Office of Operations
21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

An Interim Guidebook on the Congestion Management Process
in Metropolitan Transportation Planning

2.0 Introduction


The Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act – A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the most recent reauthorization of the nation’s surface transportation program, made several changes to metropolitan and statewide transportation planning provisions, ranging from an increase in the percentage of funding available for metropolitan planning, to modifications of the transportation planning factors to be considered in long-range planning. Among the most significant changes was the updated requirement for a “congestion management process” (CMP) in Transportation Management Areas (TMAs – urban areas over 200,000 in population), as opposed to “congestion management systems” (CMS). The change in name (and acronym) is intended to be a substantive change in perspective and practice, to address congestion management through a process that provides for effective management and operations, an enhanced linkage to the planning process, and to the environmental review process, based on cooperatively developed travel demand reduction and operational management strategies as well as capacity increases.

The Congestion Management Process is consistent with the increased emphasis on management and operations in SAFETEA-LU. Both are part of an emerging concept focused on regional objectives that drive performance-based planning for responding to congestion. This new focus retains the traditional role of the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) in long-range transportation planning, but empowers the MPO and its partners in planning for the ongoing operations and management of the transportation system. The CMP builds upon more than a decade of experience with planning for congestion management, including the Congestion Management Systems first introduced in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), as well as the accumulated knowledge of how greater availability of data, enhanced tools for data management and modeling, expanded use of intelligent transportation systems, and opportunities for regional cooperation and collaboration can improve the active management of the regional transportation system.

A well-designed CMP should help the MPO to:

  • Identify congested locations;
  • Determine the causes of congestion;
  • Develop alternative strategies to mitigate congestion;
  • Evaluate the potential of different strategies;
  • Propose alternative strategies that best address the causes and impacts of congestion; and
  • Track and evaluate the impact of previously implemented congestion management strategies.

Once congestion management strategies have been identified and selected as part of the Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP), the CMP can also be used to:

  • Set priorities among projects for incorporation into the Transportation Improvement Program;
  • Provide information for environmental analysis of proposed projects;
  • Develop more detailed assessments of the potential for congestion, reduction at the corridor or activity-center level; and
  • Assist in the ongoing monitoring and evaluation of projects and programs implemented throughout the region.

This guidebook provides information on how to create an objectives-driven, performance-based congestion management process. While the focus of this guidebook is on the CMP, the principles of objectives-driven, performance-based planning can also be applied to other aspects of regional concern (safety, economic development, environment, etc.) in an MTP. The CMP represents the “state-of-the-practice” in responding to the growing challenge of congestion on urban transportation networks.

This guidebook will enable the user to develop a congestion management process that will build upon the basic concepts of the CMS to develop a CMP that is:

  • Objectives-driven; and
  • Draws upon performance measures, operations data, and existing processes such as the regional Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) architecture.


Titles III and VI of SAFETEA-LU, Sections 3005 and 6001, updated the requirement for addressing congestion in Transportation Management Areas (TMAs), mandating the incorporation of CMP within the metropolitan planning process. (See Appendix A for specific changes to the United States Code.)

In TMAs, SAFETEA-LU requires that the MPO “shall address congestion management through a process that provides for effective management and operation, based on a cooperatively developed and implemented metropolitan-wide strategy, of new and existing transportation facilities... through the use of travel demand reduction and operational management strategies.” The Final Rule on Statewide and Metropolitan Transportation Planning, published on February 14, 2007, states that “The development of a congestion management process should result in multimodal system performance measures and strategies that can be reflected in the metropolitan transportation plan and the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).”

The Conference Report accompanying SAFETEA-LU provides some insight into the intent of Congress in requiring a CMP:

“Subsection (i) involves transportation management areas, which are defined as urbanized areas with a population over 200,000. The transportation plans in these areas are based on a continuing and comprehensive planning process carried out by the MPO. Congestion management is achieved through the use of travel demand reduction and operational management strategies. Congestion relief activities under section 139 of title 23 are also to be used. The Secretary must certify that the planning process for each transportation management area is being carried out in accordance with Federal law no less often than every 4 years. This is a change from current law, which mandates certification every 3 years. The Secretary has the authority to withhold up to 20 percent of the funds attributable to the MPO if the metropolitan planning process of an MPO serving a transportation management area is not certified.

