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U.S. Department of Transportation

The Regional Concept for Transportation Operations: A Practitioner's Guide

1. Introduction

1.1 Purpose and Background

This practitioner's guide is a collection of the observed successes and lessons learned from four metropolitan regions as they developed Regional Concepts for Transportation Operations (RCTOs), a management tool used by planners and operations practitioners to define a strategic direction for improving regional transportation management and operations in a collaborative manner. The purpose of this document is to provide information on how to develop and implement an RCTO effectively and efficiently by highlighting practices that have been used successfully to overcome challenges by the four implementing regions that forged ahead into this new territory. This guide offers lessons from these pioneering sites that can help other implementing regions to select the methods that are most effective in improving regional transportation system performance.

Figure 1. The 2007 FHWA Publication, Regional Concept for Transportation Operations – The Blueprint for Action
Screenshot of the cover of the Regional Concept for Transportation Operations document.

In 2005, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) began working with four regions interested in increasing collaboration and improving operations through the use of an RCTO. These regions served as "demonstration sites" and were willing to share insights into how best to carry out the process of developing an RCTO with FHWA and the public. This document combines the insights gained from observing and learning from the demonstration site teams over the course of approximately 5 years into a collection of techniques and approaches to be considered as practitioners work together to develop their RCTOs.

The idea for an RCTO was first identified by a broad-based working group on linking planning and operations, sponsored by FHWA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), as an effective way to link transportation operations and transportation planning. FHWA later published Regional Concept for Transportation Operations – The Blueprint for Action,1 a primer on the RCTO that describes the elements of an RCTO and its development.

Building on this work, FHWA invited public agencies to apply for demonstration projects through which participating jurisdictions and agencies within a region could increase collaboration by developing an RCTO. Initially, three sites were selected for RCTO demonstration projects: the greater Tucson region, with the Pima Association of Governments (PAG) as the lead entity; Southeast Michigan, with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) as the lead entity; and Portland, Oregon, with the City of Portland as the lead entity. Shortly after the initiation of the demonstration initiatives, agencies led by the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization (HRTPO) and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) in the Hampton Roads region began developing an RCTO, and this collaborative activity was incorporated into the demonstration effort. Each of the four demonstration sites created its own process to develop an RCTO, tailored to the region's needs, current activities, and inter-agency relationships.

Common features across all four demonstration sites include:

The RCTO and the process for developing an RCTO proved to be valuable in the demonstration sites and, at least in some cases, were institutionalized as the mechanism for identifying operations projects to be funded through the regional transportation improvement program (TIP). While the RCTO process can be independent of the planning process in cases where it focuses primarily on how operators work together on a day-to-day basis, it can be an effective mechanism for incorporating operations considerations into the planning process so that funds needed to implement operations strategies can be integrated into regional capital investment plans.

This guide highlights insights gained from the four Federal Highway Administration RCTO demonstration sites:
  • Southeast Michigan
  • Tucson, Arizona metropolitan area
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Hampton Roads, Virginia

This guide is designed first to give the reader a brief background on the RCTO and the demonstration sites and then to showcase insights and lessons on developing an RCTO based on the demonstration sites' experiences. Following that design, the remainder of this chapter defines an RCTO, its benefits, and its maintenance needs. Chapter 2 provides a snapshot of the four demonstration sites, including their RCTOs' focus areas, approaches, and outcomes. Key insights derived from the demonstration sites' experiences for the successful development of an RCTO are captured in Chapter 3. The guide concludes with a look to the future of the RCTO and a checklist for developing and sustaining an RCTO in Appendix A. Throughout its contents, the document highlights the role of the RCTO in the transportation planning process.

1.2 What is an RCTO?

As defined in Regional Concept for Transportation Operations – The Blueprint for Action, an RCTO is a management tool that assists in planning and implementing management and operations strategies in a collaborative and sustained manner. Developing an RCTO helps partnering agencies think through and reach consensus on what they want to achieve in the next 3 to 5 years and how they are going to accomplish it in the region. For the purposes of an RCTO, a region is considered to be any multi-jurisdictional area defined by the collaborative partners; that area may or may not coincide with the boundaries of a metropolitan planning organization (MPO). An RCTO helps to formalize existing collaborative relationships and defines a common direction for the future, essentially "getting everyone on the same page." By implementing an RCTO, partners put into action within 3 to 5 years operations strategies that they will sustain over the long term. While the 3- to 5-year timeframe may be adjusted to meet the needs of the region, this shorter duration allows time for many management and operations strategies to be implemented while keeping the RCTO responsive to current system performance needs. Additionally, the timeframe offers a middle ground between operators who are focused on day-to-day activities and planners who are looking 20 to 25 years into the future.

