Transportation Planning 101

Transportation Planning 101

Virtually every aspect of modern life is dependent on a strong transportation system. How we meet our transportation needs has far-reaching consequences. For example, good highways help attract industry and generate jobs, which strengthens our area. But we don’t want highways to spoil our natural areas, encourage development that detracts from our landscape, or draw shoppers away from our Main Streets. Done well, transportation planning balances issues such as economic development and environmental preservation and makes life better overall.

Why Get Involved?

Have you ever:

…been slowed down by heavy traffic?
…had to walk in the road because there was no sidewalk?
…felt like you were playing “chicken” driving across a narrow bridge?
…been late because you had to take a detour around a closed road or bridge?
…been without a car and had trouble running errands?
…thought transportation planning didn’t affect your life?

Transportation planning affects your whole life—not only your commute

Virtually every aspect of modern life is dependent on a strong transportation system. How we meet our transportation needs has far-reaching consequences. For example, good highways help attract industry and generate jobs, which strengthens our area. But we don’t want highways to spoil our natural areas, encourage development that detracts from our landscape, or draw shoppers away from our Main Streets. Done well, transportation planning balances issues such as economic development and environmental preservation and makes life better overall.

It’s your money!

Government money spent on transportation improvements ultimately comes from private taxpayers. You and your family and neighbors have worked hard to earn that money—don’t you want a say in how it is spent?

More viewpoints make a better system

The objective of transportation planning isn’t only to improve specific roads, bridges, sidewalks, bicycle lanes, bus routes, rail lines, airports, or waterways. It is to make transportation in our region and beyond work better as a system. That requires coordination and partnership to ensure individual projects make sense as part of the bigger picture—thinking globally, planning regionally, and acting locally.
Transportation planning requires a broad range of viewpoints to produce the best results.

Transportation planning matters

Whether you jot us an e-mail or lead a steering committee in developing a new major project, your ideas will be heard and your time will be well spent.

10 Tips for Getting Involved

  1. Tell us what you think: Complete a survey to contribute ideas for improving our area. Also feel free to call, e-mail, or write us regarding broad transportation issues or specific project questions or ideas.
  2. Stay informed: Sign up for e-mail notifications of the NTRPDC newsletter, which provides an overview of transportation and other community development activities in the Northern Tier.
  3. Seize the power of good timing: Understanding state and regional planning and programming cycles and proposing ideas or showing support for a project at the right time makes it possible for those projects to be considered sooner.
  4. Consider the big picture: Becoming familiar with state and regional long-range transportation plans helps you understand what broad issues and opportunities transportation leaders are working to address, and helps you make the case for why your proposed project is important in fulfilling the plans’ goals. Even better, become involved in developing the plans themselves.
  5. Attend public meetings: Open houses and other project meetings are a great opportunity to learn more about specific projects, interact one-on-one with project managers, and provide feedback. You’re also welcome to attend an RTAC meeting. You can just observe the meeting or speak up during the public comment segment.
  6. Voice your support: Help prioritize projects by expressing your support for those you think should be pursued soonest. Local, regional, and state officials are representatives working for the public. Projects with significant public support tend to move toward the top of the list.
  7. Speak up early: If you have concerns about a proposed project or ideas on how to develop a better solution, don’t wait! The sooner you speak up, the more influence you can have on the outcome.
  8. Commit local resources: When local money or labor can be added to the mix, much more can be accomplished much sooner. For example, if a municipality is trying to advance a highway expansion, they might agree to conduct the traffic studies, secure right-of-way, support environmental studies, or pay for a portion of the total project cost. A project with local momentum that is ready to go in terms of environmental or other requirements will tend to be funded before a project that may encounter delays and tie up already limited funds.
  9. Build partnerships: With so much at stake and finite funding, the transportation development process can become contentious or turn into a tug-of-war between communities. Really, though, we’re all trying to do what is best for our community, region, and state. We can accomplish much more by finding common ground and working together than we can individually.
  10. Be patient: There is just so much money to go around, so not every good project can be started immediately. Also, making smart, balanced choices and building quality infrastructure—while adhering to state and federal requirements—takes time.

