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Serving Rural America

Enhancing Transportation Decision Making

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) provides more money for transportation in rural areas than ever before. But the only sure way to influence how this money is spent is by involvement in the transportation planning process. To date, transportation planning for rural areas has been uneven at best - effective in some areas, but relatively neglected in others. The Department of Transportation is committed to improving transportation planning for all areas because the benefits of comprehensive planning are clear. Officials must have sound information on which to base investment decisions, especially given the complexity of transportation issues, including the associated environmental and community concerns.

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Transportation problems in rural areas vary greatly from state to state and within states. Rural areas that are in decline economically, but are interested in economic development, are seeking ways to preserve and improve their transportation system - air service, rail service, transit service and the highway system. Areas that are experiencing growth are concerned about meeting the growing demand for transportation while alleviating congestion and addressing growth management and environmental issues. In all cases, there is widespread recognition among rural residents, businesses, and community leaders that effective transportation is vital to attaining social, economic, and environmental objectives.

The range of transportation responsibilities also differs from state to state. Typically, states have direct responsibility for 10 to 20 percent of the roads in their state and for rural transit systems. However, this varies widely. State responsibility for other transportation services varies considerably as well. States might own and operate airports or be involved in planning them. Railroads and pipelines are generally private although a few state programs aid branch/short line railroads and support commuter rail programs.

The Federally-Mandated Transportation Planning Process

The transportation planning process can best be described as the "gateway" for accessing Federal-aid highway and transit funding. It enhances the quality and scope of the information on which elected officials and policy makers can base their decisions regarding transportation investments and helps ensure better, more informed decision making.

Current law recognizes that rural officials are the decision makers closest to rural transportation problems. Their involvement in the transportation planning process is paramount for a collaborative and coordinated resolution of rural transportation issues and problems. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) required, for the first time, the establishment of a statewide transportation planning process. It also required that Federally-funded transportation projects be planned and approved through that process. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) continues the requirement for a statewide transportation planning process. It also places even greater emphasis on the involvement of rural local officials in the statewide planning process, including involvement in the selection of projects. States are required to document their process for involving local officials.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) rely on the statewide transportation planning process as the primary mechanism for cooperative decision making. This means that local officials and those who anticipate using Federal transportation funds must be involved in the planning process.

The State Has the Major Role in Statewide Transportation Planning

Within these broad requirements, each state has developed its own process for transportation planning and for making transportation decisions. In some states, the legislature is involved in approving capital investment programs; others have independent entities (commissions, boards, authorities, etc.) that are responsible for transportation decisions. In all cases, elected officials at the local, regional, or state level need good information on which to base their decisions, and the planning process should provide this while recognizing the differing requirements of each state.

Those directly engaged in the transportation planning process at the state level are required to produce two major products - the transportation plan and the statewide transportation improvement program (STIP):

  1. The transportation plan is a long range (at least 20 years), multi-modal future vision for the mobility of goods and people. The plan considers factors that may affect or be affected by local and regional transportation investments.
  2. The transportation improvement program is a short term (usually 3 years) list of projects to be financed in part with Federal funds. The program is financially constrained, which means that it cannot include projects that exceed the anticipated funding available to a state.

TEA-21 encourages planning under seven broad areas:

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Since the passage of ISTEA and TEA-21, states have become more involved in comprehensive transportation planning, including the development of multi-modal transportation plans. As a result, many states are now engaged in activities, such as rural freight issues, for which they previously had little or no responsibility. Because the statewide planning process is continuing to evolve, many states are looking at ways to "re-engineer" their transportation planning and programming processes. They are determining what decisions should be made at the state level and what should be decided at the rural or metropolitan level.

Rural Transportation Planning Differs by Area and Circumstance

A variety of existing planning techniques have the potential for being useful in rural transportation planning. However, their effectiveness will depend to a great degree on the local circumstances within which they are applied. Rural transportation planning is relatively new, not only to those traditionally involved in transportation planning - State DOTs, MPOs, transit operators, etc., but also to those not traditionally involved in transportation planning - rural local governments and planning organizations, Indian tribal governments, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and others.

Some areas have formal rural regional planning organizations, while in others, transportation planning is done by the state or by individual local governments, often in coordination with the state. Engagement of a variety of rural interests is essential to addressing all rural transportation issues. For example, resolving agricultural related transportation issues requires input from the agricultural transportation community. Involving economic development agencies and other established planning entities in planning and investment decisions also can enhance rural transportation planning.

Transportation planning can be the means for resolving rural transportation and economic planning and development related issues and improving our Nation's position in the global economy. It is the "gateway" to shaping the investment decisions for most of the program funds described in this brochure. Local officials need to be involved in the transportation planning process if they are to have any influence over the use of Federal transportation funding. To initiate that involvement, local officials should contact their State Department of Transportation, Transportation Agency, the Federal Highway Administration Division Office or the Federal Transit Administration Regional Office.

Updated: 3/26/2012
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