“Subsection (k) is consistent with subsection 134(l) of current law and states that a metropolitan planning area classified as non-attainment for ozone and carbon monoxide under the Clean Air Act may not receive funds for any highway project that will result in a significant increase in single-occupant vehicles. The only exception would be if the project were addressed through a congestion management process.”

TMAs are defined as metropolitan areas with a population greater than 200,000, but metropolitan areas can be designated TMAs at the request of the Governor and the MPO responsible for that region. TMAs account for 182 of the 385 MPOs nationwide; about 20 of these TMAs have populations under 200,000. Congestion represents a serious challenge for many MPOs, even those not designated as TMAs.

Congress also made specific reference to the treatment of state-mandated congestion management systems or programs. Such systems or programs were deemed to be consistent with the CMP, depending upon a finding by the Secretary of Transportation. In other words, the FHWA/FTA may determine that an existing congestion management system or program required under state law is, for all intents and purposes, a Congestion Management Process. This would depend on whether the existing process is consistent with the requirements set forth in the statute and in the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Final Rule.

Congestion exacts a heavy price on all elements of society, from the economy to individual quality of life. Whether it takes the form of trucks stalled in traffic, cargo stuck at overwhelmed seaports, or airplanes circling over crowded airports, congestion costs America an estimated $200 billion a year. In 2003, Americans lost 3.7 billion hours and 2.3 billion gallons of fuel sitting in traffic jams ( Congestion also affects quality of life by trapping people in traffic, taking up time that could be spent with families and friends and in participation in civic activities. Congestion in all of its forms is the target of a major U.S. DOT initiative, the National Strategy to Reduce Congestion on America’s Transportation Network (also known as the “Congestion Initiative”).

The CMP can potentially support three of the six areas of emphasis set forth in the National Strategy to Reduce Congestion on America’s Transportation Network, released in May, 2006.  (CMP may also contribute to development of congestion-reduction projects in the “Corridors of the Future” program.)

  • Relieve urban congestion
  • Unleash private sector investment resources
  • Promote operational and technological improvements
  • Establish a “Corridors of the Future” competition
  • Target major freight bottlenecks and expand freight policy outreach
Accelerate major aviation capacity projects and provide a future funding framework

The Congestion Management Process is intended to be an integral part of the metropolitan planning process, rather than a stand-alone program or system. The CMP also applies a new way of thinking about regional transportation systems management and operations (M&O). M&O is an integrated approach that seeks to optimize the performance of existing infrastructure through the implementation of multimodal, intermodal, and often cross-jurisdictional systems, services and projects. This includes regional operations collaboration and coordination activities between transportation and public safety agencies. M&O strategies aim at improving service efficiency, enhancing public safety and security, reducing traveler delays, and improving access to information for travelers. M&O strategies can include a broad range of activities, including incident management, travel demand management, freeway and arterial management, transit priority strategies, traveler information, and activities that support emergency preparedness and response. While M&O strategies can enable transportation operators to improve service without costly infrastructure projects, M&O is also built into many capital improvement programs to maintain efficient use of new capacity over the long-term.

Use of the CMP, while required for TMAs, represents good practice for planning in any urbanized area, particularly in fast-growing metropolitan areas and those with complex transportation networks. The CMP can be used to identify specific strategies that make the best use of new or existing transportation facilities, including but not limited to travel demand management, such as changes to land use, mode shifts, or changes to the time of day for travel; transportation systems management and operations, including approaches such as incident management through improved response to crashes, freeway management systems like ramp metering, improvements to arterial management such as traffic signal coordination, and improvements to transit operations; better travel information to help system users plan their trips in advance or respond to changing conditions; or capacity expansion through existing or new facilities as appropriate.