People: Who Does What?

Everyone on this chart works for you! As a taxpayer and resident of this region, you are encouraged to help determine our area’s transportation priorities. For example, should we accommodate trucks to attract industry, or preserve more wildlife habitat and scenic views? Should we widen and straighten busy roads, or just maintain what we have? You can also help identify specific projects, such as intersections that could be made safer, highways that need wider shoulders, areas that should be served by public transit, or places where pedestrian safety could be improved.
Our counties, boroughs, cities, and other local governments are responsible for constructing and maintaining local roads and bridges (as opposed to state routes and interstates, which are PennDOT’s responsibility). Some of those transportation projects qualify for state and federal funding. Local government officials work with the RTAC and NTRPDC to find ways to accomplish as many projects in their jurisdiction as possible, advancing the interests of their constituents and our region.
The Rural Transportation Advisory Committee (RTAC) is made up of representatives of each county. PennDOT and other state and federal government representatives also participate, and members of the public are welcome to attend meetings. This group evaluates potential projects that qualify for state and federal funding, decides which are the most needed and best align with regional plans, and develops a list of projects to be completed over the next four years. That list is known as the Transportation Improvement Program, or TIP.
The Northern Tier Regional Planning and Development Commission (NTRPDC) is known as a Rural Planning Organization, or RPO, and leads regional long-range transportation planning, working closely with local governments. NTRPDC’s Planning Program Manager chairs the RTAC, and oversees the development of the TIP. NTRPDC presents the TIP for approval to PennDOT in Harrisburg, and testifies before the State Transportation Commission to make the case for funding projects in our region. NTRPDC also administers individual projects.
PennDOT has overall responsibility for transportation in Pennsylvania. It collaborates with regions to develop a statewide long-range transportation plan that outlines a vision and goals for the state, which guide the specific projects pursued statewide. PennDOT approves the TIPs for all the regions in Pennsylvania and compiles them into the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, or STIP, which designates how the state’s transportation funds will be spent. PennDOT encourages local plans and involvement, aligned with statewide priorities.
Pennsylvania’s legislators are responsible for developing and voting on the capital budget bill, which allocates state money to various agencies and initiatives. NTRPDC works with our local legislators to get candidate projects into the capital budget bill to ensure that they are funded.
The State Transportation Commission (STC) is comprised of 15 members, 10 of whom are state legislators. It assesses the projects and resources needed to maintain and expand Pennsylvania transportation facilities and services. The STC has the authority to allocate and prioritize funds through final approval of Pennsylvania’s STIP and the statewide Twelve-Year Program. NTRPDC’s Transportation Planning Program Manager testifies before the STC to make the case for funding projects in the Northern Tier.
Congress, comprised of U.S. Representatives and Senators, develops and approves federal transportation legislation every six years. This legislation allocates the federal funding that flows into states and regions to pay for a portion of transportation projects and services. The current federal transportation legislation is known as SAFETEA-LU (say “safety-loo”).
Many rules about transportation planning and projects, such as the studies that must be undertaken and the people who need to be involved, are established by the federal government. State and local governments must comply with this U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) guidance to receive funding. Agencies that comprise the USDOT include the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, and others.

Plans: The Method Behind The Madness

Planning is done at the state, regional, and local levels. Certain plans are long-range, establishing a general direction for where we want to head over the next two decades. Other plans are very specific “programs”—lists of actual projects that are funded and in progress or due to be under way soon. Here are the major transportation plans and programs that affect our region:

This plan is developed by PennDOT in collaboration with regional and local governments and a wide range of Pennsylvanians. It identifies a vision for Pennsylvania’s transportation future and establishes goals, objectives, and strategies to help achieve that vision. It sets broad direction for transportation projects and programs, but does not include a specific list of projects. It is normally updated every four or five years.
This plan is developed by NTRPDC in collaboration with local governments and area residents. It takes into account the priorities established through the statewide long-range transportation plan and translates them into goals and projects that address our region’s unique challenges and opportunities. It includes a list of potential projects to be undertaken in the near-term (within the next four years), mid-term (within 5-12 years), and long-term (within the next 12-20 years). This plan is normally updated every four years.
State law requires development of a Twelve-Year Program, which is updated every two years. It is a prioritized list of projects eligible for federal and state funding that are planned to be undertaken in our region over the next 12 years. Federal law requires development of a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), which is the first four-year segment of the Twelve-Year Program. Projects on the TIP are matched with funding committed by federal, state, and local sources. The TIP is updated every two years.

