Section 2 provides background on recent transportation and safety legislation and the transportation planning process. It also identifies why, among other interests, safety should be considered in transportation plans, including opportunities for RPOs to engage in safety planning and programming.
Rural Regional Planning
In approximately 30 states, RPOs assist state DOTs and local officials with regional transportation planning in nonmetropolitan areas. 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.
Most of the RPOs that existed before MAP‑21 were formed after the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA‑21) strengthened the role of local officials in the statewide transportation planning process. RPOs are often organized similarly to metropolitan planning organizations (MPO), with membership comprising primarily of local governments within the region and governed by a policy board or committee that receives recommendations from a technical committee.
RPOs are often housed in a multipurpose RPC or COG, or in a county transportation commission or county planning office. In some cases, a state DOT district office conducts the RPOs' functions and acts as the local conduit on transportation issues.
2.1 Legislation and Requirements
Title 23 of United States Code (U.S.C.)5 focuses on safety as an important characteristic of the transportation network. Recent Federal requirements for transportation planning processes stayed much the same as the requirements under earlier transportation laws, although new processes and concepts such as performance measurement are changing the way planning organizations complete their required plans.
Statewide and Nonmetropolitan Planning
Planning for rural areas, not served by a metropolitan planning organization (MPO), falls into the general category of Statewide and Nonmetropolitan Planning. State DOTs are responsible for developing two major statewide planning documents; a long-range transportation plan (LRTP), and the shorter-range statewide transportation improvement program (STIP).
The LRTP lays out the vision and goals regarding all aspects and modes of transportation over the next 20 or more years. Safety is usually highlighted in an LRTP and often appears in vision statements that describe the characteristics of a transportation network that stakeholders desire in the state or particular region. The LRTP reviews current trends and conditions to assist in identifying policies, programs, and projects that help a state achieve its goals. The STIP is a listing of priority transportation projects (highway and transit) that are selected to receive Federal funds usually in the next four or so years.
Including Safety in Vision Statements
The 2013-2037 LRTP adopted by the Southern Alleghenies Rural Planning Organization in Pennsylvania is centered on the following vision:
Provide a safe, efficient, and sustainable multi-modal transportation system that fosters economic development, protects the environment, and meets the needs of all residents in the region.
The state may decide to seek assistance with completing statewide planning tasks and outreach from RPOs and other planning partners in rural areas. Many states have chosen to contract with rural planning partners to complete regional LRTPs that influence the development of the state's LRTP. RPOs also often identify project priorities and submit them to the state for possible inclusion in the STIP. RPOs provide a forum for the state to consult with local officials on transportation issues and priorities and assist with public involvement.
Title 23, U.S.C. identifies several issue areas that are required to be considered during planning, called planning factors. These factors are intended as guidelines for considering strategies, as well as specific projects and safety plays a prominent role. These planning factors can serve as a starting point for organizations to develop a vision, goals, and objectives in their long-range plan. The Federal planning factors also provide a basis for developing project ranking criteria, if a scoring process is used to determine which projects are the highest priority.
Federally Required Planning Factors
Title 23, U.S.C. requires planning agencies to consider eight planning factors in the development of plans and project selection:
- Improving safety;
- Supporting economic vitality;
- Increasing security;
- Increasing accessibility and mobility;
- Protecting the environment and promoting consistency between transportation investments and state and local growth plans;
- Enhancing connectivity for people and goods movement;
- Promoting efficient system management and operations; and
- Emphasizing preservation of existing transportation infrastructure.
Major changes to Title 23, U.S.C. include a new focus on transportation performance management. The law identifies several national goal areas, and also requires states and MPOs to adopt performance targets in several areas, including safety. For safety, states are responsible for reporting on numbers and rates of fatalities and serious injuries.
In addition, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP‑21) created an optional opportunity for states to formally designate regional transportation planning organizations (RTPO) to assist with statewide planning. Designated RTPOs would be required to have a policy committee; have a parent organization to serve as the administrative and fiscal agent, and provide planning staff; conduct public involvement; and complete regional transportation improvement programs and long-range plans.
