Merging Transportation and Economic Development Plans in Iowa

Posted on: September 27th, 2011 by Carrie Kissel

Note: This case study initially appeared in the NADO Research Foundation 2012 report Aligning Strategies to Maximize Impact: Case Studies on Transportation and Economic Development and was also a presentation given at the 2011 RPO America Peer Symposium during the National Rural Transportation Conference in Washington, DC.

Following heavy flooding in 2008 and a period of population growth, the East Central Iowa Council of Governments (ECICOG) embarked on a new planning initiative in 2010.  ECICOG combined its CEDS with the Region 10 Regional Planning Affiliation’s (RPA) Rural Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) into a Comprehensive Regional Development Strategy (CRDS). The CRDS, notable for its outreach efforts and the active involvement of the private sector, helped form new relationships in the region and revealed new opportunities for aligning resources.

Renewed Regionalism

Prior to the collaborative effort of the CRDS, ECICOG was already accustomed to working with other agencies in the region. In an unusual arrangement for Iowa, ECICOG’s service area also contains two externally-staffed metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). The overlap “requires us to ensure that we take steps to communicate more than in an area where the situation doesn’t exist,” says Mary Rump, ECICOG’s transportation director. “Because we’re in different policy bodies, coordination is both essential and more challenging.”   The ECICOG region is also unique as the only region in Iowa that gained population in all of its counties from 2000 to 2010.

According to Hilary Copeland, geographic information systems (GIS) specialist and transportation planner, this growth helped to generate more interest in planning and a regional identity than in regions that did not experience growth. “It gave the region a more cohesive feel, that we’re all growing together,” she explains.

Severe flooding in June 2008 caused damage across eastern Iowa, concentrated in ECICOG’s three most populous areas. Although the recovery process temporarily hampered regionalism as communities focused on local issues, it also raised awareness of ECICOG’s status as an EDD and the availability of EDA funding. EDA assisted many flood-stricken jurisdictions that previously had little knowledge of the agency or its resources.

With a new recognition of the EDD and its funding, it was “an opportune time to engage the conversation” about collaborative planning, says ECICOG Executive Director Doug Elliott. “The timing was such that people were far enough in the recovery process to be willing to start looking at regionalism again.” This increased interest in cooperation, along with the region’s growth, led ECICOG to make a strategic decision to update its CEDS two years ahead of schedule and combine it with the LRTP.

Private Partnerships

The timing was also ideal for ECICOG to strengthen its relationship with the Corridor Business Alliance (CBA), a membership association concentrated in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids that supports business growth and workforce development. Dee Baird, now the President and CEO of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, was a foundational leader for the CBA. Like Elliott, she also cited an increase in interest among the business community in working regionally following the floods, and the CBA began meeting in 2009.

One of the CBA’s early objectives was to complete its own regional economic development plan. Realizing the need for funding and public involvement and aware of ECICOG’s CEDS process, Baird recognized the value in working on a joint plan rather than pursuing separate parallel efforts. The two organizations negotiated the details of the hybrid public-private initiative, which, for example, included more transportation and housing elements than a private sector plan would. “At the end of the negotiation, the feeling was that doing it together was worth it,” says Baird. “We acknowledged each organization’s philosophy to make a more collaborative environment,” so that objectives and roles were clear from the outset of the project.

ECICOG then formed a planning work group analogous to a CEDS committee. The work group’s nine members represented both the public and private sectors and the metro and non-metro areas of the region. ECICOG staff facilitated meetings to condense the information gathered into defined goals and priority investment areas. The work group then drafted a document, which was circulated among the public to seek further input. The CBA hosted a meeting of board members, university representatives, business leaders, and other stakeholders to unveil the final version.

The CRDS planning process cost $45,000, including expenses such as bringing a speaker to the regional economic development summit. ECICOG used funds that were not available to other private organizations, such as the CBA, including regular EDA and Iowa DOT planning appropriations. The public-private partnership allowed each organization to apply its strengths to the project, with ECICOG focusing on facilitation and planning and the CBA convening an extensive network of stakeholders.

The CRDS

The CEDS and LRTP are both compliance documents, meaning that they must follow the requirements established by EDA and the Iowa DOT, respectively. While there are several overlaps in some areas, such as data needs and public participation, meeting both checklists in a single document was a manageable challenge. For example, the public meetings did not generate enough input on transportation issues to satisfy the LRTP’s more prescriptive format, requiring an additional online survey specific to transportation.

As ECICOG’s transportation director, Rump valued the broad participation process for generating input on transportation issues from stakeholders other than service providers and policy makers. This allowed the transportation portions of the CRDS to give “a true planning perspective and move beyond an emphasis on programming,” she says.

