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Peer Exchanges, Planning for a Better Tomorrow, Transportation Planning Capacity Building

Transportation Planning Capacity Building Program

— Peer Exchange Report —

Best Practices in Long Range Project Prioritization

Location: Atlanta, GA
October 29–30, 2007
Exchange Host Agency:
Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC)
Exchange Participants: Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC)
Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG)
Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC)
North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG)
Federal Highway Administration Federal Headquarters
Federal Highway Administration Resource Center
U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center
Exchange Observers: Cambridge Systematics
Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization (GHMPO)
Georgia Business Travel Association (GBTA)
Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT)
Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA)
Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA)
Henry County, Georgia
HNTB Holdings, Ltd.
Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA)

I. Summary

The following report summarizes the proceedings of a 1.5 day Peer Exchange on "Best Practices in Long-Range Project Prioritization" supported by the Transportation Planning Capacity Building (TPCB) Program, which is jointly sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) organized this exchange and hosted the event at its offices in downtown Atlanta on October 29-30, 2007. The goals of this Peer Exchange were two-fold:

  1. Provide an opportunity for MPOs facing similar growth patterns and demographic challenges in an increasingly constrained federal funding framework to discuss their project prioritization strategies for the Long-Range Transportation Plan (rather than the TIP).
  2. Solicit comment and review from peer MPOs on the project prioritization methodology newly developed and implemented by ARC in their 2030 long-range plan, Envision 6.

ARC staff presented background information to MPO staff from Denver (DRCOG), Houston (H-GAC) and Dallas (NCTCOG) and described their project selection criteria and process for including projects in the long-range plan. In turn, staff from the visiting MPOs shared their own project selection criteria, strategies, and processes.

A facilitator from the U.S. DOT's Volpe Center led a series of discussions on specific topics of interest (such as cost-benefit analyses and integration of transportation and land use). These moderated discussions allowed participants to share questions and critiques, and identify best practices.

This report includes the following sections:

I. Summary
II. Background on ARC's project prioritization methodology
III. Major Issues and Challenges facing large MPOs
IV. Key Findings on project prioritization strategies for long-range planning
V. Topical Presentations and Facilitated Discussions by event participants
VI. Key Contacts
VII. Attachments including full participant list, event agenda, and links to participant MPO websites

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II. Background

The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) is the federally-designated metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for the 18-county Atlanta region charged with developing regional plans and policies to enhance mobility, reduce congestion, and meet air quality standards in the region through the transportation improvement program (TIP) and regional transportation plan (RTP, also sometimes called the metropolitan transportation plan or long-range plan). When projections estimated a $4.4 billion funding shortfall for its 2030 RTP, ARC realized that it needed a new, more aggressive strategy to rank and prioritize projects in its long-range plan to ensure the best use of limited federal transportation dollars in the region.

In consultation with regional planning partners and numerous local jurisdictions, ARC developed a detailed technical methodology for prioritizing projects. The new methodology balances a mandate from the Georgia Governor's Congestion Mitigation Task Force (CMTF) to weigh congestion mitigation at 70 percent of total project scoring with the ARC Board's direction to develop a multimodal plan supporting the region's development policies and better integrate transportation and land use planning. The new selection framework was adopted by the ARC Board in the fall of 2006, and applied as the primary filter for federal funding considerations in the 2007 updates to the regional TIP and long-range plan. As the new project selection process came to a close in fall 2007, ARC sought the opportunity to gather feedback on its new process and resulting plans from colleagues at MPOs in Denver, Dallas, and Houston.

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III. Major Issues

One of the major obstacles faced by large MPOs developing a project scoring methodology for the long-range plan is balancing their many competing priorities in an ever-changing policy and funding climate. Participants from Atlanta, Houston, Denver, and Dallas identified the following topics as the most significant challenges large MPOs must find ways of responding to in their long-range project prioritization and planning processes. Participants focused on current issues as well as emerging concerns.

