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U.S. Department of Transportation

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

4. Looking Ahead

The experiences of RCTO developers and implementers in Tucson, Portland, Southeast Michigan, and Hampton Roads show that the RCTO does indeed fill a need within regions where there is the motivation to make improvements to transportation operations through a collaborative and strategic process. Through the demonstration sites, the RCTO has successfully gone from concept to reality.

The ideas underlying the RCTO and how to develop it have been advanced as a result of collaborative teams in four regions willing to take the initial framework of an RCTO, experiment with it, and apply it to the operations needs in their region. The pathway was not always clear for the demonstration teams, but along the way several significant shifts took place among the organizations and collaborative groups. The result was a closer linkage between planning and operations for all sites. In Tucson, participants are working to transform single-agency projects into projects that are regional in nature, and this has helped infuse operations into some of the smaller jurisdictions. In Southeast Michigan, operating agencies have gained a greater understanding of the planning process and potential resources: funding, data, and support. In Portland, the demonstration initiative has led to a much greater consideration of operations needs and performance measures in the planning process. Operators working in collaboration across agencies no longer need to work under the radar as they have increased support from the public, elected officials, and the MPO. According to the Portland RCTO leader, "Ultimately, the project has produced stronger relationships and a stronger commitment across agencies to collaborating in this field." In Hampton Roads, a tool to closely monitor and adjust operations based on performance measurement has been established. The effort has further expanded communication and cooperation between public safety and transportation in Hampton Roads as they work as a team to improve incident management for their customers and each other.

At the end of the demonstration site initiative, the RCTO leaders were asked to give an honest evaluation of the usefulness of the RCTO tool. All site leaders agreed that the RCTO is beneficial and serves an important purpose. It helps to keep the process of planning for operations on track and focused on achieving desired outcomes. The Tucson leader remarked that stakeholders in Tucson benefited from the development of the RCTO because it provided them a way to make needed improvements in operations that no single agency was willing or able to do alone. In Portland, the participants saw the RCTO as an effective way to harness political energy for operations improvements that led to a strategic, well thought-out approach for bringing about the desired changes. Without such a tool, there is "a risk that the benefits of a transportation strategy will not be fully realized and/or implementation will not occur in the most efficient manner possible."37

As the demonstration sites continue implementing their RCTOs, the concept has begun to take hold in a few other regions in the United States. The Puget Sound Regional Council and the Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition among others have recently spearheaded the development of RCTOs or similar collaborative strategies (see text box).

With transportation funding and environmental concerns on the rise, agencies are looking to maximize the performance of their transportation infrastructure. The RCTO is a tool that transportation stakeholders are increasingly using to improve strategic and collaborative operations and to connect to the metropolitan planning process.

Puget Sound Regional Transportation Operations Committee RCTO

In 2007, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) and its member organizations began the joint development of an RCTO and a Regional ITS Implementation Plan (RITSIP). The RCTO was intended to define a coordinated approach for regional signal operations whereas the RITSIP was to identify 25 key arterial multi-jurisdictional corridors and the recommended ITS physical improvements for each corridor including signal improvements.38 The motivation for developing an RCTO on signal operations arose when signal operations were evaluated for the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Traffic Signal Report Card and weaknesses were identified. In response to the assessment, the PSRC Regional Transportation Operations Committee formed as a coalition of city, county, and State agencies to promote a coordinated approach to traffic operations and it continues to meet regularly.

The operations stakeholders first established the mission, vision, goals, objectives, and associated performance measures for coordinated operations in the region to guide the operations committee, and by extension, the RCTO and RITSIP.

Signal-related objectives include:

  • "Maximize throughput on regional arterials by improving signal timing, coordination, and management across jurisdictional boundaries."
  • "Improve reliability of traffic flow on regional arterials through improved incident/event management."
  • "Promote implementation of ITS measures (equipment and/or operational) that will provide arterial operational improvements to mitigate the impact of mega-project construction on the freeways in the region."39

Early in the process of developing the RCTO and RITSIP, PSRC surveyed the operations committee agencies to gather information on signal systems and other ITS and to gauge interest and perceived barriers in increased levels of collaboration and coordination. One of the barriers identified for center-to- center data sharing and operations was the variety of different types of central control system software and traffic signal controllers being used across the region. Another finding that proved important for the RCTO was that a significant number of agencies were planning to replace their central software and signal controllers in the near future.