Many of the differences between the CEDS and LRTP are procedural; “in planning themes, they’re not completely dissimilar,” explains Copeland. The planning work group mentioned above served as the CEDS committee. One of the biggest differences in requirements related to jurisdiction and the overlap of the six-county EDD and seven-county RPA service areas. Cedar County, which would not have normally been included in the CEDS, is part of the CRDS. ECICOG was able to address all timeframe requirements by identifying objectives as short, middle or long-range.

Overall, the “issues came together nicely,” says Copeland. Both the CEDS and LRTP require data to support the objectives that ECICOG identified, so the joint planning process was integrated and efficient. Whereas an explicit relationship between transportation and economic development was missing in prior planning efforts, the CRDS established the link and, according to Rump, “moving forward can only enhance the relationship.” The CRDS also uses a higher level regional perspective than the CEDS or LTRP alone, which “ties the elements together more so than at the local level,” she says.

Using the Document and Implementation

To help the whole region understand the content of the CRDS’ 131 pages, ECICOG created a two-sided brochure with a condensed version of the vision to hand out at meetings that refers the reader to the full document available online. Members of the CBA have used the same brochure when talking about economic development planning across the region.

ECICOG has used the information collected in the planning process for other related purposes. When applying for grants, the agency is “able to provide a consumable base of information” that has already been collected and analyzed, explains Elliott. The CRDS also helps ECICOG be more “nimble in responding to Federal Funding Opportunities.” Several large employers and other regional leaders have requested data from ECICOG, which helps to raise the agency’s profile and build relationships.

The CRDS also encouraged ECICOG to diversify funding sources for specific projects. According to Rump, she and other staff previously focused only on traditional transportation funding that was available to them, without recognizing that “what we want to do doesn’t need to be funded through transportation programs—there are other programs that could have a significant financial impact on transportation and economic development.” For example, private corporations and employment training programs interested in ridesharing services can partner with ECICOT.  These funding sources require different groups to work to together to create a larger scale project that has benefits for multiple groups. “These relationships weren’t there before” the CRDS, says Rump.

The CRDS does not assign any priorities, timelines, or responsible parties for the policies and actions it recommends. According to Elliott, this was a strategic decision because the plan was “built on relatively new relationships.” One year after the document’s completion, ECICOG challenged the nine-member work group to reconvene and prioritize actions in each policy area. Elliott expects the process will take three months, and encourages the group “to be bold and presumptive” about who will take responsibility for implementation. As these meetings continue, the work group will identify methods of measuring accomplishment and the viability of the plan’s objectives.

Looking Forward

“The success of the process itself has been more than anticipated,” says Elliott. One of the most important outcomes is the strength of new relationships. For example, ECICOG joined the CBA, which Elliott believes would have been unlikely prior to the CRDS. ECICOG’s transportation planners now have a relationship with the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa, moving towards the plan’s goal of promoting a more resilient region.

Aligning transportation and economic development planning has helped ECICOG also align resources to meet its policy and program objectives. The involvement of numerous public and private agencies in the CRDS laid the foundation for continued regional collaboration.

Takeaway #1: “Put the good stuff up front”

The CRDS process challenged the ECICOG staff to combine different sets of requirements from the EDA and DOT with public input from a variety of stakeholders into a user-friendly document. Elliott’s goal in crafting the plan was to keep the most compelling portions up front and place the high quantity of data and other federal requirements in the back. This strategy keeps the document consumable and accessible. A simple brochure outlining the regional vision also helps to distill the content.

Takeaway #2: “Be flexible”

ECICOG experienced a learning curve in combining its CEDS and LRTP for the first time, which required the staff to be flexible throughout the process to respond to unexpected challenges. The staff met weekly to evaluate progress and adjust as necessary. For example, according to Copeland, the staff intended to use modeling software and other scenario planning tools, but found that the diversity of the region made this method too complex. They decided instead that a simpler approach to data collection and analysis would produce a higher quality product that could serve as the basis for policy recommendations.

For more information:

  • ECICOG (http://ecicog NULL.org/)
  • 2011 Comprehensive Regional Development Strategy (http://www NULL.ecicog NULL.org/crds) (PDF)
  • Doug Elliott, Comprehensive Regional Development Strategy (PDF) presentation given at the 2011 RPO America Peer Symposium, during the 2011 National Rural Transportation Conference, August 25, 2011 in Washington, DC.

This case study was researched and written by NADO Research Foundation Graduate Fellow Kate Humphrey under the direction of Associate Director Carrie Kissel and is supported by the Federal Highway Administration under contract number DTFH61-06-H-0029 through the NADO Research Foundation’s Center for Transportation Advancement and Regional Development (www.RuralTransportation.org).  Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.

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