GEOG 497C
GIS for Transportation: Principles, Data and Applications

3.2 Getting to Know a Transportation Organization

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This week, we’ll take some time to explore Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and Rural Planning Organizations (RPOs). MPOs were formed as part of 1962 Federal-Aid Highway Act and are required for any urbanized area with a population of more than 50,000. Congress recognized transportation planning is best done at a regional level since the nature of transportation systems and services often transcends an individual municipality, city, or county.

Watch the short video (11 minutes) below which discusses the purpose and structure of MPOs. There are more than 300 MPOs across the U.S., a listing of which is provided here.

Click for transcript of MPO Planning Process. This will expand to provide more information.

NARRATOR: Transportation is the backbone of our communities. We rely on it every day to get us to work, to get us to shopping and recreation, and to bring us goods and services. But who makes the decisions about our transportation system, and how are those decisions made? This video is an introduction to Metropolitan Transportation Planning and the role of metropolitan planning organizations.

Over the last 100 years or more, America's population and lines of commerce have expanded well beyond the boundaries of individual cities and towns. Today, networks of highways, transit services, freight carriers, and airports serve metropolitan areas that may include many cities, suburbs, towns, and counties. In today's urban areas, many transportation decisions are best handled at the regional level. A regional approach gives decision-makers a comprehensive understanding of transportation problems and the ability to develop comprehensive solutions.

Over the years, Congress has promoted a regional approach to urban transportation planning and decision-making. One of the most important advances came in the 1970s with legislation that required the creation of metropolitan planning organizations or MPOs in areas with a population of 50,000 or more. Now, there are over 300 MPOs across the country. An MPO may be a free-standing planning organization or an association of local government, but every MPO is governed by a policy board of local elected officials. The Board may also include representatives from state transportation departments, mass transit operators, and others. The MPO is not alone in the decision-making process, but it's the engine that drives collaboration and cooperation among many participants. Local elected officials bring a unique perspective to the planning and decision-making process. They often face a challenging balancing act, making decisions that have the greatest regional benefit, while at the same time reflecting the concerns of the communities they represent.

MPOs and their partners produce three key documents: the Unified Planning Work Program, the Transportation Plan, and the Transportation Improvement Program. The Unified Planning Work Program (or UPWP) describes the planning studies that are being performed for the metropolitan area. The Transportation Plan identifies the region's transportation policies, strategies, and projects for the next twenty years or more. The Transportation Improvement Program (or TIP) is a short-range program of projects covering at least three years that directs available funds to those improvements that are the highest priority. The MPO Policy Board and its partners direct development and content of the Plan, the TIP, and the UPWP. Both the Plan and the TIP must be fiscally constrained, in other words, consistent with available and expected funds. In areas with air quality problems, the Plan and the TIP must also help the region meet federal standards.

Let's now look at how the Plan and the TIP are prepared. Often the local planning participants start with a regional vision or a set of goals. This vision expresses what the region would like to become perhaps forty or fifty years in the future.

LES STERMAN: Well, important elements of a long-range plan are obviously a strong statement of goals and values, what is it that we're after, and transportation systems in the future.

NARRATOR: In developing a vision or goals, the MPO may consider many questions: What are the trends in regional growth, and are they desirable? How well is the transportation system performing? Do existing plans deal with current and expected problems? Can the transportation system support the kinds of future development that the region desires? When the vision and goals are in place, the MPO and its partners are better able to identify transportation problems and needs. These can include declining mobility, increasing congestion, poor access to jobs in neighborhoods, unhealthy air, or inconsistency with proposed economic development. An understanding of these problems allows the MPO and its partners to identify alternatives to improve transportation. Alternatives may include new policies, operational strategies, or capital projects. Some may help the existing system work better. Others may expand or build new transit lines, highways, and other facilities. Another round of questions is asked in assessing the impact of alternatives. How well does each alternative address the region's transportation problems? What are the likely impacts on neighborhoods and the environment? How much do the alternatives cost? Are the funds there, and is this the best use of available resources? The answers to these questions help the board choose the best alternatives. By adopting the Transportation Plan, the board establishes the policies, strategies, and project that the region will pursue.

To develop the TIP, priority projects are drawn from the adopted Transportation Plan and matched with available funding. Once adopted by the MPO, the TIP is submitted to the state and becomes part of the statewide transportation improvement program, but the process doesn't end here. Projects and strategies in the plan and TIP undergo further development, often including engineering and environmental studies. Also, many MPOs monitor the implementation of the plan and TIP, study how well the plan is working, and make periodic adjustments. Federal rules require that the plan be updated and readopted every three to five years, and the TIP every two years.

RAE RUPP SRCH: Long-range planning, it is an ongoing process. It's not etched in stone, and many people don't realize that. New board members don't realize that either, that it's not a plan etched in stone. That, you know, it's constantly in an updating process.

