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Working with Regional Planning Organizations

Delaware & Lehigh Trail | Photo by Thom Carroll

Whether developing a single trail or an active transportation network, you will likely be working with multiple jurisdictions and municipalities. Developing a regional approach from the outset will benefit your trail but requires thoughtful consideration and close coordination with a variety of partners. In many areas, regional planning organizations exist to facilitate regional transportation planning efforts, including trails and active transportation, whether your trail is in an urban or rural setting.  

What is a Regional Council (RC) or Council of Government (COG)? 

According to the National Association of Regional Councils, RCs and COGs are “generally interchangeable, and might also be called regional planning commissions, regional commissions, or planning districts. The association defines an RC, or COG, as “a multi-service entity with state- and locally defined boundaries that delivers a variety of federal, state, and local programs while carrying out its function as a planning organization, technical assistance provider, and “visionary” to its member local governments.” 

COGs are voluntary associations, often covering multiple counties, focused on regional planning efforts. In addition to transportation planning, COGs may focus on other regional issues like economic development, air and water quality, and general planning support to member agencies. They often will house regional transportation planning organizations (RTPOs) and/or metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). While the structures and names vary, these organizations can play an important part of your trail development efforts as project partners and as possible funding sources. 

What is a Regional Transportation Planning Organization (RTPO)?

According to the Federal Highway Administration, a regional transportation planning organization (RTPO), sometimes also referred to as a rural planning organization, is “an organization that identifies local transportation needs, conducts planning, assists local governments, and supports the statewide transportation planning process in non-metropolitan regions of a State.” RTPOs focus on regional areas with a population of less than 50,000. RTPOs focus on regional areas with a population of less than 50,000.  

What is an MPO?

The Federal-Aid-Highway Act of 1962 requires metropolitan areas with a population greater than 50,000 form MPOs as a condition of receiving federal transportation funds. MPOs serving populations of 200,000 or more are designated as transportation management areas (TMAs) and often have additional planning responsibilities to meet the complex needs of their region. Often, MPOs are housed within regional planning organizations or COGs, like the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), which is developing the Central Ohio Greenways.

Regardless of the population size they serve, MPOs are required to oversee the region’s transportation planning and facilitate collaboration between governments, regional parties and residents in the planning process. Through a continuing, comprehensive and cooperative planning process (commonly known as 3C), MPOs give local communities an avenue to participate in decision-making so that their local transportation needs are reflected in regional priorities, including the importance of investing in walking and biking infrastructure. 

MPOs will often take a leading role in promoting regional mobility. They are uniquely positioned to engage and coordinate with stakeholders and provide technical assistance through data and the facilitation of information across jurisdictions. The vision, goals and objectives set during the planning process guide investments to promote walking and biking. Specifically, MPOs make decisions about the allocation of federal transportation dollars, including Transportation Alternatives funds, within the metropolitan area, based on these regional plans. 

What Exactly do MPOs do?

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the core functions of MPOs are to: 

  • Establish and manage a fair and impartial setting for effective regional decision-making. 
  • Identify and evaluate transportation improvement options. 
  • Prepare and maintain a metropolitan transportation plan (MTP)—also known as a long-range transportation plan (LRTP). 
  • Develop a transportation improvement program (TIP). 
  • Involve the general public and other affected constituencies in decision-making. 

Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP)

The transportation vision for the metro area is contained in the long-range transportation plan (LRTP). The LRTP covers a planning horizon of at least 20 years, with updates every five years. The plan outlines regional goals throughout the period and then details priority investments and anticipated funding to help achieve those outcomes. The LRTP is required to be created in a participatory planning process, keeping in mind issues ranging from regional economic development to mobility of goods and services and environmental justice. The plan can help create a synergy between policies and plans at the local and state levels. 

You might find that trails are included under a bike and/or pedestrian component of the plan. For example, the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization has incorporated their metro area’s 2040 Bike/Pedestrian Needs Plan, which includes trail improvement projects, into the 2040 LRTP. If one exists, a regional bicycle and pedestrian plan will often be integrated into the LRTP and then used to guide bike-ped priorities. 

Transportation Improvement Program (TIP)

The transportation improvement program (TIP) breaks down the LRTP into short-term and actionable chunks. The TIP contains priority transportation improvement projects derived from the LRTP to be commenced within a four- to five-year planning window. The projects are fiscally constrained, meaning they should be consistent with available and expected funding. Ultimately, to receive federal transportation funding, a project must be included in the TIP. The Miami-Dade TPO has an interactive portal to view a list of projects, maps and costs in their TIP. 

Unified Planning Work Program (UPWP)

The last and most detailed step in the planning process is preparing a unified planning work program (UPWP). The purpose of this document is to help coordinate the planning activities of all involved. It specifies the schedule, projected costs and resources required for planned projects, including planning studies and evaluations. The UPWP is prepared annually. 

How are MPOs Structured?

States have been given broad latitude to decide how to structure MPOs, so they will differ from place to place. An MPO might be a standalone agency with a sole focus on transportation, or it may be integrated into a host agency that has oversight functions beyond transportation. These are often housed under councils of government, for example, which are regional planning agencies composed of elected officials from jurisdictions within the metro area. Other MPOs may be housed within a county or municipal government. 

Whatever the case, these regional organizations usually consist of a policy board made up of elected officials from the MPO’s jurisdiction and representatives of transportation authorities. This is the main decision-making body of the organization. MPOs in TMAs must also include public transportation agency officials in the metro area on their policy boards and appropriate state officials. 

