Project Prioritization: Introduction

In early 2011, the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) Research Foundation conducted a scan of regional planning and development organizations to determine common regional planning activities conducted in non-metropolitan and small metropolitan areas, as well as how rural regions make decisions about recommendations for investments made through the statewide transportation planning process.  This research effort expands upon previous work on transportation planning in small communities and improves knowledge of the state of the practice.  With resources for both planning and projects constrained, transportation agencies and policymakers are seeking ways to ensure that investments are appropriate and will provide substantial benefit to their communities and the transportation network.

In approximately 30 states, rural transportation planning organizations (RPOs, also often called RTPOs) assist state DOTs and local officials with regional transportation planning in non-metropolitan areas.  In most cases, the organizations that are typically responsible for rural transportation planning are regional development organizations (RDOs).  Most were established by state statute or executive order in addition to bearing several federal program designations that determine the core work programs for the agencies.  In some states, rural transportation planning is considered to be one work program among several housed at a parent organization, and in others it is set up as its own organization with separate bylaws and leadership from the regional entity that houses and staffs the rural planning program. (1)  In this report, organizations with responsibility for conducting regional transportation planning activities outside metropolitan areas, voluntarily and/or under contract to a state department of transportation (DOT), will be referred to as RPOs.

RPOs are voluntary organizations that typically function under contract to state DOTs to assist with tasks related to statewide planning, including public involvement, gathering input of local officials in the consultation process in statewide planning, and providing technical assistance to local governments, as outlined below.  They are often organized similarly to metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), with membership comprising primarily local governments within the region and governed by a policy board or committee that receives recommendations of a technical committee.

Regional Development Organizations Defined

The generic term Regional Development Organization (RDO) is used to describe a multi‐jurisdictional, public‐based regional planning and development organization. These public‐sector entities are governed by a regional policy board with majority control by local elected officials. As mandated by various federal programs, RDO boards may also include business, nonprofit, education, and community leaders. These entities are often known locally as councils of governments, area development districts, economic development districts, planning and development districts, planning and development commissions, regional development commissions, regional planning commissions and regional councils.

The legal basis for most RDOs originates through state statute or gubernatorial executive order, or MOU of local governments. RDOs may have many different federal program designations, such as Economic Development District for U.S. Economic Development Administration, Local Development District for a Federal‐State Regional Commission, Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and/or Rural Transportation Planning Organization (RPO) for multimodal transportation planning.

Many RDOs also play a key role in emergency management and homeland security, Geographic Information System (GIS) data analysis and information management, business development finance, technology and telecommunications, and workforce development.

Research Methodology

The NADO Research Foundation conducted a national scan, seeking information from state DOTs and regional development organizations, such as rural planning organizations, regional planning commissions, councils of governments, economic development districts, and small MPOs housed in multi-purpose regional organizations.  The information gathered through the scan related to regional transportation planning organizational structure, leadership, staffing, major functions, and decisionmaking processes.  In addition, the NADO Research Foundation analyzed a variety of planning documents to determine the elements of decisionmaking, conducted interviews of individuals from a few select regions and states, and also convened a working group to discuss issues related to project selection processes and performance-based planning.

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2023 Impact Awards

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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.

Joe has thirty-one years of experience having served in city, county, regional, national association, and government management since 1991. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a candidate for a master’s degree in Public Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.

McKinney has provided congressional testimony on numerous occasions regarding the importance of regional development organizations in helping shape the nation’s economic growth. He is nationally recognized for promoting innovative solutions in areas such as planning and economic development, workforce development, transportation and transit, and aging services.

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