Washington Insight

Rural Transportation Planning-to be or not to be

Beth Denniston
Director, Rural Transit Tech Assistance Program
APWA Washington, D.C. Office

The language in TEA-21 is clear-rural and small city local officials are to have a part in the development of their state's transportation planning.

How that is to happen isn't so clear.

Rural involvement has been legislated. But state DOTs continue to stall issuing the regulations to effectuate the legislation. Meanwhile, APWA has joined with several local government associations, urging promulgation of the planning rule which gives small and rural communities the opportunity for consultation and cooperation in state transportation planning.

Now, dissatisfaction with the delay has surfaced in the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee where its FY 2002 Transportation Appropriations Report issued June 20, 2001 states, "The Committee is very concerned at the lack of progress the Department (US DOT) has made in issuing the rural consultation provisions of the statewide planning regulations."

It declares, "After three years and a clear Congressional mandate under TEA-21, rural local elected officials continue to be left out of state-wide planning discussions. This Committee fully expects this rule to be promulgated by no later than February 1, 2002."

At the time of this writing, it remained to be seen if the Committee's concern and call for action early next year is included in the full House Appropriations Bill. And Senate appropriations action followed by House/Senate Conference still awaits.

So what has been done to fulfill TEA-21's intent? The following outlines the rural planning regulation's stops, starts, and detours:

Last summer, the rural planning regulations were published in the Federal Register for comment. That comment period was extended to get more input. A final regulation was published in the Federal Register and was to have taken effect early in the new Bush Administration. However, it got caught in President Bush's action to delay promulgation of last-minute Clinton Administration rules.

When the regulations were first published for comment in the Federal Register last summer, APWA's Small Cities/Rural Communities (SC/RC) Forum endorsed promulgation. Next, when it appeared they were getting caught up in a tangle of controversy because they were packaged with environmental streamlining regulations, the SC/RC sought and got APWA Board approval in September 2000 of a position statement supporting separating the planning regulations from the controversial ones and moving ahead with finalization. A third part of the regulatory package standardizing Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) architecture recently has been finalized.

This position was detailed in letters co-signed by APWA President Judith Mueller of Charlottesville, Virginia and SC/RC Forum Chair Greg Dore of Skowhegan, Maine to the Secretary of Transportation, Congressional leadership, and appropriate persons in the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). (FHWA is the lead agency for the regulations, but they have been developed cooperatively with the Federal Transit Administration [FTA]).

In addition, letters jointly signed by the Executive Directors of APWA, the National League of Cities (NLC), the National Association of Counties (NACo), the National Association of County Engineers (NACE), the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC), and the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) have been sent to US DOT and Senate leadership supporting the planning regulations.

SC/RC Forum Chair Greg Dore points out that there is no obvious reason for state DOTs to voice such strong disapproval of the proposed planning regulations as they mimic the language of TEA-21 and are not prescriptive, leaving great flexibility in ways to involve local officials in the planning, he says.

TEA-21 gives a voice-albeit a loosely structured one-in state transportation planning to nonmetropolitan areas with populations of less than 50,000. Metropolitan transportation planning is carried out by Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs).

In both TEA-21 and its predecessor, ISTEA, the words "consultation" and "cooperation" define the different approaches to local official involvement. The proposed regulation restates the same definitions: "consultation means that one party confers with another identified party and, prior to taking action(s), considers that party's views. Cooperation means that the parties involved in carrying out the planning, programming and management systems processes work together to achieve a common goal or objective."

TEA-21 states, "With respect to each nonmetropolitan area, the long-range transportation plan (with a minimum 20 year forecast period) shall be developed in consultation with affected local officials with responsibility for transportation." Cooperation is called for in metropolitan areas.

State Transportation Improvement Programs (STIP) which are approved biennially are to be developed in nonmetropolitan areas in "consultation with affected local officials with responsibility for transportation." Again, cooperation is called for in metro areas. The law also requires that no later than one year after the STIP has been enacted, the "details of the consultative planning process developed by the State for nonmetropolitan areas" be sent to the Secretary of Transportation. However, the Secretary "shall not review or approve such process."

APWA's involvement in related efforts to strengthen the role of rural (nonmetropolitan) local officials in the state transportation planning processes have included staff participation in an Advisory Panel on development of a report by the National Academy of Public Administration on the "effectiveness of the participation of local elected officials in transportation planning and programming."

This study, called for by TEA-21, was to "consider the degree of cooperation between each State, local officials in rural areas in the State and regional planning an development organizations in the State." APWA and other local government representatives sitting in on the Panel went on record that this study was useful, but failed to provide "information that describes the effectiveness of participation."

The same local government associations have advised the Secretary that a subsequent focus session on principles of effective consultation identified useful information, but should not be considered a substitute for promulgating the planning regulations. APWA's SC/RC Forum Chair Greg Dore and members Brenda Cary, Hays, Kansas; Ray Funnye, Georgetown, South Carolina; and Tom McCurdy, Lindsay, California, participated in the focus group.

APWA's Washington Office will continue to monitor the regulations and work to retain the House Committee's language through the final FY 2002 Transportation Appropriations bill, which may well not be finalized until September.

To reach Beth Denniston, please call 202-408-9541 or send e-mail to bdenniston@apwa.net.