Top 5 Issues for 2017: Transportation & Infrastructure Policy: Rethinking transportation project selection & prioritization

Issue: States are seeking to change how transportation projects are selected by making project selection less political, determining which ones could have the best return on investment, factoring in long-term costs and reconsidering some long-planned projects that may no longer make sense in the modern age. Increasingly facing limited resources, they likely will need to do more of that in the future.

In 2014, the Commonwealth of Virginia began an effort to make the process of transportation project selection more data driven and less political. The legislature approved House Bill 2, which created the SMART SCALE program.

“It’s a prioritization process that takes six factors—safety, congestion mitigation, accessibility, land use, environmental impacts and economic development—and they are used to score every project on its transportation needs in the commonwealth,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne at the CSG National Conference in Colonial Williamsburg in December. “We took two years to go around the state and work with all the regions on how to define these particular characteristics.”

Layne said SMART SCALE was necessary because Virginia, like many states, needed to reassess the allocation of limited resources for transportation.

“I wish I could tell you we could fund everything,” he said. “We certainly can’t. But I can say that we are now funding those projects in every region that deliver the biggest bang for the buck in the commonwealth.”

One benefit of the new process is that it can provide Layne and his department an important talking point in making the case for larger budgets down the road.

“I can now say (to the Virginia General Assembly) that we funded $1 billion in projects this year,” he said. “Here are $8 billion (in projects) we didn’t fund. You can make an objective assessment of whether or not we think we need additional revenues. So it takes that very political discussion and brings it back to what I believe is much more rational in determining whether or not we need more revenues. I firmly believe the only way you get more revenues is to make sure you’re using the current ones you’re allocated to their fullest. That is the best way to demonstrate to our legislators and our public that we deserve and that we’ve earned the right to more revenues.”

Layne, who is a CPA by training, believes his background has come in handy as Virginia has undergone these project selection changes.

“I’m not an engineer,” Layne said. “I’m neither encumbered nor enlightened with that degree. So I tend to look at … what are the issues and what are the resources necessary to solve the problem not actually what project we want to build and I think that’s key to some of the reforms that we’ve put in here in Virginia.”

Right-Sizing Projects to Achieve Savings

That perspective might sound familiar to Toks Omishakin, who serves as Deputy Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Omishakin works for a Governor—Bill Haslam—and a commissioner—2015 CSG Transportation Committee Vice Chair John Schroer—who came into office facing an $8.5 billion backlog of transportation projects. Tennessee is one of only four states in the country that does not borrow money for transportation projects. They also don’t use general fund money for transportation, only dedicated tax revenues. The state’s transportation budget is $2 billion annually but only $500 million of that is discretionary. That means the state has to be very selective about the kinds of projects it chooses to fund.

At Transportation for America’s (T4America) Capital Ideas II conference in Sacramento last December, Omishakin related a story about a transportation project near Nashville that had been proposed since 1998. The state DOT had the option of either constructing a long-anticipated bypass at a cost of $40 million or spending only $5 million to add some technology to manage traffic that would solve 85 percent of the traffic issues the bypass would. 

“(Commissioner Schroer) said ‘we’re not doing that anymore,’” Omishakin recalled. “Every single project we’re going to go back and look at and make sure that we’re actually providing the best options possible for the project, not just the wish list of things, not just the grand scale project that everybody thinks we should build.”

Tennessee DOT officials reassessed 50 long-planned transportation projects in the state and are now able to point to close to $1 billion in savings.

Beth Osborne, vice president for technical assistance at Transportation for America, said a “solution-first” approach in transportation planning can not only drive up the costs of projects but also prevent the consideration of project designs that accommodate more users—such as pedestrians and bicyclists—and other modes of transportation.

“A lot of times people come in … with their solution not their problem,” Osborne told me in an interview last year. “So they come in and say things like ‘I need a bypass’ or ‘I need to expand the roadway’ and we’re not very good at saying ‘why do you think we need that?’ Instead we say ‘okay, they need a bypass’ and we start building a bypass with 20-year projections for use and big design standards and when you then start to consider all users because you have a much bigger, more expensive project than you need, you don’t have any money to consider the other users and you’ve designed something that is inherently hostile towards those other users. And most times when you sit down and say ‘why do you need that?’ if you define the problem very accurately, you’ll find you don’t need such an expensive, very engineered solution. A lot of times operational changes are possible. A lot of times much smaller capital improvements are needed and when you go smaller you have more budget to do more things but you also have more opportunity to accommodate slower-moving … travelers.”