An RCTO focuses on operations objectives and strategies within one or more management and operations functions of regional significance such as traveler information, road weather management, or traffic incident management. The topic of an RCTO reflects regional expectations and opportunities and may be motivated by a growing awareness of diminishing levels of service, a mandate from officials, a recent natural disaster, a special event, or a shortage of resources. Within a region, there may be multiple RCTOs that focus on different operations functions or services.

The six key elements of a Regional Concept for Transportation Operations are:

  • Motivation ("Why"): Reasons for developing an RCTO based on regional needs, goals, or operational concerns.
  • Operations Objective ("What"): Desired nearterm outcome(s) in terms of transportation system performance and related performance measures.
  • Approach ("How"): Overall description of how the operations objective will be achieved.
  • Relationships and Procedures: Institutional arrangements, memoranda of understanding (MOUs), protocols, information sharing, etc.
  • Physical Improvements: Facilities, equipment, systems, etc.
  • Resource Arrangements: Sources and use of funding, staff, equipment, etc.

Participants in developing and implementing an RCTO may be managers and decisionmakers from local, State, or regional transportation agencies responsible for day-to-day operations, metropolitan planning organizations, and public safety entities. Depending on the scope of the RCTO, non-traditional participants such as freight operators, tourism bureaus, and economic development agencies may need to be engaged. Well-respected leaders who are willing to champion the common goals of the partners and guide the development of the RCTO are necessary for its success. It may be most effective to have a leader involved with transportation planning as well as a leader from the operations community in order to bridge the two communities and bring an understanding of both planning and operations to the task of developing an RCTO. The following are examples of participants who could be involved in developing an RCTO:

At the core, an RCTO defines what the participants would like to achieve and how they are going to achieve it. This core takes form in six elements that serve as a common framework for developing an RCTO for a specific region. Central to an RCTO, the operations objective defines the desired outcome, the "what," in specific and measurable terms. The motivation supports the operations objective by grounding the collaborative action in regional needs, agency goals, or operational concerns. The other four elements—approach, relationships and procedures, resource arrangements, and physical improvements—work in concert to define "how" the partners will attain the operations objective. While the approach is the overall scheme for the collaborative effort, the remaining elements—relationships and procedures, resource arrangements, and physical improvements—translate the approach into the specific, tangible elements that are required to achieve the operations objective. The requirements should be described in sufficient detail for decisionmakers to make informed commitments regarding resources and institutional arrangements.

The following diagram illustrates how an RCTO could be developed. There are three distinct phases. As shown, the motivation element is not created during the development of an RCTO. It is an issue observed by the partners that prompts the initiation of an RCTO and is then recorded. The first phase is largely driven by values and needs, and it consists of forming the operations objective, which establishes the desired outcome. The second phase identifies possible approaches to achieving the operations objective and culminates in the selection of a particular course of action. The third phase translates the approach into more specific, tangible elements that guide joint or coordinated actions including system design, resource allocation, and inter-agency and multi-jurisdictional agreements.

Figure 2. Development Phases of an RCTO
Graphic shows the development phases of an RCTo, which begins with motivation, moves into phase one with developing operations objectives, proceeds to phase two with the development of the approach, and concludes in phase three with identifying relationships and procedures, making resource arrangements, and applying physical improvements. Note that this process is characterized by a constant stream of feedback throughout all phases.

This process is inherently iterative in nature in that operations objectives or the approach may need to be revised once the necessary relationships, resources, and other commitments are fully understood.

1.3 Benefits of an RCTO

"The RCTO, with an emphasis on transportation outcomes, made it feasible to bring planners and operators together. Talking about outcomes of operations is a great way to achieve the bridge between planners and operators."

— Jonathon Makler, Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium; formerly with Metro and City of Portland, Oregon

An RCTO imparts significant benefits to operators and planners, who are part of a collaborative effort to advance management and operations strategies in a region. An RCTO helps to advance and strengthen the collaboration, and, in turn, the collaboration brings tangible benefits to the participating agencies and the public. The ultimate benefit of an RCTO is the improvement in regional transportation system performance that is realized when jurisdictions and agencies work together toward commonly held operations objectives.