PSRC also looked across the country and gathered best practices for regional signal operations to inform the selection of a strategy for the RCTO. Through a workshop and several committee meetings, the region's operators agreed upon a common strategy for implementing coordinated signal operations. The operations committee developed a flexible, scalable framework for implementation that allows for both time-based coordination on corridors where center-to-center operation costs outweigh benefits and strategic application of center-to-center operation on other corridors.40 The RCTO was created at a higher level than the RCTOs developed as part of the FHWA demonstration initiative. The PSRC RCTO provides steps such as "Define Program," "Define Performance Measures," "Develop and Sign Agreement," and detailed instructions for implementing the common signal operations strategy. It is a plan for action that would be implemented once one or more multijurisdictional corridor projects defined in the RITSIP are funded. PSRC also provided a template for a regional signal operations agreement based on a review of multiple signal agreements in the U.S.41

The PSRC RCTO and RITSIP were created during the update of the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan and could therefore be easily integrated into the plan. The ITS corridor projects were included in the plan, but were generally not selected for funding during the 2008 call for projects for inclusion in the 2010-2013 TIP. PSRC suggests that the initial difficulty in getting project funding was likely due to a lack of champions among decisionmakers and selection criteria that benefitted centers rather than corridors.

In reflecting on lessons learned through the RCTO development, PSRC remarked that they would have benefitted from a senior-level champion. It may have also helped to develop the RCTO before the start of the regional transportation plan update for additional time to educate decisionmakers on the projects well before funding was programmed.

One of the RCTO benefits noted by PSRC was that it helps to keep operators engaged and collaborating as part of the operations committee. The process has engaged engineers in the planning process and better equipped them to champion the selection of operations/ITS projects. The planners involved have benefited by having an ITS/operations strategy to incorporate into the regional plan.


Stephanie Rossi, Puget Sound Regional Council at

Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition's RCTO

The Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition (NITTEC) completed the development of an RCTO in 2010 to define specific, tangible operations activities for the Coalition over the next 10 years.42 With recent turnover of leaders in the region, the Coalition wanted to provide a record of how it currently operated, what the participating members had agreed upon for the future, and the rationale for its collaborative activities. The RCTO would serve as a legacy for future operations leaders, planners, and Coalition staff. The development of the RCTO was an action item in the NITTEC Strategic Plan 2007, a higher level document. In conjunction with the RCTO, NITTEC also began an integrated corridor management (ICM) initiative. The ICM initiative focused on priority corridors in contrast to the RCTO which covered the entire region. Additionally, the ICM initiative had more aggressive performance targets (referred to as goals in the NITTEC and ICM literature) because it was more narrowly focused.

The RCTO was developed through bi-national workshops with NITTEC management and stakeholder groups. The workshops focused on U.S. and Canadian policy, operations, incident management, and border crossings. Already involved in the Coalition activities, the region's operating and planning agencies' leadership participated in the workshops and RCTO development. A regional operations engineer at the New York State DOT and the executive director of NITTEC led the development of the RCTO.

NITTEC's RCTO defined 19 operations objectives, associated performance measures, and shortterm and long-term performance targets. The RCTO discussed how the operations objectives related to current regional operations activities and identified actions to support the objectives. The RCTO was developed along five operational categories: agency coordination, traveler information, mobility (arterial, border, freeway, and transit), incident management, and policies and procedures.

A challenge encountered by NITTEC in the development of the RCTO was a decrease in interest and participation from stakeholders as the process continued.43 The development approach requested several reviews of content developed from the workshops and meetings and it was difficult for participants to see the benefit of this work. A related challenge for the group continues to be keeping up levels of participation as member agencies become increasingly strained for financial and human resources.

As a final step in the RCTO development, NITTEC blended the activities identified in the RCTO into its work plan and assigned each activity to one or more of the Coalition's committees or councils.

The RCTO was heavily used in updating the congestion management process (CMP) by the MPO serving much of the region, the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council. The CMP adopted a subset of the RCTO's operations objectives and performance measures. The RCTO is also one of the primary sources for congestion management strategies for the CMP.


Athena Hutchins, NITTEC at

37 City of Portland Bureau of Transportation, Regional Concept for Transportation Operations, November 2007 (Unpublished). [ Return to note 37. ]

38 Personal interview, Stephanie Rossi, Puget Sound Regional Council, and Jill McKay, IBI Group, November 18, 2009. [ Return to note 38. ]

39 Puget Sound Regional Traffic Operators Committee, Regional Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Implementation Plan: Volume 1: Regional ITS Approach and Strategy, August 17, 2009. Available at:, last accessed June 14, 2011. [ Return to note 39. ]

40 Puget Sound Regional Council, Regional Signal Operations Strategy, March 29, 2010. Available at:, last accessed June 14, 2011. [ Return to note 40. ]

41 Puget Sound Regional Council, Regional Concept of Transportation Operations Signal Operations Agreement Template, May 2010. Available at:, last accessed June 14, 2011. [ Return to note 41. ]

42 Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition, NITTEC Transportation Operations – Regional Concept for Transportation Operations: Final Report, January 6, 2010. Available at:, last accessed June 14, 2011. [ Return to note 42. ]

43 Personal interview, Thomas George, Executive Director, NITTEC on January 13, 2010. [ Return to note 43. ]

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