Making the Case for Transit

Utah Speaker of the House Greg Hughes was a critic of mass transit when he began serving on the Board of Trustees of the Utah Transit Authority (UTA).

“The first elected official that was asked to serve on the board was me,” he recalled at the T4America conference. “And I said ‘you do not want me to serve on that board. I don’t think that we need transit. I think it’s an over-subsidized social service. I think there are better ways to stretch dollars and find better solutions. You don’t want me on the board.’”

Hughes said what began to change his mind about transit was actually a road project.  

“We have this freeway overpass near a major university in Utah … and I believe it cost us $45 million to revamp this off-ramp, this interchange to accommodate all the congestion failure that was going on and when we finished that, I remember our department of transportation head telling me ‘we’re really proud of it, we’ve opened it up. We think we’ll hit congestion failure in six years,’” Hughes related. “Well, that was a hard interchange to get funded, get in our budget and to think that that interchange in just six short years was going to reach congestion failure again starts to feel like spitting in the wind. … It just seemed futile to be working on something as hard as we worked that was going to face failure in such a short amount of time.”

As those hard funding realities came across his desk as a legislator, he was hearing something else at UTA board meetings.

“I’m hearing about the commuter rail that’s going to be just west of this freeway off-ramp,” he said. “I’m hearing about the bus rapid transit that’s going to move students and employees not only past that university but another major institution of higher learning plus three or four other of this Utah county’s largest employers and I start to realize if the transit is robust and the transit works, then the congestion failure that I’m worried about on the road is less likely to happen.”

Hughes began making the case for transit to other legislators.

“I told (my colleagues) ‘look, if you love your car and you love your truck and you are never in your life going to step one foot on a bus or a train, you still love (transit) because what this is going to do is get the people that are in your way in their car out of your way and your commute’s going to be that much faster,’” he said. “So as a state policymaker this is my point: … (transit) helps mitigate the challenges of congestion that continues to grow in our communities.”

Hughes was instrumental in pushing through Utah’s transportation funding legislation in 2015 that not only reformed the state’s gas tax but empowered localities to raise their own funds for transit.

“We got the cities together and the counties together and we said ‘we want to help with the local option sales tax’ and we want you to be able to go to voters and we want you to be able to make the case county by county for a vision for transportation,” he said. “We’ll handle the state roads with the gas tax part but in terms of mass transit, bike trails, your secondary roads—those things that you believe you can make the case to your constituencies to raise the local option sales tax—we want to give you that ability.”

Ten of 17 Utah counties approved the local option sales tax in the 2015 election. Two counties considered the sales tax in 2016 with one approving it and the other voting it down.

Maryland’s Project Scoring System

Not every state that has sought to change the way it selects projects has been able to achieve the right balance or attain the political buy-in necessary for success.

Maryland Delegate Brooke Lierman related the details of a transit project that may have helped catalyze that state’s process changes.

“For about 10 years the Baltimore region was planning to create a new light rail line called the Red Line,” Lierman said. “We had secured federal funding, we’d raised the gas tax in order to fund it, it was ready to go and when (Republican) Gov. (Larry) Hogan was elected, he canceled it. So he sent back that $1 billion dollars to the federal government and said ‘no thanks. We don’t need it.’ He then took all of the funding that was supposed to go from the state to that light rail and sent it to state highway administration.”

Some say Hogan’s action led the democratically controlled legislature in 2016 to pass HB 1013, the Maryland Open Transportation Investment Decision Act, which sought to add a level of transparency in transportation decision making. But Lierman said it’s a little more complicated than that.

“A number of years ago, Maryland like many other states created state transportation goals: safety and security, community revitalization, (transit-oriented development), environmental awareness,” she said. “(HB 1013) codified those state transportation goals and said to the department of transportation ‘you need to set up a scoring system based on these transportation goals. After you create that scoring system through regulations, you need to score every project that is $5 million or greater. … You need to fund those projects first unless you write a letter telling us why you’re not.’ It did not try to take over all of the (transportation) secretary’s power. It included a caveat that if there are projects that need to be funded that are lower in their scores, those can be funded. They just require a letter as to why from the secretary of transportation.”

Hogan vetoed the bill and the legislature overrode the governor’s veto.

During the T4America conference, Eric Sundquist, managing director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative, spoke about why Virginia’s bipartisan approach to change worked but Maryland’s approach was viewed as overreach.