Strengthening the Collaborative Effort

The collaborative effort between operators and planners is strengthened because an RCTO:

A further advantage of developing and implementing an RCTO comes in the form of the institutional memory created by following a process for developing operations objectives and the strategies for achieving them. Operational improvements often come about because of the effort, interest, and expertise of individuals or individual agencies, and there may be little or no record of how potential improvements were identified or adopted. An RCTO leaves an "audit trail" of decisions, agreements, and actions taken collectively and by individual agencies and, importantly, how these decisions, agreements, and actions relate to achieving operations objectives.

Benefits to Transportation Planners

Participating in the development of an RCTO offers several benefits to metropolitan transportation planners. Planners from MPOs are responsible for fostering the involvement of all users (including operators) of the transportation system in preparing and maintaining a metropolitan transportation plan. Additionally, MPOs must respond to requirements in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU)-the funding and authorization bill that governs U.S. Federal surface transportation spending-for considering management and operations in the transportation planning process. "Promote efficient system management and operation"2 is one of the eight planning factors that must be addressed in metropolitan transportation plans. According to SAFETEA-LU, the metropolitan transportation plan must 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."3 Furthermore, a congestion management process that provides for the "safe and effective integrated management and operation of the multimodal transportation system"4 is required in transportation management areas (TMA).

To help address these requirements, metropolitan planners can use an RCTO as a tool to bring operators and operations considerations into the planning process. Among its many benefits, an RCTO can:

In the Southeast Michigan demonstration site, the close work between the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and operating agencies helped the participants to recognize more opportunities and benefits of collaborating on operations issues. The leader from SEMCOG noted that the RCTO operating agency participants saw that they could benefit from SEMCOG's regional data analysis and forecasting, helping them attain a broader understanding of current and future conditions. The leader also noted that regional planners at SEMCOG have an even better understanding of the needs of operators in the region as a result of their RCTO development and are now in a better position to provide input on operations improvements from a regional perspective.

Benefits to Transportation Operators

The primary benefits to transportation operators are realized as the participating jurisdictions and agencies take action on what they agree to do in an RCTO. Most regions do not have an overarching entity (jurisdiction or agency) with executive control over reporting organizations and functions. Consequently, benefits depend upon individual agencies acting together to implement an RCTO. This requires that participating agencies have the support and commitment of their leadership and that they be able to demonstrate anticipated benefits to the leadership as the benefits accrue.

Figure 3. The 2007 FHWA Publication, The Collaborative Advantage –
Realizing the Tangible Benefits of Regional Transportation Operations Collaboration

Screen capture of the publication cover for 'The Collaborative Advantage' document.

FHWA recently published The Collaborative Advantage – Realizing the Tangible Benefits of Regional Transportation Operations Collaboration.5 Figure 2 (top left) shows some of the tangible benefits that can accrue directly to the agencies working together. The benefits can accrue in terms of the quantity or quality of resources available, agency operations, and outcomes that help achieve agency goals. When agencies work together to secure resources and perform the functions needed to achieve the RCTO objectives, they find ways to acquire and apply resources efficiently: sharing critical skills, negotiating favorable terms in joint purchasing decisions, sharing facilities, developing standards for materials and supplies that allow resource sharing, etc. They also establish common procedures and practices and share information so that they perform key functions more effectively and in ways that are seamless from the perspective of system users. Through collaboration, agencies can reduce duplication in service or combine project needs and submit a joint application for funding.

The collaborating partner—those responsible for developing, implementing, and maintaining the RCTO—must realize, measure, and publicize the benefits of the RCTO to senior decisionmakers and the public in ways that enable those groups to understand the importance of a regional approach to transportation systems management and operations.

Figure 4. Benefits of Implementing an RCTO can Accrue to Individual Agencies and to End Users of the Regional Transportation System.6
Diagram depicts a series of benefits from implementing an RCTO.

1.4 Updating and Maintaining an RCTO

An RCTO has a recommended time horizon of 3 to 5 years and requires updating as operational objectives are achieved, new demands are realized, new requirements are established, and new possibilities are conceived. Ideally, a schedule for re-visiting the RCTO objectives, performance measures, and approaches should be established during the development of the RCTO along with responsibilities for leading that effort. Updating the RCTO will ensure that it stays useful and relevant given current circumstances.

In many cases, an RCTO is developed in response to a particular event or concern that gains visibility because of its immediate effect on customers or, importantly, individuals in leadership positions. The motivation for developing an RCTO is driven by a particular problem that needs to be addressed either because of its inherent urgency or because of the visibility it has gained with senior leadership. While developing an RCTO in response to an urgent need may be desirable, it may not be sustainable beyond the time the event or incident was "front page" news. Consequently, updating and maintaining an RCTO should be a more deliberate, thoughtful, collaborative activity that transitions from addressing mutual problems to identification of opportunities for improving regional transportation system performance through a wide range of strategies. Ultimately, an RCTO becomes a fully integrated element of the way a regional transportation system is managed.