Current MPO Policy Concerns:

  • Federal funding constraints
    • What should the new funding split between federal, state and local partners be in regional goal setting?
    • How to proceed with long-term financial planning for mega-projects
    • How to approach continued population and travel demand growth in proactive rather than just reactive ways
  • The tension between innovative financing and jurisdictional concerns
    • How can regional funding options be developed when the competition among local jurisdiction for funds generated from toll roads or local-option sales taxes is so fierce?
  • Earmarks
    • Jurisdictions and interest groups are learning that they may circumvent MPO project selection by hiring lobbyists to directly secure funding for their projects. How should MPOs react?
  • How to put the regional, in regional planning
    • Closing the gap between urban and rural transportation interests
    • How to plan projects that respond to multiple and differing interests
  • Identifying the proper mode-split for congestion relief
    • How to set meaningful goals or quantify the benefits of transit, livable centers, or "smart streets" in congestion relief
    • How to evaluate and quantify short-term vs. long-term solutions
    • Finding a balance between proactive vs. reactive project solicitation
  • The link between asset management and system expansion
    • How to determine proper funding level for asset management versus system expansion
    • How to develop appropriate performance measures for asset management
    • How to define acceptable levels of service given rapid population and employment growth
  • Designing a robust planning methodology and project selection tool
    • Conflicting time horizon for preparing documents — TIP criteria are short term, but seek to address long term issues
    • How to fix hard and quantifiable performance measures while also being sensitive to the scale and temporality of projects
      • How to use a regional tool to evaluate a single interchange
    • How "sacred" is the TIP?
      • When to pull projects with untenable costs or schedules
      • How to measure "significant progress"

Emerging MPO Policy Concerns:

  • Addressing environmental concerns
    • National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements are becoming more cumbersome, financially and time-wise
    • Energy conservation and planning for "peak oil"
  • Growing reliance on public-private partnerships (PPP)
    • The need for overall policy guidance in how to structure, manage, etc
    • Parsing out roles to accommodate both short- and long-term needs
  • Planning and implementation of regional managed lane systems
    • Policy framework for focus on revenue generation versus congestion relief
  • The need for better asset management strategies in light of aging infrastructure and increasing fiscal constraints
    • How to measure assets and quantify processes
    • How to prioritize maintenance vs. system expansion
    • Establishing MPO's role in planning vs. operations
      • How to structure and improve coordination with operators and other planning partners?
  • Building an appropriate and workable relationship between the MPO and the state
  • Articulating the MPO's role in addressing transportation system security
  • Impact of developing Mega-Regions on MPO transportation planning processes

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IV. Key Findings

A moderated discussion followed the policy issues discussion summarized above. Participants answered a series of questions about long-range project prioritization, and provided feedback on ARC's process.

What are your preferred methodologies for project selection in the long-range plan?

  • Principles and goals MUST be driven by local/regional context and address local/regional needs
  • Board leadership to adopt an overarching framework, vision, or set of organizing principles/goals is fundamental to create a plan with synergy
    • If a process becomes highly formalized, but lacks a cohesive vision, it can be easy to get bogged down in the details and lose sight of the bigger picture
    • Technical analysis is not equal to transparency because it relies on so many assumptions — just because we can do it doesn't mean it should singularly drive the planning process
  • There is no one single best approach or methodology for selecting projects
    • It's positive to see that we each have our own process because that means we are responding to local needs
  • Incorporating gradations for criteria is key — the further out a project is, the less specific the information required to evaluate its costs and benefits upfront

What should MPOs take into consideration in designing their project prioritization strategies?

  • Design strategies that respond to local priorities. Try to keep methods and procedures as simple and understandable as possible
  • Be strategic in your goal setting — remember that you cannot solve all the world's problems with one plan
  • Remember that preparing to do the analysis takes more time than the analysis itself
  • Focus more on improving the coordination among smaller-scale projects than on the projects themselves

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V. Topical Presentations and Facilitated Discussions

David Jackson, a Senior Principal Planner at ARC and the lead organizer of the exchange, welcomed participants and observers. Jackson explained ARC's interest in reviewing its project prioritization methods and overall policies for long-range planning with their peers. He noted the importance of exchanging information, lessons learned, and identifying opportunities to improve ARC's methodology.