Beginning with legislation passed in 2005, known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA‑LU), and continuing under MAP‑21, states are required to develop Strategic Highway Safety Plans (SHSP)6. The State DOT is responsible for the development of the plan. Staff assigned to the SHSP may not be the same as the persons involved in overall statewide transportation planning. The SHSP is to be developed in consultation with a variety of multidisciplinary stakeholders, including regional planners and county transportation officials, and should be updated no later than every five years.
Federal-funding programs and funding levels are set through authorization bills that historically have covered multiple years, rather than being subject to annual appropriations like other Federal funds.
Federal funds that are dedicated for safety projects come through the Highway Safety Improvement program (HSIP). However, other Federal programs can be used to enhance safety as well, provided that funds are spent within the parameters of those programs, such as the National Highway Performance Program, Surface Transportation Program, and Transportation Alternatives Program.
In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has funds for educational, enforcement, and other programs that enhance safety. These grant programs may be open to states and localities; localities generally apply to the state for funding for their projects. Contact your state Highway Safety Office (HSO) to learn more (Appendix B includes a link to the Highway Safety Plans (HSP) for every state. Most include contact information for the HSO).
The SHSP is a data-driven plan that presents a framework for reducing deaths and serious injuries. Each state's SHSP identifies safety problems, as well as key emphasis areas that direct safety efforts. Federal Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP)7 funds are applied to projects and initiatives that are consistent with the emphasis areas and strategies found in their state's SHSP and applicable to all public roads. Other funds, such as those administered by NHTSA (e.g., Section 402), may also be used to implement SHSP strategies.
Linking Transportation and Safety Planning Documents
Federal regulations strengthen the expectation that the SHSP, Highway Safety Plan (HSP), and Motor Carrier Safety Plan have shared goals and performance measures and suggests other state and local plans should also align. The SHSP and HSIP are also required to coordinate since the obligation of HSIP funds must be directly related to the data-driven emphasis areas identified in the SHSP. State and regional LRTPs, as well as other rural/local plans, should be developed to coordinate with the SHSP.
2.2 Planner's Role in Transportation Safety Planning
Federal legislation may be moving toward a more defined role for RTPOs, but many RPOs already participate in or have initiated a rural transportation planning process essentially following the same Federal transportation planning requirements as DOTs and MPOs. The extent to which RPOs address safety during this process is at the discretion of the agency based on available resources, identified need, and staff time and expertise. However, a number of factors, including momentum in states to adopt Toward Zero Deaths targets, the proportion of accidents occurring on rural roads, and advances in the availability of rural roads crash data, places RPO planners in an excellent position to address regional transportation safety issues. Research completed by the NADO Research Foundation8 and input from TOWG members provides insight into the capabilities and tools RPO planners have at their fingertips to play an active role in transportation safety planning.
- RPOs' structure naturally provides a forum for identifying regional issues and priorities and engaging with diverse stakeholders, in addition to local governments. In their role as conveners, RPOs can gather input about safety issues that area user's experience. Transportation safety planning requires input across a number of disciplines, so the ability to convene, lead, and facilitate conversations further enhances communication efforts on safety.
- RPOs also commonly conduct public involvement activities for their regional planning efforts, and to assist the state DOT with outreach efforts. Gathering information about how the public views safety and where/what the biggest concerns are, is another public outreach effort that RPOs can complete. Using existing public outreach strategies, such as routine newsletters, to give the public information about safety topics can also be effective at improving awareness of not only problems, but also of safe driving techniques, resources such as child restraint inspections, or opportunities to comment about safety issues on statewide plans and programs.
- RPOs are connected regularly to local officials through Policy Committee meetings and other interactions, such as Chamber of Commerce meetings. Not many other regional entities have this type of access to local decision-makers or the opportunity to convey the importance of safety on a regular basis.
