

The transportation plan needs to be realistic and usually that means fundable. A financial analysis of the transportation plan will help to ensure that it is realistic. Without tying transportation projects to reliable funding, the recommended solutions that are developed can easily become a "wish list". However, limiting solutions to projects that do not exceed available revenue could result in providing a lower level of service than the community desires. Principles for developing a funding plan include:

1. Financial Planning Steps

The following steps can be used to develop the transportation finance analysis:

  1. Identify transportation needs and solutions.
  2. Develop cost estimates for solutions.
  3. Assess the ability to pay for these projects and services.
  4. Develop financing policies.
  5. Forecast revenue from existing and potential sources.
  6. Develop a financing schedule by matching transportation projects and services to revenue projections.
  7. Establish policies to govern the management of the transportation financing program.

These steps are not strictly sequential. For example, forecasting revenue from existing and potential sources can proceed at the same time as identification of transportation needs.

2. Cost Estimates

Cost estimates are necessary to compare the transportation needs with available revenues. Costs should be estimated for:

It is important to estimate maintenance and operation costs as these will likely use a majority of the existing revenue resources. Estimates can usually be based on existing historic data. The information required is likely to be available from the finance officer of the city/county and the transit agency. Estimates of new costs for facilities and services will generally be based on a combination of rough estimates and specific cost estimates. Cost estimates based on preliminary engineering, right-of-way appraisals, or operating plans only need to be done for the most immediate recommended improvements.

Most of the recommended improvements in a long-range transportation plan will need an "order-of-magnitude" cost estimate. These estimates are based on factors such as typical "per mile" construction costs for different types of roadways or the operating costs for similar transit services in other counties.

3. Available Funding Sources

Revenues generated for transportation-related projects originate from a number of federal, state and local sources. Most states allocate a portion of their federal aid to local governments. The method used varies. Some states use a formula that reflects each agency's share of federal aid highway mileage and traffic. In other cases it is less specific and varies from year to year. Some states with regional planning processes suballocate varying amounts of their funds to the regions and then allow each region to actually select their own projects. Other states may only allow their regions to recommend projects.

Each jurisdiction needs to identify current funding sources, anticipated funds available, and any non-funded needs. In determining funds available, each jurisdiction should identify what public funds will be used and whether private sector funding will be collected. Three useful resources to identify available funding sources are:

Serving Rural America - US Department of Transportation Rural Program Guide, US Department of Transportation, 1999. This document can be ordered through the USDOT website at

This document outlines all federal funding programs available to rural America. It lists the purpose of the program, eligible projects, contacts, and funding available. This is the single best resource for federal programs to assist rural areas with transportation funding. Programs include safe communities, surface transportation safety grant programs, Aviation programs, surface transportation planning, training, and technical assistance, surface transportation construction programs, rail programs, transit programs, special purpose programs (such as job access, coordinated border infrastructure program, etc.), maritime programs, and community and environmental programs.

The next useful document is Financing the Statewide Plan: A Guidebook. Prepared by Dye Management Group, Inc. for the Federal Highway Administration, Office of Statewide Planning, 1999. This document can be downloaded from FHWA's Office of Statewide Planning website:

This document discusses funding sources at all levels and provides guidance on developing funding plans as part of the overall planning process. This document also addresses new and alternative funding sources for transportation projects.

The USDOT and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Transportation Toolbox for Rural Areas and Small Communities was designed to assist public and private stakeholders in planning, developing, and improving rural areas and small communities, especially through transportation and related projects. The website contains information on a wide range of USDA and USDOT programs, including the components of the USDOT Rural Initiative and programs from such USDA programs as Rural Housing and Rural Development. The website address is:

Step 6: Develop the Plan

Developing the plan document or "putting it all together" can be a difficult process if not approached in a systematic fashion. Key success factors for developing plans include:

During the planning process, all technical data and methodologies used should be documented. All references and other reports cited should also be documented. A model outline for a rural transportation plan is provided in Exhibit V-2.

Exhibit V-2
General Transportation Plan Format


Provides an overall summary of the plan's objectives, methodology, findings, and recommendations.


This section presents the overall vision, goals, objectives developed during the planning process. These form the overall umbrella for the direction of the transportation plan in terms of plan priorities.


Chapter I. Introduction

The introduction outlines the purpose of the plan, the plan participants, and the organization of the document.

Chapter II. Existing Conditions

This section presents the existing condition of the transportation system in terms of:

  • Roadways (road and bridge conditions, traffic volumes, safety, other criteria).
  • Public or quasi-public transportation (transit, school bus, emergency service routes and facilities, air, and water).
  • Non-motorized transportation (bicycle pathways, pedestrian pathways, equestrian routes).
  • Land use and population considerations, plans and programs of other agencies and jurisdictions, and county-wide policies.

Chapter III. Traffic Forecasts

This section presents historical traffic trends, population and land use trends, population and demographic projections, population distribution, future land use map, future traffic projections and trends.

Chapter IV. Alternative Strategies Evaluation

The alternative strategies evaluation section presents the determination of needs based upon existing conditions and traffic. It forecasts the evaluation of alternatives for traffic safety, level of service and congestion, environmental impacts, financing, community support, and consistency with plans of other agencies and jurisdictions.

Chapter V. Priorities and Recommendations

This section presents prioritized recommendations for improvements to the area transportation system including: level of service, new corridors, road widenings, spot/intersection widenings, realignments or channelization, traffic control or signalization, shoulder improvements, paving, bridge replacements, or other physical improvements, pedestrian, bicycle, or equestrian improvements, transit and transit facilities, and land use/transportation linkages.

Chapter VI. The Financing Element of the Plan

The financing section presents cost estimates for identified improvements, potential financing options, re-assessment of identified improvements based upon financial constraints, and the three-year transportation improvement program for the area.

Chapter VII. Implementation and Monitoring

This section provides the plan for continually monitoring the performance of the transportation system to determine the progress being made in improving system performance and to identify additional areas of improvement.


A. References

B. Technical Data and Methodologies

C. Excerpts from other Reports

Step 7: Develop the Program

Programming refers to a series of activities carried out by planners, including data assessment, appraisal of identified planning needs, and consideration of available or anticipated fiscal resources to result in the drawing up, scheduling, and planning of a list of identified transportation improvements for a given period of time. The programming of projects for funding should consider:

  1. Timing of the need for improvements (i.e., when the facility falls below the locally established level of service under assumed growth rates).
  2. Timing for fund availability.

Often plans will require more funds than are available from federal, state, and local sources traditionally dedicated to transportation funding. This means that the agencies engaged in rural planning should identify funding mechanisms to support implementation of the transportation plan or reassess their desired levels of service.

Step 8: Implement and Monitor the Plan

For a plan to be successful it must be implemented effectively and progress against plan objectives monitored, this provides "the feedback loop". Transportation planning includes continually monitoring the performance of the transportation system and ensuring that plans are being implemented to meet the intended objectives.

The success factors for implementation and monitoring of the rural transportation plan include:

Many transportation plans have failed because they lacked an effective implementation plan and monitoring mechanism. These are required to "keep the plan alive" and ensure that the plan guides and shapes transportation decisions in the future.

Updated: 5/23/2012
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