Tom Weyendt, Comprehensive Planning Director, ARC

Weyendt provided context on ARC's regional planning process and major issues faced during the preparation of the current TIP:

There was a significant difference between what ARC wanted to do in the TIP and the cost of projects, as the region faced a projected $4.4 billion shortfall and had never dealt with making cuts of that magnitude before. Also, the Governor of Georgia convened a Congestion Mitigation Task Force (CMTF) to look at ARC's project scoring and selection process for long-range planning. The task force determined that:

  1. Congestion should be weighted 70 percent of a project's score
  2. Cost/benefit analysis should be required
  3. Regional travel time index (TTI) goal for the year 2030 should be 1.35

In order to meet these goals, ARC undertook a lengthy and thoughtful review process, developed a new project scoring system and then applied its new system over the last year. The ARC Board adopted the TIP/RTP in September 2007 and received a conformity determination from USDOT in consultation with USEPA in early October 2007. The TIP will be signed by the Governor following Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) approval in December 2007. Now ARC wants to reflect on their new process and receive comments and critiques from peer MPOs from around the country.

1 — ARC's Challenges and Long-Range Planning Process
Jane Hayse, Transportation Planning Division Chief, ARC

Hayse provided additional context on ARC's current long-range plan, "Envision 6."

ARC's planning region includes all or parts of 18 counties and is home to about 4.5 million people. Population is projected to rise to about 7 million by 2030. The region is an air quality non-attainment area, and the region's primary goal is to optimize both growth and transportation investments.

The Governor's Congestion Mitigation Task Force (CMTF) and the $4.4 billion funding gap were the two main motivations for the long-range project prioritization process that ARC undertook to develop its current long-range plan, Envision 6. ARC made a rigorous effort to meet the needs of local governments in this process, and undertook three rounds of meetings with all 18 counties from January to March 2007 to assess needs and share the proposed project scoring methodology.

The completed Envision 6 plan includes $66.5 billion in transportation investments, divided up into three main categories:

  • 60 percent System Management ($39.6 billion)
  • 37 percent System Expansion ($24.8 billion)
  • 3 percent Demand Management ($2.1 billion)

(To see this presentation or find further details on the contents of Envision 6 or ARC's project prioritization methodology, please visit

The Envision 6 plan makes progress towards its stated goals, but several challenges remain, including: underutilized transit, severe congestion on the interstate (Atlanta has the 4th highest delay per capita in the country), population and employment growth (which is the highest for any urban area in the country in the last decade), project delays, and funding.

Funding constraints are particularly challenging, since they limit the number and nature of transportation projects that can be implemented. Highway spending is growing twice as fast as revenues (which explains the funding gap) and another decrease in federal funding is predicted for the next TIP update. For these reasons, it is imperative that ARC identify new and innovative strategies for best utilizing scarce resources. Managed lanes appear to be emerging as an important option.

Following are highlights of the discussion that followed this presentation, which focused on the issue of managed lanes and toll roads.

  • With rising fiscal constraints and growing interest in public-private partnerships (PPP), the role of managed lanes will be increasingly important for all large MPOs.
  • The phrase "managed lanes" does not appear to have a clear meaning or association for system users. Although managed lanes are a growing component of many RTPs, participants received little public comment on them. When projects similar to congestion pricing or toll roads are proposed, however, participants receive active and verbal public opposition. It will be important for MPOs to clearly articulate how managed lanes will be implemented in their regions and what the benefits are to travelers.
  • Many people recognize the need to preserve mobility along existing routes and understand that new capacity added to the system must be managed. Although system users may understand the broad concept of managed lanes, they may still oppose individual projects. Design is an important consideration in gaining public support for individual projects.
    • People want to know how they are going to access managed lane systems
    • Businesses worry that congestion in non-managed lanes could become so serious that people will not get off at local exits and businesses would suffer as a result.
  • There is a tension and growing policy debate between local and state interests on how to allocate funds generated through toll roads and managed lanes. States want to maximize assets and use the revenues generated from these types of facilities to fund other projects, while local governments typically are more concerned with keeping tolls as low as possible to better serve a broader segment of the population.

2 — Participant MPOs' Challenges and Long-Range Planning Processes

A) Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC): Pat Waskowiak and Lynn Spencer
H-GAC recently completed its 2035 RTP and Houston is facing many of the same challenges found in ARC's planning region. Like Atlanta, Houston-Galveston's 8-county region is an air quality non-attainment area facing rapid population and employment growth. Models predict that more than 1.5 new jobs, 1.7 million new housing units, and 3 million new residents will be added to the 5.5 million people already living in the Houston region by 2030, which translates to approximately about 100,000 new people each year for 20 years.