NARRATOR: Agency and public involvement is a key activity in every step of the planning process. The public refers to a variety of individuals, agencies, and organizations each with different interests and levels of involvement. Many different approaches are used to inform and engage other agencies and the public.

CHARLES UKEGBU: Our public participation it's not just at the MPO level and that's one of the things we try to emphasize at the municipal level. It is not just the MPO calling a meeting, no, it is the MPO participating in on a meeting and forums that may have been called by other city or state agencies.

NARRATOR: Transportation planning continues to evolve. New issues are emerging that demand innovation and creativity from MPOs. Many MPOs today are working with other local and state agencies and the private sector to provide multi-modal systems that give people more choices. Transit, carpooling, bicycling, walking, better connections between highways, transit, airports, freight, and other modes of transportation can make the entire system work more efficiently.

DAVID PAMPU: We can't solve our transportation problem in key corridors just by widening the roads anymore. We have to provide some additional mobile opportunities for the traveling public. By focusing on rapid transit in conjunction with roadway improvements, we think we can add significant capacity for the traveling public.

NARRATOR: Coordinating transportation and land-use can be challenging. While transportation decisions are made at the state and regional levels, most land use decisions are made by local governments and private developers. The MPO may be the only place where officials from different jurisdictions can coordinate land use and transportation planning for the region as a whole. Many MPOs are partnering with state transportation department, transit operators, and other agencies to preserve existing transportation assets and to squeeze more capacity out of their existing systems.

LES STERMAN: Probably for forty years, we chased congestion. Congestion was our number one goal, addressing congestion was our number one goal. But we're now recognizing that preserving existing system, our bridges and highways and our transit systems and the safety of that system are in fact more important goals, and we recognize them, and that's part of our vision. To create a system that's not only safe, but is well maintained and preserved particularly in the core of our region.

NARRATOR: Planners are also making greater efforts to respond to the needs of all the users of transportation systems. People of every age, ethnic group, and income level because mobility is a link to opportunity and equality. For elected officials and citizens alike, Metropolitan Transportation Planning is a tremendous opportunity to build better communities.

JEFFREY SCHIELKE: I think I went into it not realizing, you know, that I was in a much wider, bigger area that had dramatic impacts until I got in the process and began to experience, you know, what other towns were going through and seeing and learning from their mistakes and learning their ideas. I think that's one of the rich rewards of the MPO process.

RAE RUPP SRCH: It's an exciting position to be in. You do have input, you're representing your communities. I think anybody that wants to get involved in this should.

JOHN MASON: It is basically a collaborative approach among the jurisdictions within a metropolitan region. There are some federal rules and laws that guide how we have to go through the process, but the real success of MPOs is based on the ability of the leaders of the jurisdictions to be able to collaborate to achieve a common goal.


Rural areas often have transportation needs that are very different from metropolitan areas. In rural regions, either the State DOT, a Rural Planning Organization (RPO), or a local government conducts transportation planning. While RPOs are not federally required, it is a requirement that if the state performs the planning function for rural regions, they need to coordinate with local officials.

In Pennsylvania, there are 15 MPOs and 8 RPOs. MPOs and RPOs often have strong GIS capabilities to support various planning studies.

Assignment 3-3 (15 points)

Take some time to learn about an MPO or RPO by looking at their website. If possible, select the designated planning organization in your region. In particular, examine how they are applying GIS technologies to transportation projects and studies. Prepare a brief summary of what you learned (no more than 300 words in length) and submit it as an M.S. Word document to Assignment 3-3 in Canvas. Include a screenshot or two if appropriate.

Review and Respond (15 points)
Criteria Ratings Pts
Followed Instructions Excellent: Student carefully followed all instructions for the assignment.
4.0 pts
Satisfactory: Student's submission exhibited some minor deviations from the instructions for the assignment.
2.5 pts
Poor: Student's submission exhibited major deviations from the instructions for the assignment.
1.0 pts
4.0 pts
Content Quality Excellent: Student's submittal fully addressed the topics of the assignment and demonstrated insight and thoughtful reflection on the part of the student.
7.0 pts
Satisfactory: Student's submittal partially addressed the topics of the assignment and demonstrated some insight and thoughtful reflection on the part of the student.
5.0 pts
Poor: Student's submittal did not address the topics of the assignment and demonstrated little or no insight or thoughtful reflection on the part of the student.
1.0 pts
7.0 pts
Writing Quality Excellent: Student’s writing was organized, clear, and concise and was free from spelling and grammatical errors.
4.0 pts
Satisfactory: Student’s writing exhibited some deficiencies in the area of organization, clarity, and conciseness and/or contained a few spelling or grammatical errors.
2.5 pts
Poor: Student’s writing exhibited major deficiencies in the area of organization, clarity, and conciseness and/or contained many spelling or grammatical errors.
1.0 pts
4.0 pts
Total Points: 15.0