- RPOs often have experience leading or supporting long-range planning processes and/or other state, regional, and local planning efforts. Involvement in so many different aspects of the transportation network and planning process in general (e.g., local land use planning, economic and workforce development) provides valuable insights into how safety connects with operations, congestion, livable communities, the economy, land use decisions, and other issues.
- Two common RPO positions are planners and geographic information system (GIS) professionals. As a result, RPOs often have data analysis and mapping capabilities and technology. If data are available, RPO planners can identify crash locations and unsafe roadway characteristics. Mapping provides the basis for conducting a multimodal corridor safety study, or for prioritizing projects that improve safety by using safety and/or roadway data. RPO staff might also use their need for data or results from their analysis as reasons to communicate trends with the state DOT and state highway safety office to exchange information and identify ways to work more closely together.
- It is a challenge for state DOTs to coordinate with many small jurisdictions, but RPOs are the “boots on the ground” that provide services to member agencies and officials, which could include assistance to understand the individual jurisdiction's safety concerns.
- Elected officials are often identified as champions because of their leadership role and ability to advocate for safety projects. However, RPO planners can also be champions and lead safety efforts in other ways. Two opportunities include engaging in frequent conversations with decision-makers about the importance of safety; and identifying opportunities for the RPO to engage in transportation safety, perhaps through a road safety audit program or bicycle/â€Œpedestrian safety campaign.
2.3 Defining Safety in the Rural Planning Context
Transportation legislation provides the basic framework for including safety in the transportation planning process. American Association of State Transportation Organization Highway Safety Manual refers to safety as the crash frequency or severity, or both, and collision type for a specific time period, a given location and a given set of geometric or operational conditions. In general, transportation safety refers to reducing fatalities, serious injuries, and economic loss resulting from crashes on the transportation system.
Discussing safety in the planning context is an opportunity to open up a dialogue with regional stakeholders, if safety has not been systematically addressed before.
At a regional meeting, such as a transportation advisory committee meeting, it may be beneficial to schedule time in the agenda to ask: What does transportation safety mean to you?
Give respondents some time to write down their ideas, and discuss the responses as a group. Issues that appear multiple times might become safety emphasis areas for that community or region.
However, defining safety in the planning context and identifying how to provide safe facilities for all users is at the discretion of the planning agency and stakeholders. RPO planners can facilitate discussions with transportation and safety stakeholders to develop a description of safety pertinent to the region. Potential options are to spend time discussing this within an RPO Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) meeting or during public involvement efforts.
2.4 Transportation Safety Challenges
Rural regions continue to see the majority of fatal crashes on their roads, but addressing safety in the planning process can be challenging.
Rural roadway networks are often extensive with sparse populations, and crashes tend to be dispersed across the network and usually not found in clusters. Systemic analysis is a tool to overcome this challenge. The approach provides a more comprehensive method for safety planning and implementation that supplements and complements traditional site analysis. It helps agencies broaden their traffic safety efforts and consider risk, as well as crash history when identifying where to make low-cost safety improvements. However, conducting systemic analysis requires data, staff time, and analysis expertise.
Like MPOs, RPOs develop staff expertise as planners, conveners, and analysts, but the regional organization itself is not an owner of roads or bicycle and pedestrian paths, and usually does not operate transit; as a result, finding an appropriate role in addressing safety sometimes proves challenging.
RPOs often have fewer resources to comprehensively consider safety, including the development of specific safety plans at the local or regional level or programs (e.g., road safety audit programs) that could assist in identifying safety projects.
In their role to assist state DOTs with statewide planning, RPOs often work most closely with state DOT planning and programming offices and do not have the same familiarity with state DOT safety staff who can assist with safety analyses and safety funds for local projects.
Crash data collection and analysis are central to identifying safety problems. Some states lack timely and/or accurate crash data for local and rural roadways. This can hinder the understanding of regional safety issues. Limited staff and resources at both state DOTs and RTPOs may preclude crash data from being reviewed or analyzed for a rural region. In addition, RTPOs may not have access to state or local crash databases, and need to rely on other agencies to generate reports or provide training on the crash databases. In some states, legal issues prevent the DOT from sharing safety data.
