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Building Effective Relationships Between Central Cities and Regional, State And Federal Governments

Transportation Research Board
National Cooperative Highway Research Program
Synthesis 297

Prepared by  Bruce Schaller, Schaller Consulting

Order from the TRB publications page (search for report title) or download pdf file (2.3 mb) from the TRB web site.  See below for the Summary and Conclusion chapters.


America's central cities depend on cooperative efforts of local, regional, state and federal agencies to meet their transportation needs. This study documents successful relationships and processes that used intergovernmental cooperation, coordination and collaboration to strengthen large city transportation facilities and services. These successful experiences suggest lessons that can be applied to meeting a variety of central city transportation needs.

The focus of this synthesis is on the nation's twelve largest metropolitan areas. The size and complexity of these areas, ranging in size from the New York metropolitan area with a population of 21.2 million in 2000 to Miami-Ft. Lauderdale with a population of 3.9 million, create particularly challenging political and organizational environments.

This study is based on three sources of information. First, a review of literature on intergovernmental cooperation in transportation and other fields. Second, a survey of transportation agencies in the 12 metropolitan areas, which identified 84 successful projects and processes involving intergovernmental cooperation. Third, case studies of nine of the 84 projects identified in the survey. The case studies, which utilized in-depth interviews of staff from participating agencies and organizations, represent a range of project types including areawide planning, project planning and transit and highway projects. The case studies also incorporate related issues of economic development, land use, the environment and historic preservation.

This report includes detailed accounts of each case study, eleven critical characteristics of intergovernmental cooperation, tools and techniques proven useful for coalescing effective intergovernmental relationships, a series of questions that can be used for self-assessment of cooperative opportunities, and results of the literature search.


1. Intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration are difficult, but very important:

There are often strong official and citizen desires to maintain the independence and prerogatives of existing jurisdictions. Efforts to increase cooperation and collaboration must deal with existing organizational missions and structures that support the independence of each agency. There is relatively little research on how to do so effectively.

  • Regional planning organizations are generally available to help channel and facilitate intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration, but they are not a panacea.
  • Influential societal trends support efforts for greater intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration. These trends include increased public expectations that agencies work together, greater public involvement, increasing focus on program outcomes, strong links between transportation and other issues, and the growing need for metropolitan areas to compete in the global economy.
  • Examples of intergovernmental cooperation documented in this report show the effectiveness of such efforts in areas ranging from HOV lane construction and operations to increases in bus ridership to revitalization of historic arterial streets.
  • Intergovernmental cooperation also provides a vehicle for state DOTs and MPOs to respond to new challenges ranging from environmental justice to land use and historic preservation.

2. Characteristics of effective coordination and collaborative relationships are emerging. They include:

  • Attention to both vertical and horizontal relationships.
  • Explicit attention to political dimensions of issues.
  • The use of both formal and informal mechanisms.
  • Focus on interdependencies among agencies.
  • Involvement of non-profit and private organizations, in addition to government agencies.
  • Greater public involvement.

3. Practical tools and techniques for facilitating cooperation and collaboration include:

  • Steering committees and interagency task forces.
  • Fact finding surveys, inventories, and field data collection to diffuse myths, enlighten public dialogues, and open new possibilities.
  • Forums and hearings where participation and involvement can be broadened.
  • Neutral parties who can help overcome some of the baggage of past relationships and help diverse groups move forward to consider current and future issues.
  • New communications and analytical technologies that facilitate improved understanding and discourse among individuals and groups.
  • Interlocal cooperation acts and agreements.
  • New and re-shaped organizations that can get things done that no other group is currently able to do.
  • Greater involvement of community groups and the public.

4. Central cities can benefit by systematically assessing their opportunities for improving intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration. Means for doing this include:

  • Identify specific and timely opportunities for innovations important to the central city.
  • Express the city's goals in specific terms, but be open to looking at the issue holistically, to open a larger array of opportunities for reaching the goals of other potential partners at the same time.
  • Build on previous successes in cooperation and collaboration.
  • Tie the goals to current priorities and major upcoming events.
  • Restate the goals in intergovernmental or inter-jurisdictional terms, and make them politically attractive.
  • Identify the main stakeholders, potential partners, and other affected parties.
  • Find ways to link up with and involve these other parties.
  • Include other parties, as appropriate, in all phases of the effort-planning, funding, approval, implementation, operations, and maintenance.
  • Develop and articulate a shared vision to solidify the relationships.
  • Translate very large goals into manageable projects that produce short-term tangible accomplishments along the way, as a means of fortifying and maintaining the partnership over the long haul.

