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Transportation Planning and Investment


Government provision of transportation infrastructure and services begins with planning. Transportation planning has a profound effect on the character of a community and the availability of transportation choices. Transportation planning that focuses on providing mobility for all residents, regardless of functional ability, is essential to creating livable communities. Creating a livable community takes sustained coordination between transportation and land-use planners, and between elected officials and the residents they serve. Proper planning can help to ensure that transportation modes are linked within a community and that neighborhoods are connected to the broader region via an efficient road and transit network. Increased mobility, improved safety, economic development, and reduced pollution and dependence on foreign oil are all benefits of sound transportation planning.


Transportation planning is conducted at all levels of government. Federal law authorizes state transportation departments and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to determine the uses of federal funds for roads and highways, public transportation, and bicycle and pedestrian programs. Local jurisdictions also conduct transportation planning, which often feeds into regional and state plans.


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Federal Efforts

The federal role in transportation planning is to provide funds, standards, and technical assistance for state and local decisions; project decisions are made at the regional and state levels. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) reviews the planning activities of MPOs and states in light of federal policy and law.


Federal policy is found in large part in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act—A Legacy for Users, 2005 (SAFETEA—LU) and is implemented by various DOT offices, including the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Federal Aviation Administration. SAFETEA—LU provided $286.5 billion between fiscal years 2005 and 2009 for highway, public transportation, and road safety programs. The act was originally set to expire in September 2009; Congress has extended its provisions through the end of FY 2011.


The transportation sector has also benefitted from the 2009 federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which included appropriations and tax law changes totaling approximately $787 billion to support government-wide efforts to stimulate the economy. The new law funded various transportation infrastructure projects and grants such as highways, transit systems, high-speed rail, Amtrak, and the National Surface Transportation Discretionary Grants (also called Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery or TIGER grants).


TIGER II grants totaling $600 million awarded in 2010 have been used to fund road projects, transit, rail projects, 16 percent to ports, bicycle and pedestrian projects, and planning projects. These planning grants, totaling $35 million, funded localized planning activities aimed at integrating transportation, housing, and economic development and prioritized regional and multimodal planning. TIGER II planning grants have been used to plan, prepare, or design surface transportation projects that would be eligible for funding under the TIGER II discretionary grant program. These planning grants have been coordinated with Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Sustainable Community Challenge Grants as part of a collaborative effort to encourage and reward areas that are planning more innovative, better coordinated projects. Regardless of funding source, before a project can receive federal funding it must be included in the regional long-range transportation plan (LRTP) and transportation improvement program (TIP).

Metropolitan Areas

In metropolitan areas with populations of more than 50,000, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) are responsible for regional transportation planning. MPOs develop the region’s long-range transportation plan (LRTP) and transportation improvement program (TIP). The former must cover at least a 20-year planning horizon and be updated every four or five years, depending on a region’s air quality. The LRTP process considers land-use development patterns, transportation capacity assessments, and demographic trends to ascertain the scope and location of transportation investments. Only projects for which funding is reasonably projected to be available may be included in this plan. The TIP enumerates project lists and funding levels over the short term (four years), and must be updated every four years, although many metropolitan areas update their TIPs more frequently.


MPOs increasingly allocate funds for public transportation investments (e.g., bus and light- or heavy-rail), as well as for “intelligent” technological improvements to existing facilities (e.g., traffic-signal programs that give priority to emergency and/or transit vehicles). In addition, transportation-demand management programs promote activities such as ride-sharing, use of alternative transportation (e.g., buses or rail, walking, and bicycling), and telecommuting.

State, Rural, and Counties


State planning—State transportation departments are responsible for planning activities outside of metropolitan areas, though they also participate in the metropolitan planning process. The state transportation department develops the four-to-six-year state transportation improvement program (STIP). Projects listed in the regional TIP are incorporated into the STIP. States also prepare statewide long-range transportation plans.


Rural areas—Rural transportation planning is undertaken by small towns and cities, counties, regional planning organizations (RPOs), and state transportation departments. There is considerable variation among states since each has different laws and jurisdictional structures. Rural-transportation planning differs widely as well, because of state law, geography, economy, population density, and institutional roles. In general, rural transportation planning, project prioritization, and funding are handled by the state, a local or regional effort or a combination.


Counties, cities, and towns—Counties, cities, and towns also develop and maintain transportation infrastructure, typically through public works, transportation planning, or community development departments. Such local planning work often feeds into the regional TIP or STIP. The goal of local planners and engineers is to ensure the safe and efficient movement of people and goods in the jurisdiction through strategic capital investments and operating improvements. Whether it be filling potholes, adding turn lanes, installing bus shelters, and increasing transit services, or looking at the connections between future land uses and transportation needs, local transportation professionals must strive to meet constituents’ accessibility needs.

Public Input

The SAFETEA—LU law strengthens the federal requirement for citizen participation in transportation planning and decision-making. For instance, MPOs must include a plan for public comment on LRTPs, including input from older adults, individuals with disabilities, and those with low incomes. In developing LRTPs, states and MPOs are required to conduct public meetings at convenient and accessible locations at convenient times, employ visualization techniques (such as drawings, computer models, visual simulation, geographic information system (GIS) maps, etc.) to describe plans, and make public information about the plans available in an electronically accessible format. These tools can help the public understand complex problems and projects, as well as their impact on transportation plans and programs.
Although states and MPOs are required to certify to the Department of Transportation (DOT) that their transportation planning processes include citizen participation, there is wide variation in how and to what extent community members participate. Critical to the planning process is identifying areas where older people live so that public transportation systems can provide appropriate routes and services. Also needed are infrastructure improvements for pedestrian access to goods and services and for safety-related upgrades to roads and highways, for drivers, passengers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

SAFETEA—LU requires that funding under the Elderly and Disabled, New Freedom, and Job Access and Reverse Commute transit programs be distributed under a Coordinated Public Transit–Human Services Transportation Plan, developed with input from key stakeholder groups and the public. State Strategic Highway Safety Plans required by the act also allow the public to participate in design improvements, such as signage, lighting, and road markings, as well as measures to improve pedestrian safety.

Transportation Reform

Congress extended the provisions of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act-A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA—LU). Authorization of a new surface transportation law would provide Congress the chance to remake federal transportation policy and direct funding toward projects that foster livable communities, protect the global environment, and stimulate economic recovery. Explore

Transportation Funding

Each of these funding options should be evaluated not only against how much revenue they can generate and the ease with which they do so, but also against equity and environmental considerations. Explore

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