While cities may pass land use ordinances, counties have very little power to regulate land use in Texas. They cannot pass land use ordinances, for example, unless an act of the legislature grants them express permission to do so. Since most local governments in the region do not have comprehensive land use or development plans, H-GAC's long-range plan serves as a proxy for such a comprehensive plan. This poses logistical challenges for H-GAC in its planning work since land use and transportation needs are so intricately linked.

Similar to Atlanta's recent effort, H-GAC undertook and completed a long-range planning process called Envision Houston to gather public input on how to best shape the region's growth. Public comment noted a desire for increased mobility, reduced congestion, greater access to jobs, homes, and services, more transit options, better coordinated transportation and land use planning, and a healthier environment. These became the goals for the 2035 long-range plan. To implement the broad goals of the long-range plan, H-GAC then developed its TIP, which consists of 4 program areas:

  • System Development and Preservation
  • Demand Management and Air Quality
  • Operations Management
  • Transit and Livable Centers

H-GAC instituted a number of new policies to guide its most recent TIP, including:

  • Timing — projects can only be in place for one TIP, rather than revolving through multiple TIPs without new cost estimates;
  • Fiscal constraint — more aggressive standards to ensure selected projects are fiscally constrained;
  • Project readiness — applicant must have 70 percent of necessary right-of-way acquisitions complete at the time of submittal to even be considered for inclusion in the TIP;
  • Track record — accounts for the applicant's degree of success in implementing the projects it proposed for prior TIPs.

H-GAC's plan is built mostly on local dollars, including a large toll road component as well. As in Atlanta, there is growing debate over toll funding in the Houston-Galveston area. Local governments want to receive the revenues generated by tolls directly, while the state wants to use those revenues to fund new regional or statewide transportation projects, like commuter rail. The debate over the financial implications of future toll roads continues.

H-GAC used overarching congestion factors similar to ARC's weighting scheme more heavily for prior plans, but found that connectors were under-funded as a result. Connectors were regionally significant projects, but did not score well in terms of major congestion relief under that methodology, so there was insufficient justification to build them. As a result, H-GAC now weights planning factors more heavily than congestion factors. H-GAC's policymakers are still focused on congestion relief1, however, they are trying to address congestion through different strategies than in previous plans. One strategy for doing so is the Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) that aims to cluster development around major transit stops. It was a major victory to include this long-term strategy into the TIP because results may be intangible or difficult to quantify upfront.

(For further details on the contents of Envision Houston and H-GAC's project prioritization methodology, please visit:

Following are highlights of the discussion that followed this presentation, which focused on topics such as project monitoring and how to respond to shifting project costs.

  • Project monitoring is already a part of the TIP development process but H-GAC would like to focus on it more. Because of limited funds, H-GAC finds that it has to take a harder-line approach in responding to shifting project costs. When something happens to cause a major change to a project budget, it will allow an applicant to keep the funding it has already received but now requires the applicant re-compete in the next plan. If the applicant does not score well in the second round, it will likely lose its funding.
  • It can be difficult to know to what degree certain delays could/should push a project out of TIP eligibility. Involving people with greater expertise on right of way and design issues could help on this front. Another approach would be to develop a more precise means of evaluating changes in scope relative to project benefits. Some MPOs are working with their state DOTs to request alternate funding sources when project sponsors ask for major changes in the scope of work.
  • Cities often propose a large number of projects with the understanding that after ranking and scoring only a few projects may be added to the TIP. To streamline the process and narrow down the list of projects competing for funds, some MPOs are choosing to use online project tracking and submittal systems, like TELUS, which allow project sponsors to update their information online without requiring the MPO to formally put out a new request for proposals.

B) North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG): Michael Burbank
NCTCOG is facing many of the same growth and financial challenges mentioned in earlier presentations. The NCTCOG region is the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country, including five full and four partial counties and currently nearly six million residents. By the year 2030, the region's population is expected to grow by nearly 45 percent and its employment by 43 percent, which signals rising challenges and complications with respect to transportation and development. From a transportation standpoint, there is a mismatch and lack of coordination between land use and transportation investments. Much of the existing roadway system is 30-40 years old and nearing its design life. From a performance standpoint, the travel time index (TTI) for the region is 3.2. Burbank noted that although the Dallas-Fort Worth region is blessed to be a region that's growing, for planning purposes it can at times feel more like a curse.