PennDOT’s Twelve-Year Program is a compilation of the Twelve-Year Programs of NTRPDC and the state’s other rural and metropolitan planning organizations. It is approved by the State Transportation Commission and allocates funding for projects over the next 12 years. It is updated every two years.

The STIP is the first four years of PennDOT’s Twelve-Year Program, and contains all the projects in Pennsylvania to be funded by state and federal money over the next four years. It is approved by the State Transportation Commission and updated every two years.

Processes: How It's Done and Why It Takes So Long

Money is not the only cost to consider with regard to transportation improvements. We need to be careful about how much open land we consume, what our transportation habits are doing to the environment, and how our communities are being shaped by the transportation facilities we build. To ensure these issues are properly considered and money is well spent, federal and state government have numerous requirements that must be met and formal processes that must be followed depending on the type and size of a project.

At its most basic level, the project development process boils down to this:

Project development in a nutshell

Of course, it’s not really that simple, and every project is unique. The development process varies according to mode, funding source, location, and myriad other variables. For a major federally-funded project, the typical development process looks more like this:

A transportation need—such as the need to reduce congestion and improve safety on a stretch of highway—is identified by a member of the general public, county or municipal officials, planning or engineering consultants, or PennDOT. An idea may be informally discussed as part of a long-range plan decades before it is the right time to pursue the idea in more detail.

The county or other responsible entity assesses what it would take to address the need. For example, should the highway be widened and straightened? What would the project cost? This step may take a few months to a few years as various solutions are explored.

The proposed project is presented to the RTAC (led by NTRPDC), which considers the relative importance and urgency of the project, and evaluates whether there is a less expensive way to address the transportation need. With dozens of important projects being evaluated at any given time, and certain planning cycles to follow, this process also takes time.

 If the project advances the region’s long-range vision and goals, it is included in the NTRPDC Long-Range Transportation Plan as a candidate project. The plan typically lists dozens of worthwhile projects, and is updated every four years.

If the project is determined to be necessary in the near- to medium-term and eligible for federal and state funding, it is added to NTRPDC’s TIP/TYP. That means that based on anticipated funding the project is expected to be launched sometime in the next 12 years. It still has to wait its turn, and it’s not always first come, first served. Projects are updated and rearranged depending on changing funding, availability of local resources, and the relative urgency of all needed projects. It can be years before near-term funds can be committed to a particular project.

The project finally starts! More detailed information is gathered on how the transportation issue can be addressed in the most beneficial, economical, and environmentally responsible way. Environmental studies are conducted as required and public outreach helps determine which option best suits the area’s needs and residents. This phase may take a year or more. Soon, preliminary studies may be undertaken earlier in response to guidance on “Linking Planning and NEPA” (the National Environmental Policy Act) established as part of SAFETEA-LU federal legislation.

After the “locally-preferred alternative” is identified and environmental requirements are satisfied, in-depth engineering is undertaken and the details of the design are worked out. If any new land will be required to complete the project, the process of acquiring the needed right-of-way begins. Depending on the complexity of the project, this step may take a year or more.

The construction contractor begins work, which may be executed in phases and needs to accommodate the weather, unexpected site conditions, and other considerations. Major bridges and highways take a few years to construct.

Finally the project becomes reality! The orange cones and bulldozers disappear and the highway or other transportation facility is opened to traffic. Certain benefits, such as improved safety and reduced congestion, are experienced immediately. Others, such as economic development, may take years to unfold.

Even after a highway or other transportation project is completed, it still requires money for upkeep. In fact, 80 percent of federal and state transportation funds are used to maintain our existing highways, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure. No wonder it takes so long to get a project built!

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