“(In Virginia) the statute was clear but broad and then it had to be worked out administratively,” Sundquist said. “The opposite of that is in Maryland, where the legislature is fighting with the governor now. They don’t trust the governor or his DOT so they passed a very prescriptive list of project selection standards that probably will not succeed. … It’s just not what the legislature is set up to do very well. They’re using it as a political football. What you do want (is) you want (the legislature) to … state as clearly as possible the broad outlines and policy goals … that your departments and agencies should strive for. You want them to hold the departments accountable for those so there’s an oversight function. You want them to review the structure of your department.”

Lierman defended the Maryland legislation on the basis that the Red Line cancellation was an indicator of just how much the bill was needed.

“Really this is geared towards are we funding roads to nowhere instead of funding transit to many people,” Lierman said. “And if we are, let’s just be (deliberate) and explain why we’re doing that. …You shouldn’t get to come in and undo 10 years of work. … When (the Governor) canceled the Red Line, there was no analysis. He canceled the Red Line and kept the Purple Line, which is the Montgomery County light rail, and there was no explanation. … and it was clear that there had been no analysis done.”

But as 2017 dawned, it appeared that momentum was building for the 2017 legislature to revisit the law and perhaps pass something more closely resembling Virginia’s SMART SCALE program. Despite efforts to incorporate local policies and planning, community vitality and economic prosperity into the scoring process, some legislators contend the scoring favors transit proposals and projects in urban areas over those in more rural parts of the state.

“The divide between rural and urban places in this country is growing deeper,” Lierman said. “Transit doesn’t need to contribute to that divide. And yet in Maryland, what’s happened is that transit legislation has gotten deeply caught up in the divide between urban and rural places in our state.”

Transportation Planning & Project Design

As state officials and others reassess whether transportation projects are the right ones for right now, they must also consider whether those projects are the right ones for the future and whether what we think we know now about that future is correct.

“One of the things we do in transportation—one of the most fundamental parts of building any transportation project is looking at projections for traffic 20 years out,” said T4America’s Beth Osborne. “Now, I’ll be honest. I don’t believe one of them. I don’t believe there is one transportation agency in the world that can accurately predict what traffic will be like 20 years out. So the very fact that we’re doing that is a very dubious process. If any transportation agency got it right, it was purely by accident. We can’t predict the coming of Ubers. We can’t predict 20 years out what the economy is going to be doing. We can’t predict things like telecommuting or a technology boom and these all impact traffic. We didn’t predict when vehicle miles traveled leveled off for nearly a decade. … We had states projecting that VMT was going up while it was not going up. So these 20-year projections… they’re leading everybody to build things that may or may not be what is needed because they’re never accurate and they don’t allow us to think through what’s happening around us.”

Many long-planned transportation projects gathering dust waiting for funding may no longer make sense given what we know about changing technologies, changing demographics and changing transportation preferences.

“It’s a real conundrum all this change and what it means for a lot of the sacrosanct project development processes,” said Osborne. “Maybe it does a good thing and it makes us back off a little bit and say ‘okay, let’s look at what’s going on now and what’s likely to happen in the next five years. Let’s make investments based on that and if we find out we need it bigger, we can do major capital improvements once we know that for real.’”

Osborne sees progress in some states discarding old policies that prompted them to build certain transportation projects in a certain way. California, for example, is working to implement 2013 legislation (SB 743) that changed how transportation impact analysis is done as part of compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act. It notably eliminated “level of service” as a basis for determining project impacts.

“If you’re measuring … level of service, which is basically the speed and density of cars on the roadway, then that’s what you’re going to design to and if you measure something different, you’ll design to that,” she said. “You can build all the land use right and if the transportation is designed for cars to go barreling through, that’s not going to create a safe street. … We have a bunch of states that are looking at either getting rid of level of service or adding other measures to it or adjusting it.”

Osborne also points to another state—Florida—that she says is making progress in changing transportation project design guidelines that in years past landed cities like Orlando on the list of those most dangerous for pedestrians.

“They’re rewriting their entire transportation green book and they’re writing it to get rid of a lot of the rules that are very typical of states that make it impossible to build a complete street, rules that push engineers to design wide, fast lanes and require them to go through a timely and difficult exceptions process to do anything different,” Osborne said.

Further Reading & Resources

Transportation Project Selection & Prioritization

Transportation Planning Issues

Multimodal Mobility

Impact of Changes in Cargo/Freight

Transportation for Individuals with Disabilities

Older Americans & Transportation

Millennials & Transportation

Mode Shift