2.5 RPO Transportation Planning Process
MAP‑21-defined tasks for RTPOs for the first time in Federal statute. RPOs that existed prior to MAP‑21 have no Federally required standard work program across states, but they generally exist to assist state DOTs with requirements for statewide planning, particularly in conducting outreach to local officials and the public in nonmetropolitan areas. Many RPOs already comply with a number of these tasks, including the development of a long-range plan, similar to state and MPO long-range plans. These plans have a time horizon of about 20 years and outline vision and goals.
Regions that do not develop an LRTP typically have a planning process in place to identify regional needs. For instance, some rural regions complete a regional plan, but with no specific time horizon, which describes the region's transportation context and strategies to improve it. In areas that do not complete a long-range plan, community-specific comprehensive plans may convey desired transportation outcomes shared across a region. Another option is to integrate safety-related objectives into other plans they complete at the regional level. In addition, RPOs commonly assist the state with other types of planning, such as coordinated human services transportation planning.
Defined Tasks in MAP‑21 for Designated RTPOs
- Establish a policy committee of a majority of local official.
- Have a “parent” or “host” organization to serve as administrative and fiscal agent and provide planning staff.
- Develop rural, regional long-range transportation plans.
- Create a short-range transportation improvement program.
- Conduct public outreach.
- Coordinate transportation with other relevant planning areas.
It also is common for rural regions to develop a list of priority transportation needs. In some regions, the list is fairly formal and resembles a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), similar to those required to be developed by MPOs. In other states, the RPOs submit a list of projects for consideration to be included as the state DOT develops its STIP. To develop a rural TIP or priority list of projects, most regions use a set of criteria to sort projects into higher and lower priorities. Sometimes the criteria are shared among all members of the board or committee conducting the prioritization, but others allow individual members to define their own criteria related to the overall vision for the region. Regardless of the process used to rank projects, the identified projects are typically consistent with the overall vision laid out in the long-range plan or other planning documents.
The level of transportation planning varies among RPOs. However, every RPO engages in some type of planning process to understand the regional issues and needs, either through the development of a regional plan, by providing input into the statewide plan, or coordinating the development of other planning documents. Common planning tasks exist across RPOs, and when they are combined, they form a structured process to identify transportation priorities. The terminology may differ across agencies, but the basic elements of a transportation planning process include Public Involvement and Outreach, Multidisciplinary Coordination and Input, Development of Goals and Objectives, Identification of Performance Measures, Data Collection and Analysis (Problem Identification), Project Prioritization and Programming, and Monitoring and Evaluation.
- Public Involvement/Outreach. Public engagement is the process by which RPOs provide information and seek feedback from stakeholders, the public, and elected officials on regional transportation issues. Outreach techniques can take a number of forms, but the most common are web sites, newsletters, surveys, public meetings, and workshops.
- Multidisciplinary Coordination. RPOs often establish committee structures, made up of diverse individuals, to discuss and analyze system needs, and use that information to make informed decisions regarding programs and projects. The policy committee, often made up mainly of local elected officials and state DOT officials, makes decisions regarding project priorities and funding. The TAC (and other modal committees if established) provides technical analysis and support to assist the policy committee in making informed decisions.
- Data Collection and Analysis. Data collection and analysis methodologies inform assessment of regional trends and challenges, which are used to identify goals, objectives, policies, programs, and projects. The analysis process focuses on understanding how a transportation system and its components function, and consequently how improvements to that system will alter its performance.
- Goals and Objectives. Goals address key desired outcomes, and supporting objectives are statements that support achievement of goals. They provide a framework for later in the planning process to identify criteria for evaluating different transportation system options, strategies, policies, programs, and projects.
- Performance Measures and Targets. Performance measures can support the goals, objectives, or both; and serve as a basis for making investment decisions and tracking results over time. A target is a numeric goal an agency desires to achieve over some period of time.