The new planning regulations relate the changes in law to current and evolving practice. The statute and regulations determine the scope of the CMP.

  • The CMP is required in metropolitan areas with a population greater than 200,000 (TMAs), as well as in urbanized areas that have requested designation as a TMA.
  • In TMAs in nonattainment of national ambient air quality standards for carbon monoxide or ozone, no Federal funds may be spent for capacity-expanding projects unless they come from a CMP.

Even if a metropolitan area is not a TMA or in non-attainment status, the CMP represents good practice in monitoring, assessing, and resolving congestion issues in any MPO. For a variety of reasons, the CMP offers a robust tool for identifying and evaluating transportation improvement strategies, including both operations and capital projects.

The Congestion Management Process is very closely aligned with the integration of transportation systems management and operations into the metropolitan planning process. Management and operations (M&O), which is discussed more extensively in a companion guidebook, has emerged as a vitally important approach to addressing both short-range and long-term transportation challenges.


“Management and Operations in the Metropolitan Transportation Plan: A Guidebook for Creating an Objectives-Driven, Performance-Based Plan,” presents information about M&O that complements the material in this Interim Guidebook on the Congestion Management Process in Metropolitan Transportation Planning. The M&O Guidebook provides an overall perspective on how management and operations can contribute to the development of the MTP. The M&O guidebook and the CMP guidebook were developed in tandem to ensure consistency of message and content.

SAFETEA-LU specifically requires consideration of M&O in the metropolitan transportation planning process; “Promote efficient system management and operation” is specifically identified as one of eight planning factors that must be taken into account in the development of the MTP (see Section 6001(h)). MPOs must also include “operational and management strategies to improve the performance of existing transportation facilities to relieve vehicular congestion and maximize the safety and mobility of people and goods.”

Figure 1. An Objectives-Driven CMP in the Planning Process

Figure 1- flow chart - Flow chart graphic showing the steps of the planning process with objectives (including regional operations) having a prominent role.  The graphic shows beginning with "planning factors" which flow to the regional vision and goals.  From there the Objectives flow to the Congestion Management Process.  CMP flows to the selection of strategies, which flow to the metropolitan transportation plan, on to the transportation improvement program.  The graphic indicates a continuous flow with an implementation step and monitoring and evaluation feeding back to the regional vision and goals.

The intent of this document is to offer information on current best practice and emerging approaches in addressing congestion through a systematic, objectives-driven, performance-based process (as shown in Figure 1). The congestion management process, highlighted and represented in the shaded boxes of Figure 1, provides a useful tool for realizing plan objectives relating to congestion through system operations and management, travel demand strategies, and new capacity where appropriate. The suggested approach is consistent with the Final Rule on Statewide and Metropolitan Transportation Planning, published on February 14, 2007.


Today the public expects and demands an effective transportation system that fosters mobility, safety, and security, while protecting environmental resources and enhancing economic development, community resources, and quality of life. Meeting this multitude of challenges requires a new way of thinking about how we plan for transportation in the nation’s metropolitan regions. This new way of thinking embraces objectives-driven, performance-based planning and emphasizes management and operations as a new focus for metropolitan transportation planning.

Historically, MPOs have developed long range plans with a 20 to 25 year horizon, focused on the capital investments (highways, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities) needed to satisfy the anticipated demand. While these demands remain important and must be considered, the reality is that, in most metropolitan areas, this traditional approach is constrained by limited funding, environmental and quality of life considerations, and land use considerations. Additionally, given the long lead times for the capital investments to be constructed, the public remains frustrated by the lack of mobility improvements within a shorter timeframe. It is time for metropolitan transportation planning to provide a mix of long-term capital investment and both long-term and near-term operational enhancements to the regional transportation system.