The transition from "problem solving" to "performance management" to "regional transportation system integration" is both important and non-trivial as illustrated in Figure 3.7 It is important because, unless the partners seek the higher level approaches, the RCTO will continue to focus exclusively on the visible problems, overlooking opportunities for regional integration (institutional, policy, technical) where greater benefits can be realized. It is non-trivial because it is at the higher levels of integration where greater trust is required among participating agencies and jurisdictions since regional integration typically requires data and resource sharing, more complex institutional arrangements, and, importantly, greater reliance on partner agencies and jurisdictions in performing functions related to achieving regional goals. When agencies and jurisdictions seek integrated approaches at a regional level, they demonstrate a long-term commitment to addressing needs of individual jurisdictions in the context of meeting regional needs. The challenge decisionmakers face is that of satisfying their individual constituencies while at the same time thinking regionally. An RCTO can help capture the vision of transportation system operation that can be used to secure funding, improve performance, build solid partnerships, and communicate benefits to senior decisionmakers and the traveling public.

Accountability during implementation of an RCTO is needed to ensure that the approach identified in the RCTO is acted on and that the work of the group actually leads in the direction of the operations objective. Performance measurement is needed and is an essential part of "acting together." Monitoring performance and measuring progress toward common objectives helps to maintain the RCTO by providing feedback that reinforces the commitment to the objectives and identifying opportunities for expanding the RCTO to include additional jurisdictions, agencies, and functions.

Reaching an operations objective and then halting is not enough effort to attain sustained benefits from an RCTO. While an RCTO describes how the participants should work together to reach an objective, an RCTO should also put in place relationships and processes for acting together that sustain an operations objective. For example, if an RCTO objective is to synchronize traffic signals throughout a network of major arterials in the region, individual jurisdictions may need to acquire (or participate in acquiring through joint purchasing agreements) and install the hardware and software required to achieve the objective. Moreover, once the necessary technology is deployed, individual jurisdictions (or agencies within jurisdictions) must consent to signal timing plans that achieve the agreed upon operational objectives, e.g., giving priority to major arterials during peak demand periods or agreeing to timing designed to move traffic to and from special events. To sustain the benefits of reaching the operations objective, the RCTO must also include commitment from the participants to continue to use coordinated signal timing plans and update them regularly.

Figure 5. The RCTO can Evolve from "Problem-Driven" to a Broader, Integrated Approach to Regional Transportation System Management and Operation. 8
Diagram shows the evolution of the RCTO from the point of mutal problem solving through performance management on to regional transportation system integration.

1U.S. Department of Transportation, FHWA, Regional Concept for Transportation Operations – The Blueprint for Action, FHWA-HOP-07-122 (Washington, DC, 2007). Available at:, last accessed June 13, 2011. [ Return to note 1. ]

2 United States Code, Title 23, Chapter 1, Section 134(h). [ Return to note 2. ]

3 United States Code, Title 23, Chapter 1, Section 134(i). [ Return to note 3. ]

4 United States Code, Title 23, Chapter 1, Section 134(k). [ Return to note 4. ]

5 U.S. Department of Transportation, FHWA, The Collaborative Advantage – Realizing the Tangible Benefits of Regional Transportation Operations Collaboration, FHWA-HOP-08-001 (Washington, DC, 2007). Available at:, last accessed June 13, 2011. [ Return to note 5. ]

6 U.S. Department of Transportation, FHWA, The Collaborative Advantage – Realizing the Tangible Benefits of Regional Transportation Operations Collaboration, FHWA-HOP-08-001 (Washington, DC, 2007). Available at:, last accessed June 13, 2011. [ Return to note 6. ]

7 U.S. Department of Transportation, FHWA, Regional Transportation Operations Collaboration and Coordination A Primer for Working Together to Improve Transportation Safety, Reliability, and Security (Washington, DC, 2003). Available at:, last accessed June 14, 2011. [ Return to note 7. ]

8U.S. Department of Transportation, FHWA, Regional Transportation Operations Collaboration and Coordination A Primer for Working Together to Improve Transportation Safety, Reliability, and Security (Washington, DC, 2003). Available at:, last accessed June 14, 2011. [ Return to note 8. ]

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