- Project Identification and Prioritization. This is the process by which available funds are matched with desired actions. Earlier in the process, public input and data analysis results shape the plans' goals and objectives. Performance measures are identified to track progress toward the goals and objectives and in combination of these considerations, projects and/or programs are ranked and prioritized.
- Monitoring and Evaluation. Monitoring and evaluation are commingled processes. Monitoring can be conducted at the system, corridor, goal, or project level; and initially relies on baseline data to demonstrate the “current state” of transportation safety for a region. Over time, RPOs can continue to collect and monitor crash data to make judgments concerning the relative merits of funding investments, alternative actions, and/or programs and projects. One of the most common ways of making sure evaluations are linked to the safety goals and objectives of a transportation plan is through the definition of performance measures.
The core planning tasks outlined above are being used by a number of RPOs to conduct transportation planning, including examples below from three states.
The 20 Virginia Planning District Commissions (PDC) partnered with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to evaluate the State's rural transportation system, and recommend a range of transportation improvements that best satisfy existing and future needs. Each PDC has completed a 2035 LRTP that identifies needs based upon goals and objectives established by each region. The planning approach used to develop all the LRTPs included:
- Development of regional transportation goals and objectives;
- Public involvement;
- Data compilation and collection;
- Data analysis;
- Identification of transportation deficiencies and recommendations; and
- Environmental and cost reviews.
In Ohio, ODOT began a two-year RTPO program with five existing regional planning agencies, and provided funding and assistance so each can develop the first regional transportation plan for their regions. The plans will provide a metric-based analysis of existing transportation infrastructure, and propose a list of regional multimodal transportation needs. The planning approach being used to develop all the LRTPs includes:
- Development of regional transportation goals and objectives;
- Inventory existing conditions;
- Project future conditions;
- Needs analysis;
- Fiscal analysis;
- Stakeholder participation; and
- Plan recommendations.
In addition to developing a transportation plan, one key part of the pilot program is the development of transportation expertise at each of the RTPOs. One way this is happening is through MPO mentorship. Each of the five agencies has an existing Ohio MPO that is providing mentorship over the two-year pilot program.
In Alabama, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) funded a two-year pilot program with the West Alabama RPO to understand the effectiveness of the rural transportation consultation process. The effort was deemed successful and 12 RPOs were established throughout the State. All the RPOs do not follow the same planning process, but the approach used by the West Alabama RPO is similar to that of the others and includes:
- Development of a vision statement;
- Development of goals;
- Identification of general problems and needs;
- Identification of strategies to address problems and needs;
- Identification of projects that support the strategies;
- Prioritization of projects; and
- Public review of the draft plan and adoption of the final plan.
2.6 Fitting Safety into the RPO Transportation Planning Process
Table 2.1 lays out how safety can be integrated into the tasks that constitute the transportation planning process with associated strategies. It shows the basic elements of the transportation planning process, and depicts overarching strategies to integrate safety into each element of the planning process. The elements of the transportation planning process are further explored in Section 3: Methods for Integrating Safety into the Transportation Planning Process. In addition to the strategies presented below, RPOs may find it beneficial to complete a standalone safety plan, which is also described in Section 3.
Table 2.1 Elements of the Transportation Planning Process
|Transportation Planning Process Tasks||Strategies to Integrate Safety into
Transportation Planning Processes
|Public Involvement/Outreach||Utilize available public involvement tools (e.g., surveys, public meetings, comment cards, web sites, and newsletters) to collect information on transportation safety issues and needs.|
|Multidisciplinary Coordination||Discuss safety at various RPO committee meetings and/or identify opportunities to engage safety stakeholders in committee discussions.|
|Data Collection and Analysis||Collect and analyze safety data to identify goals, objectives, and project/program priorities.|
|Develop Regional Goals and Objectives||Utilize public and stakeholder input, the results of data analysis, and information in other plans to develop safety goals and objectives in planning documents.|
|Establish System Performance Measures and Targets||Identify performance measures and targets to track progress toward the safety goals, objectives, programs, and/or projects.|
|Evaluate and Prioritize Projects||Include safety considerations in the prioritization and programming processes for the TIP.|
|Monitor and Evaluate Performance||Routinely monitor and track safety performance to evaluate progress towards meeting performance measures and targets.|
2.7 Committing to RPO Planning – Iowa Example
In Iowa, the RPAs are successful in their planning efforts and in integrating safety into the transportation planning processes. The success is due, in large part, to the coordination and collaboration between the Iowa DOT and the RPAs on institutional and planning topics.