The objectives that particularly concern developers of the congestion management process derive from the vision and goals articulated in the metropolitan transportation plan. Participants in the planning process engage in the development of a long-range vision of the transportation system, presenting a shared view of how the region’s highways, transit system, and other facilities contribute to achieving generally agreed-upon goals for mobility, access to jobs and other opportunities, economic development, environmental integrity, equity and environmental justice, and others. These goals are then used to derive regional objectives in each goal area. The objectives that will be most closely linked to the CMP address the management and operation of the region’s transportation system as shown in Figure 2. These include objectives related to efficiency, reliability, and effective response to incidents. These regional operations objectives are specific and quantifiable, but are established at a regional scale as opposed to the corridor or facility level. (While objectives are set at the regional level, nothing precludes MPOs from establishing different performance targets for specific corridors or activity areas.) Figure 2 illustrates various statutory requirements and planning factors representing the metropolitan planning process, including the need for involvement of various participants in the process.

Figure 2. Metropolitan Planning in Context

Figure 2 - graphic - Graphic of the planning context as a whole showing a ring with congestion management process along with consistency with the ITS architecture,  coordinating with state and local agencies, coordinating with local elected officials, consultation with federal, state, and tribal agencies, ADA title VI environmental justice, and air quality conformity.  This ring surrounds the eight planning factors which surround and make up those elements considered in the metropolitan transportation plan.  On the outside of the ring there influencing factors shown as fiscal constraint and the participation plan.


The CMP is as much a way of thinking about congestion-related issues as it is a set of technical tools. To put it another way, the CMP uses a number of analytic tools to define and identify congestion within a region, corridor, activity center or project area, and to develop and select appropriate strategies to reduce congestion or mitigate the impacts of congestion. There are several common characteristics of “state-of-the-practice” congestion management processes, including:

  • Links to operations objectives, driven by the goals expressed in the MTP;
  • Defines systematic methods to monitor and evaluate system performance;
  • Focuses comprehensively on management and operations, demand management, land use, and new capacity as ways to manage congestion;
  • Uses performance measures to identify, evaluate, and monitor congestion and congestion management strategies;
  • Defines a program of data collection and management, preferably incorporating existing data sources (including archived ITS data if available), and coordinated with system operations managers throughout the metropolitan area;
  • Details technical capabilities for evaluating the potential effectiveness of demand management and operational strategies;
  • Defines implementation schedules or timetables for delivery of M&O strategies, including assignment of resources and responsibilities;
  • Defines procedures for periodic review of the effectiveness of strategies selected for implementation, as well as assessments of the usefulness of performance measures and supporting data; and
  • Considers congestion, its causes, and possible remedies in a holistic way, encompassing a broad range of multimodal transportation and non-transportation elements.

As noted above under section 1.2, the CMP can be linked to state requirements for congestion management systems and plans. This approach is intended not only to ensure continuity with congestion management approaches developed prior to SAFETEA-LU, but also to reinforce the CMP as an element of the overall planning process.

The CMP benefits greatly from a systematic approach to collecting and managing data for performance measurement. Such a “congestion management system” is necessary, but not sufficient for the purposes of the CMP. The Congestion Management Process also requires analysis and strategy development components.

  • The CMP may yield reports on congested locations, congestion mitigation strategies, and system performance, but such stand-alone “congestion management plans” are not the focus of the Congestion Management Process. The CMP is intended to provide strategies for inclusion in the metropolitan long-range transportation plan, and may also be used for intermediate and short-term planning purposes.


The congestion management process contributes to achievement of regional congestion management objectives, and can deliver a number of collateral benefits as well. By addressing congestion through a comprehensive process, the CMP provides a framework for responding to congestion and other operational issues in a consistent, coordinated fashion. The CMP enables MPOs and their operating agency partners to measure performance, manage data, and analyze alternative strategies in a manner consistent with Federal requirements for environmental analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) therefore, perhaps reducing redundant efforts. The CMP also enables MPOs to bring an objective basis to the process to pinpoint those congestion management strategies that will allow the region to target the most congested areas and achieve the greatest benefit by targeting the investment. As discussed below, Federal policy encourages integration of the metropolitan transportation planning process with NEPA, particularly with respect to the use of data and analysis of alternatives.