5. Creative program ideas and examples of successful projects are bountiful. Outstanding examples include:

  • Transit priority demonstration project, involving the City of Los Angeles and the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. This project greatly increased bus speeds and bus ridership in two major corridors and is being expanded to 12 additional transit corridors.
  • An overlapping set of projects for economic revitalization, historic preservation, tourism development and road improvements along Woodward Avenue in Detroit and suburban counties, involving public and non-profit agencies and private businesses.
  • Planning, construction and operation of an extensive network of high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, the product of a partnership between Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) and Texas DOT.
  • Participation of private fleets in clean fuels programs, brought about through cooperative efforts of the City of New York, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council and elected officials.
  • Installation of standardized directional signage throughout Philadelphia that facilitates wayfinding to major tourist, cultural and neighborhood destinations and reduces sign clutter, through an innovative public-private partnership that provides ongoing funding for improved sign maintenance.

Effective relationships are vital to addressing cities' complex and overlapping transportation, land use, environmental and economic development challenges. For agencies at all levels of government, effective relationships offer the opportunity to better fulfill their own responsibilities in furtherance of their constituents' best interests.


Building intergovernmental relationships to address central city transportation needs can be a challenging and intricate effort. The task requires hard work, a clear view of "my agency's" position in the constellation of other agencies, attention to political needs and the ability to work creatively, effectively and with perseverance in uncertain interagency environments.

And yet, despite the challenges posed by each situation and project, intergovernmental cooperation, coordination and collaboration enjoy the support of powerful forces. These include:

  • Public emphasis on intergovernmental cooperation to address problems and needs efficiently and effectively.
  • Emphasis on outcomes and results rather than on inputs, in assessing the effectiveness of governmental programs.
  • Heightened expectations for citizen participation, which require agencies to actively involve local communities and stakeholders.
  • Recognition of metropolitan regions as key units in a competitive world economy, which demands that the different parts of metropolitan areas work together in furtherance of their shared interests.
  • Desire to link transportation to economic development, environmental and land use issues, which requires involvement by a wide variety of agencies spanning different levels of government.

Local, state and federal transportation officials are indeed responding to the need for intergovernmental cooperation. Studies of state DOTs, MPOs and big city transportation departments document a number of successful experiences. Even so, officials and observers believe that more needs to be done.

This study identifies eleven key characteristics of successful intergovernmental projects and processes. These characteristics, which themselves are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, address who's involved, agency relationships, how projects are shaped and support is built, and project structure:

Who's involved:

  • Horizontal and vertical relationships
  • Non-profit and private sector organizations

Agency relationships:

  • Agency interdependence
  • Complementary strengths and resources
  • Staff competence and commitment

Shaping projects and building support

  • Focus on needs and opportunities
  • Building political support
  • Grass roots initiative and stakeholder ownership
  • Shared vision and goals

Project structure

  • Short-term and long-term results
  • Series of inter-related efforts

A variety of tools are available for coalescing intergovernmental cooperation. They include:

  • Steering committees and interagency task forces;
  • Public forums and hearings;
  • Surveys, inventories and field data collection;
  • Establishment of new entities and enabling organizations;
  • Involvement of a neutral party to bring together different sides; and
  • Exploitation of technology to facilitate coordination and information sharing.

Effective relationships are important for local, regional and state transportation agencies. For cities, intergovernmental cooperation is essential to addressing their complex and overlapping transportation, land use, environmental and economic development challenges. Effective intergovernmental relationships are shown by examples throughout this report to help address these needs.

For state departments of transportation (DOTs) and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), intergovernmental cooperation provides a vehicle to respond to new challenges without greatly expanding the scope or changing the nature of their responsibilities. Intergovernmental cooperation is also a vital avenue for state DOTs and MPOs to integrate economic development, environmental and land use issues with transportation issues.

By collaborating with a broader set of agencies, state DOTs and MPOs can become more responsive to local needs as defined by counties and cities, which in turn are articulated by neighborhood groups, non-profit organizations and other community representatives. State DOTs and MPOs can better attune their programs and goals to problems and needs as understood by those closest to the situation, and to community and political possibilities and constraints.

The process is not just bottom-up. State DOTs and MPOs bring a broader geographic perspective, state and federal financial resources, and an ability to act in the statewide or regional political arena. Thus, intergovernmental collaboration provides mutual benefits. Each participating agency makes contributions and reaps rewards as they seek to fulfill their responsibilities while furthering the overall well being of their constituents.

Report published Fall 2001

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