The table below presents an example of how the RPOs in Iowa, known as RPAs, are approaching transportation safety integration in their planning processes.
Table 2.2 Elements of the Transportation Planning Process
|Transportation Planning Process Tasks||Iowa RPA's Approach to Integrate
Safety into Transportation Planning Processes
|Data Collection and Analysis||
|Develop Regional Goals and Objectives||
|Establish System Performance Measures and Targets||
|Evaluate and Prioritize Projects||
|Monitor and Evaluate Performance||
Some of the keys to a successful planning partnership in Iowa that can be applied in other states include:
- RPA staff have many different resources available to them at Iowa DOT:
- Systems Planning office for all standard planning activities/elements (including safety), general inquiries;
- Safety Planning staff for assistance with crash data access, analysis, and training;
- Program Management office for TIP and programming support;
- District Planners for project-level and day-to-day issues; and
- Other offices as needed (location and environment, local systems, other district staff, etc.) for resources.
- RPA staff communicate on a regular basis with the DOT offices mentioned above, and also participate in quarterly meetings to dialogue with DOT staff and network with other planning agencies. Topics can include safety.
- RPAs and Iowa DOT participate in routine agency planning reviews. It is an opportunity for DOT staff to learn about local conditions, including safety, and how planning is conducted in each region. It is also good for DOT staff to physically visit with the RPA at planning reviews and other times. RPA staff appreciates knowing that staff from Iowa DOT is willing to meet for any number of reasons.
- Iowa DOT provides clear planning expectations and requirements, and avoids requirements for RPAs that are overly burdensome. In addition, the DOT listens to the RPAs' concerns and is willing to adapt to different issues, which has been important to keeping agencies engaged in the planning process.
- Funding, including planning funds for agency staff and HSIP, Surface Transportation Program (STP)/Transportation Alternative Program (TAP) funds for locals, provides RPAs and the local jurisdictions they represent a reason to buy into the regional planning and programming process. The RPAs and locals are able to have input on how funds are administered.
- Some of the more rural RPAs who have fewer resources and staff are offered in-state trainings on different subjects, including safety.
- In Iowa the DOT staff play a critical role in communicating on behalf of the RPAs, and ensure that FHWA/FTA are engaging the RPAs in a fair and effective manner. The RPAs are not federally required to have a role in planning, they are the major mechanism by which the state completes its cooperation and consultation with local officials in compliance with federal statewide planning requirements, and RPAs are expected to follow federal planning requirements as well.
- Iowa DOT provides a wide variety of crash resources on its web site, including profiles of cities, counties, key emphasis areas, and top safety improvement candidate locations. The DOT also accepts requests for crash data if a user has a need not covered by these items, such as a detailed look at a particular intersection.
- The DOT provides the Crash Analysis Mapping Tool (CMAT), which is a free, user-friendly software program that provides access to crash data through a simple GIS interface. It includes over 10 years of crash data that can be queried by items, such as major cause, injury level, etc.; and it also provides information at the crash level. There is also a free training offered for the software, which has been hosted by several RPAs in the past.
- The DOT, in partnership with the Institute for Transportation (InTrans) at Iowa State University, has conducted crash analysis and safety improvement workshops with Multidisciplinary Safety Teams in the State. These can be tailored to focus on specific geographic areas or specific crash types.
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6A web site listing the links for all the SHSPs for every state can be found in Appendix B
7HSIP funds are federal funds, administered by the State DOT, and eligible to be spent on all public roads (regardless of ownership). Planners should check with their respective State DOTs for state specific requirements for these funds.