The CMP has the potential to help MPOs and the operating agencies involved in the process to create a credible, defensible planning process that yields effective congestion management projects. By providing continuity in the application of data and analysis techniques throughout the development and analysis of congestion management strategies, the CMP offers the opportunity for effectively integrating previously disparate, “stove-piped” elements into a coherent planning process.

Some congestion management strategies can have positive impacts on air quality in a number of ways. For example, by reducing delay and stop-and-go traffic, congestion management strategies that aim at smoothing traffic flow could save fuel that would otherwise be wasted in congested conditions. This not only saves travelers, transit operators, and freight carriers money, kit also reduces the amount of emissions produces form idling. Furthermore, application of some travel demand reduction and operational management strategies, coupled with transit service improvements, can either reduce or defer the need for adding new capacity in congested corridors, as well as facilitate the management of new capacity now and in the future.


As noted in the accompanying Guidebook, Management and Operations in the Metropolitan Transportation Plan, integrating M&O into the metropolitan transportation planning process has benefits for transportation planners and operators, and the traveling public. By working toward optimizing the transportation system with management and operations strategies, transportation planners are better able to demonstrate to the public and elected officials that progress is being made on reducing congestion in the short-term with lower cost techniques. Similarly, operators are able to make their limited staff time and other resources go farther by collaborating with planners and other operators to address operations from a regional perspective. Transportation operations improvements made in one jurisdiction are reinforced by coordinated improvements in neighboring areas enabling travelers to move seamlessly across the region without encountering inconsistent traveler information, toll collection technologies, or traffic signal timing.

Given that the fundamental purpose of management and operations improvements is to better serve the transportation system user through improved system performance, operations objectives are preferably described in terms of system performance outcomes as experienced by users. Objectives focused on outcomes to the user address issues such as travel times, travel time reliability, and access to traveler information.

If outcome-based objectives are not feasible due to factors such as lack of operations data or lack of consensus among decision makers around an appropriate system-level performance objective, the partners may develop operations objectives in terms of the performance of the system managers or operators. These objectives refer to indicators such as percentage of traffic signals retimed, number of variable message signs deployed, or incident response time. Although these objectives tend to focus on specific strategies or techniques and are not as ideal as outcome-based objectives for inclusion in the MTP, they may be the best interim objective until more outcome-based objectives can be developed. Operations objectives, and the performance measures derived from these objectives, are discussed in more detail below.

Moreover, the act of defining an M&O goal and regional operations objectives in the MTP will place increased attention on the operational performance of the transportation system. By including operations objectives that address system performance issues, such as recurring and non-recurring congestion, emergency response times, connectivity among modes, and access to traveler information, the MTP will yield programs and strategies that more effectively address these concerns. Rather than focusing primarily on long-range system capacity needs, the MTP will encourage operations to play a more important role in transportation investment planning, and address both short-range and long-range needs.


This guide is designed to help MPO to create an objectives-driven, performance-based congestion management process that meets SAFETEA-LU requirements for Transportation Management Areas.
The guidebook includes:

  • A discussion of objectives-driven, performance-based planning and the characteristics of the CMP (Section 2);
  • The Basics of CMP, including defining eight steps to developing a CMP (Section 3):
  • “Development and Implementation of an Objectives-Driven CMP,” which provides information about getting started in the development of the CMP, either building such a process from the ground up, or adapting existing systems and procedures (Section 4); and
  • Information about how the CMP can provide a link to the environmental review process, as well as other potential applications of the CMP approach (Section 4).
    Also included is a self-assessment tool that can provide a perspective on where an MPO stands in implementing the CMP (Section 6). Appendices provide a glossary of useful terms and references to other resources.
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