To inform the decision-making, the board relies on advisory committees. Most organizations will have, at the very least, a technical advisory committee and a citizen advisory committee. There might also be subcommittees on specific issues including safety, environmental justice, and bicycle and pedestrian issues.  

An MPO will also have a staff to support the board. Depending on the size of the organization, staffing numbers can range from two (often just executive director and a transportation planner) to dozens. They are the ones with the technical expertise to manage the planning process, including preparing documents and facilitating public input. 

Why are RPOs Important?  

By now, it should be clear that RPOs play a crucial role in regional transportation planning. But where do trails fit in? 

First and foremost, it is important and beneficial to advocate for the inclusion of trails in an LRTP and other regional transportation plans, since these documents can provide support for future trail systems and assist trail advocates in finding funding for the construction and maintenance of trails.  

Regional planning organizations almost always have competing modal priorities, but there are many examples of RPOs that readily recognize the importance of trails and steps advocates can take to inform regional leaders about the importance of trails. For instance, the plan produced by the MPO for Black Hawk County, Iowa, comprehensively integrates the area’s growing trail system with broader regional transportation needs. The Lexington Area MPO in Kentucky earmarks a certain percentage of funding for bike-ped projects according to their regional plan, which specifically emphasizes off-road trails. And the Greater Nashville Regional Council established an Active Transportation Grant Program in 2010 “to provide additional funding to local governments and transit agencies seeking to improve walking and bicycling conditions across the region.” As a result, the percentage of projects containing a walking or biking element shot up significantly. 

Finally, MPOs can go beyond factoring trails into their planning and allocating funding to projects, and play an important role in actively encouraging the growth, development and use of trails and trail networks. In the Greater Philadelphia region, for instance, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) has partnered with other groups, including RTC, to help develop the Circuit Trails, a planned 800-miles-plus network of multiuse trails in the region. In this case, DVRPC leverages its unique structure and large professional staff to help ground the effort in policy, build political will and source funding. In the Fargo-Moorhead region of North Dakota and Minnesota, the MPO has mapped their multiuse paths and other bicycle infrastructure and provides resources to encourage biking under an initiative called Bike FM

MPOs and Funding 

Beginning in 2012 and continuing through the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, MPOs are mandated to develop a competitive process for awarding TA funds to local entities such as transportation planning agencies, school districts, local governments and other organizations. You can read more about the federal funding sources channeled through MPOs, as well as other sources of funding for trails, in the Funding page of the Trail-Building Toolbox. 

MPOs are also important partners when applying for state and federal funding. The inclusion of trails in regional plans demonstrates the importance—and buy-in for—active transportation in a region. Staff may be well positioned to write letters of support for grant applications or help produce technical documentation.  

How to Engage Your MPO 

The following are specific tips for engaging and working with your MPO: 

  • Find out when the board of your MPO meets and how to best engage with upcoming planning processes and in MPO meetings. Learn to understand the dynamics of discussion and decision-making, and be a voice for trails in the room. Unlike local council meetings, public engagement at meetings is often lacking, so your advocacy—if structured properly—can be quite influential.  
  • Plug in to your MPO’s various advisory committees to influence the funding and planning processes. You can also volunteer to sit on a committee. 
  • Connect with transportation professionals or elected officials on the MPO’s board or advisory committees who represent member agencies at the city or county level. Your relationship with them might lead to successful collaboration on the development of your trail project. 
  • Be aware that MPO staff can be crucial allies. They are well placed to offer insight on navigating the politics or administrative processes of the MPO, including grant application timelines and policy changes. Find the relevant staff person—it may be a transportation planner, bike-ped coordinator or someone else with specialized expertise—and cultivate productive relationships with them. 
  • Familiarize yourself with your region’s transportation and development plans, and relate your project to the broader objectives discussed within it. Reflect the language of the plan in your project materials to bolster your argument. 


It is important to understand the structure and levels of influence regional planning organizations have on transportation priorities. It might be possible, for example, that your state DOT or local leadership have more of a say on which projects sit at the top of the pile than your MPO. 

When approaching any organization for the first time, a great place to start is the organization’s website. You can find any of the more than 400 MPOs around the United States here. The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section of each MPO’s website will usually give a quick overview. You can also find other relevant information on their website, such as board structures, board and committee meeting schedules, staff contacts, and planning documents. They may even have an existing trail network plan to review.  

Look for projects similar to yours within the MPO’s service area, and try to understand from those involved the politics and process of their funding source. They may also be able to direct you to the right folks to help champion your trail. 

Some MPOs can be less than enthusiastic about trails and might instead choose to focus their energies on other modes, like highways or transit. In this instance, it is particularly important to build relationships with staff and members of the governing board, attend meetings and demonstrate public support for trails. Building an engagement strategy will help you think about the relationships and levels of influence you can build and deploy in support of your trail. Developing trails is typically a multiyear effort that often requires some tenacity and ingenuity, and these relations can help.  


‣ Plan – The Sioux Falls MPO Multi-use Trail Study

‣ Plan – Spalding County Rail with Trail Mutli-Use Study

TrailNation Collaborative

TrailNation Collaborative is a nationwide peer learning community from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that brings together advocates, leaders and professionals from across disciplines to establish and accelerate trail networks across America. The collaborative provides proven tools, methods and resources, combined with RTC’s expertise and network of partners across the country, to accelerate the development of connected trail systems. When trails are connected across regions and states, trail networks have a proven transformative impact—they are essential infrastructure that creates thriving, healthier communities.

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