Project Prioritization: RPO Characteristics

The NADO Research Foundation received responses from 184 organizations that conduct either small metropolitan or rural regional-level transportation planning.  This included 180 responses from rural and small metropolitan RDOs located in 30 states, as well as responses from an additional four RDOs that staff small MPOs (and not RPOs).

As a result of the characteristics of the respondents, this analysis focuses mainly on rural planning. Forty-eight of the 180 responding organizations (27 percent) administer a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) in addition to a rural transportation planning program.  The majority of these regions contain urbanized populations under 200,000, so they are not considered to be transportation management areas (TMAs, which have additional responsibilities reflecting their larger population base).  In addition, approximately one-third of the respondents reported that there was an MPO within their service area that their organization does not staff.

Of the respondents that have an RPO in-house, the vast majority (92 percent) operate under a contract or agreement with their state department of transportation (DOT).  Figure 1 identifies when regional level rural transportation planning commenced in each state.  Sixteen RPOs (12 percent) established agreements before 1980, 7 RPOs (5 percent) established agreements in the 1980s, 54 (39 percent) established agreements in the 1990s, and 61 (44 percent) established agreements since 2000. A few respondents (7 percent) established RPOs without assistance from their state DOT; these respondents were mainly located in Texas and New York.

Rural transportation planning programs examined in this scan serve as few as one county, although the vast majority serves up to 10 counties.  The population of the area served by rural transportation planning programs in the scan ranges broadly, from under 50,000 to over 200,000.  One-third of RPOs reported serving fewer than 100,000 persons, one-third reported serving between 100,000 and 200,000 persons, and one-third reported serving 200,000 or more persons.  Because rural planning organizations typically serve a multi-county region, it is not uncommon to serve a population over 50,000 (the current minimum population threshold for designation as an MPO).  These regions do not contain an urban hub of 50,000 or greater, even if their total population is greater than that threshold.

As shown in Figure 1, the annual contract amount provided to RPOs by their state DOTs to carry out rural transportation planning services ranges from under $25,000 to over $125,000 per year.  The greatest percentage of RPOs received between $50,000 and $74,999 from their state DOT (38 percent), followed by $125,000 or more (16 percent) and $75,000 to $99,999 (15 percent).  Over 82 percent of RPOs receive at least $50,000 from their state DOTs for rural transportation planning services.

State DOTs provide funds for rural transportation planning services from a number of different sources.  The majority of RPOs (57 percent) identified the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Statewide Planning and Research (SPR) program as a source of funds, followed by state transportation funds (39 percent) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) State Planning and Research Program (SPRP) (14 percent).  Other sources of funds for rural transportation planning services include local funds, federal surface transportation program (STP) funds, FTA Section 5311 (non-urbanized area) formula grants, and FTA 5317 New Freedom grant funds.  Many regions use a combination of funding sources.

Nearly half (47 percent) of responding RPOs reported that their state DOT grants required a match of 20 percent or more.  About a quarter (28 percent) reported that their grants required a 10 or 15 percent match.  Another quarter (25 percent) of RPOs reported that no match was required for their state DOT grants for rural transportation planning.  RPOs match state DOT grants with funds from a number of different sources.  Local cash funds account for two-thirds (67 percent) of matching funds.  RPOs also use other council of governments (COG) or regional planning commission (RPC) funds (15 percent) and a mix of local cash funds and in-kind support (9 percent) to meet state DOT match requirements.

Staffing levels are generally small at most RPOs, as seen in Figure 5.  The number of individuals that are identified as involved in transportation planning activities ranges from .5 to 7 people, although these individuals are not necessarily all dedicated to transportation planning full-time.  One individual staff person (.5 or 1 full-time equivalent positions) working on rural transportation was the most common response (32 percent), while another 30 percent of respondents have two staff members, and 20 percent have three.  The most common staff position is that of planner (53 percent of responding organizations), followed by GIS professional (46 percent), planning director (42 percent), senior planner (38 percent), as well as regional development specialist and mobility manager (both 9 percent).  It is common for the individuals who work on rural transportation planning to have responsibilities in additional program areas and to draw their salaries from multiple grants or contracts (Figure 6).  These responsibilities include technical assistance to local governments (73 percent), grant writing (65 percent), GIS (61 percent), land use planning (52 percent), economic development planning (48 percent), administration (36 percent), hazard mitigation planning (33 percent), environmental planning (27 percent), and MPO planning (27 percent). Figure 1 States with regional rural transportation planning programs, time range that rural planning was established, and range of funding for rural planning contracts with state departments of transportation.  Information is self-reported.  Where responses vary among regions within a state, the most common response is presented.  East/Northeast: Connecticut: 1990s, $50,000 - $74,999 per year; Maine: 1990s, >$125,000 per year; Massachusetts: 1970s, $75,000 – $99,999 per year; New Hampshire: 1990s, >$125,000 per year; New York: program established in one region in 2000s, <$25,000 per year; Pennsylvania: 1990s, >$125,000 per year; Vermont: 1990s, >$125,000 per year;  Southeast: Alabama: 2000s, $50,000 – $74,999 per year; Florida: program established in 2000s in a few regions, $50,000 – $74,999 per year; Georgia: 2000s, $50,000 – $74,999 per year; Kentucky: 1990s, $75,000 – $99,999 per year; North Carolina: 2000s, $100,000 – $125,000 per year; South Carolina: 1990s, $75,000 – $99,999 per year; Tennessee: 2000s, $50,000 – $74,999 per year; Virginia: 1990s, $50,000 – $74,999 per year;  Midwest: Illinois: 2000s for coordinated planning, $50,000 – $74,999 per year; Indiana: 2000s, $50,000 – $74,999 per year; Iowa: 1990s, $50,000 – $74,999 per year; Michigan: 1970s, $25,000 – $49,999 per year; Missouri: 2000s, $50,000 – $74,999 per year; Minnesota: 1980s, $50,000 – $74,999 per year; Wisconsin: 1970s, $50,000 – $74,999 per year;  West/Southwest: Arizona: 1970s, >$125,000 per year; California: 1980s, >$125,000 per year; Colorado: 1990s, <$25,000 per year; New Mexico: 1990s, $50,000 - $74,999 per year; Oklahoma: voluntary planning program established in the 2000s in a few regions with no state funding; Oregon: 1990s, $25,000 - $49,999 per year; Texas: voluntary planning program established in the 2000s with no state funding, contracts for coordinated transportation funded at $50,000 - $74,999; Utah: program established in the 2000s in a few pilot regions, <$25,000 per year; Washington: 1990s, $50,000 - $74,999 per year


Figure 1. States with regional rural transportation planning programs, time range that rural planning was established, and range of funding for rural planning contracts with state departments of transportation.  This information is self-reported.  Where the date of establishment and funding levels vary among regions within a state, the most common response is presented.

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