Maryland Latest State to Consider Transportation Project Prioritization Process

Democratic leaders in the Maryland General Assembly have introduced legislation (SB 908) being viewed as an effort to restrict the power of the governor to decide which transportation projects to fund. The legislation comes in the wake of Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision last summer to cancel a long-in-the-works plan for a light rail project in Baltimore. But Maryland may also be looking to follow in the footsteps of several states, including neighboring Virginia, that have taken a close look at their project selection processes in recent years as a means to increase transparency, improve accountability and shore up the public trust that scarce transportation dollars are being spent wisely.

Maryland Open Transportation Investment Decision Act

The Maryland legislation, dubbed the Maryland Open Transportation Investment Decision Act, would create a rating process to help set project priorities. Based on Virginia’s project rating system, it would rank priority projects based on benefits such as reducing congestion and increasing economic development.

Supporters of the measure say it would improve transparency in the project selection process. But a spokesman for Hogan called the bill a “thinly veiled power grab,” The Washington Post reported.

Under the proposed system, the Maryland Department of Transportation would evaluate and rank major capital projects for inclusion in the draft and final consolidated transportation program based on the state’s transportation goals, which include safety and security, system preservation, quality of service, environmental stewardship, community vitality, economic prosperity, equitable access to transportation, cost effectiveness and return on investment.

Proponents of Baltimore’s Red Line light rail project, which had been in the works for a decade, contend that factors like community vitality, economic prosperity and equitable access to transportation were ignored when the governor shelved the project last year. Hogan argued the $3 billion project, which would have required a $1 billion tunnel under the city, would be a waste of money, The Baltimore Sun reported.

The bill is due to receive a hearing on March 14.

Virginia’s House Bill 2

The model for the Maryland legislation is Virginia’s House Bill 2, a bipartisan measure signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2014. It directed the Commonwealth Transportation Board to develop and use a scoring process for project selection by July 2016.  

Projects are submitted by regional entities including metropolitan planning organizations, planning district commissions, public transit agencies, counties, cities and towns. The projects are screened by a technical evaluation team to ensure their eligibility and that they meet the capacity and operations needs identified in the state’s long-range, multi-modal transportation plan, VTrans 2040. Once projects pass through the screening process, they are scored according to six factors (and related metrics) laid out in House Bill 2: safety, congestion mitigation, accessibility, environmental quality, economic development and consistency with land use policy.

McAuliffe and Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne (who is serving as the 2016 Vice Chair of CSG’s Transportation & Infrastructure Public Policy Committee) announced in January that the state had completed the scoring of 287 proposed transportation projects using the new data-driven process. Layne also released a list of recommended projects to be funded based on the scores, which the Commonwealth Transportation Board is now in the process of reviewing.

Public hearings will be held in April and May to gather input on whether the evaluated projects should be included in the commonwealth’s six-year improvement program. The Commonwealth Transportation Board will make its final decisions in June. Then the process begins again in August and September as the commonwealth solicits candidate projects from local governments and regional entities.

The cost of projects submitted for scoring in the first round for the new process totaled nearly $7 billion but the commonwealth has just $1.7 billion available to spend this year.

In releasing the results of the first scoring process, McAuliffe said in a statement “Political wish lists of the past are replaced with a data-driven process that is objective and transparent, making the best use of renewed state funding received in 2013 and the recently approved federal transportation funding.  Each project is scored based on its merits and value, making Virginia the first state in the nation to use such an outcome-based prioritization process.”

Last year, Virginia’s legislature passed another measure (HB 1887) aimed at depoliticizing the Commonwealth Transportation Board. Under the new law, the governor would only be allowed to remove a member of the board for “malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetence, neglect of duty, absenteeism, conflicts of interest, failure to carry out the policies of the Commonwealth, or refusal to carry out a lawful directive of the governor.”

Louisiana’s House Bill 742

In Louisiana, a bill passed by the state legislature last year (HB 742) is helping to provide guidance to the process by which the state Department of Transportation and Development selects and prioritizes projects. The bill text clearly lays out the goals for the prioritization process:

"The legislature declares it to be in the public interest that a prioritization process for construction be utilized to develop a Highway Priority Program that accomplishes the following:

  • Brings the state highway system into a good state of repair and optimizes the usage and efficiency of existing transportation facilities.
  • Improves safety for motorized and non-motorized highway users and communities.
  • Supports resiliency in the transportation system, including safe evacuation of populations when necessitated by catastrophic events such as hurricanes and floods.
  • Increases accessibility for people, goods, and services.
  • Fosters diverse economic development and job growth, international and domestic commerce, and tourism.
  • Fosters multimodalism, promotes a variety of transportation and travel options, and encourages intermodal connectivity.
  • Encourages innovation and the use of technology.
  • Protects the environment, reduces emissions, and improves public health and quality of life.”

In assessing House Bill 742 last year, Stephen Lee Davis of Transportation for America wrote: “This legislation is a marked improvement on the current state statutes governing how the Louisiana DOTD chooses transportation projects, which has been described as open-ended, unaccountable and a total mystery to the public. This bill represents one of the more ambitious overhauls of a state’s decision-making processes and an important first step toward improving the transparency and accountability of distributing transportation funds, setting Louisiana on a path of ensuring every transportation dollar provides the greatest benefit.”

The department is expected to begin utilizing the new project selection process by next year and some state officials reportedly hope it can help convince the public the state is spending transportation dollars wisely in advance of seeking additional revenues to fund transportation.

Texas’ House Bill 20

Lawmakers in Texas last year passed House Bill 20, a bipartisan measure that requires the Texas Department of Transportation to develop a performance-based planning and programming process that will allow the legislature to assess how well the department is achieving stated goals. It also requires the Texas Transportation Commission to establish a scoring system to prioritize projects seeking state funding.

Under the measure, each metropolitan planning organization in the state (or in the absence of an MPO, a group of municipal and county elected officials and transportation officials in a given region) is required to develop a 10-year transportation plan for the use of funding allocated to the region. Each planning organization will develop its own project recommendation criteria, which must include consideration of: “projected improvements to congestion and safety, projected effects on economic development opportunities for residents of the region, available funding, effects on the environment, including air quality, socioeconomic effects, including disproportionately high and adverse health or environmental effects on minority or low-income neighborhoods; and any other factors deemed appropriate by the planning organization.”

North Carolina’s Strategic Transportation Investments Law

Dating back to 2013, North Carolina’s Strategic Transportation Investments law (HB 817) established the Strategic Mobility Formula, which allocates available revenues based on data-driven scoring and local input. The North Carolina Department of Transportation used the formula for the first time to develop its current construction schedule, the 2016-2025 State Transportation Improvement Program.

Under the legislation, the department uses transportation-related quantitative criteria to rank highway projects that address “cost effective statewide strategic mobility needs and promote economic and employment growth.” The system uses a 100-point scale based on consideration of such criteria as benefit/cost, congestion, safety, economic competitiveness, freight, multimodal, pavement condition, lane width and shoulder width. Regional impact and division need projects are also judged on accessibility and connectivity to employment centers, tourist destinations or military installations.

Massachusetts’ Project Selection Advisory Council

Created by 2013 legislation, the Project Selection Advisory Council met over an 18 month period in 2014 and 2015 to develop recommendations for a more data-driven, transparent and uniform process for selecting projects for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s capital plan. The council issued its recommendations for project selection criteria in July of last year and continues to meet periodically to oversee their implementation.

The recommended criteria included: system preservation, mobility, cost effectiveness, economic impact, safety, social equity and fairness, environmental and health effects, and policy support (if the projects support local or regional policies or plans or state policies not addressed through the other criteria).