NCTCOG faced a funding shortfall of over $18 billion in its current long-range plan, Mobility 2030, which severely constrained the transportation investments the agency was able to program. To address this funding gap, the state is considering a proposal to index the gas tax to inflation and the Governor is pushing a major new statewide corridor through public-private partnerships (PPP). Faced with these funding shortfalls, many areas of the state, including the Dallas-Fort Worth region, have adopted new long-range plans incorporating new innovative funding strategies, made possible through toll revenue generation. The region's Metropolitan Transportation Plan has identified new funding strategies and toll investments alone could generate $17.7 billion in new revenues, which will be a substantial help in addressing the region's funding gap. Local governments welcome new non-federal sources of funds that allow them to build new projects sooner, but toll roads are not a "silver bullet." Despite new revenue sources NCTCOG still had to pull numerous projects from its current plan, due to financial constraint issues.

(For further details on the contents of Mobility 2030 and NCTCOG's project prioritization methodology, please visit:

C) Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG): George Scheuernstuhl
DRCOG works in nine counties with a population of 2.6 million people, which is projected to grow to about four million by 2030, an increase of nearly 54 percent. The organization currently has 52 members, and will soon be adding another five to six members due to this growth. Jurisdictional equity is a major issue for DRCOG, as the communities it serves compete for projects and weigh their own benefits of participation (e.g., "Do they get their dues worth?"). DRCOG is also charged with water quality management and development for the region. The long-range plan and TIP are more detailed elements of the broader Metro Vision Plan that DRCOG also prepares.

The Denver region has managed lanes on I-25 and, thus far, the amount of tolls collected far exceeds anticipated revenues. Over half of their beltway is now composed of toll roads, which provide the toll road authorities with money to pay off the bonds originally used to finance the projects. Voters recently approved a ballot initiative for a $4.7 billion program to construct seven new transit corridors in the region, some of which will be commuter rail. Since that time, because neither the final designs nor the EIS for the corridors had been completed, the total project cost has grown to $6 billion, resulting in some local controversy. Generally speaking, the EIS process is becoming a larger challenge for the Regional Transportation District (RTD) as the process becomes more time intensive and financially burdensome.

Funding is a significant challenge for DRCOG. The total shortfall DRCOG now faces is approximately $40 billion; even after removing flawed or undeveloped projects, there would still be at least $30 billion in unfunded projects. Part of this is due to the competition for state and federal funds between urban and rural areas throughout Colorado. For example, DRCOG receives only 35-38 percent of the funds channeled through the state DOT, but serves 50 percent of the service needs statewide. There is also a tension between preservation and conservation interests. Local officials are under pressure to relieve congestion and want to propose projects that are responsive to constituents, but many residents question adding lane capacity when infrastructure is in need of maintenance and repair. Earmarks pose an additional challenge in light of limited funds, since jurisdictions may turn to lobbyists to secure funding for particular projects, thus avoiding DRCOG's project approval process. DRCOG feels compelled to fund the earmarked projects despite the impact that they have on the adopted project selection process. The broader context is that at the state level transportation projects and needs compete not only across modes and specific projects, but in the larger policy arena against education and human/social services demands (each of which have special interests and blue ribbon panels of their own in the Denver region).

On the positive side, local governments have become leaders in advocating better linkages between transportation and land use in the Denver region in the last five years. Local leaders have voluntarily established an urban growth boundary to try to increase the density of the region by ten percent. This leadership and the programs/projects resulting from it successfully moved Denver from being the ninth most congested metropolitan area in the nation to eleventh, a significant achievement given the high rate of growth in the region.

(For further details on the contents of Denver's RTP and DRCOG's project prioritization methodology, please visit:

3 — ARC's Long-Range Project Prioritization Process
David Jackson, Senior Principal Planner, ARC

Jackson provided a brief overview of ARC's project prioritization work.

ARC began by reassessing all projects in the TIP from its prior long-range plan, with an initial screen to identify projects with federal funding that did not meet regional strategic goals. ARC then convened a multi-agency technical group to develop the methodology for ranking projects in tiers and all remaining projects were submitted to technical and cost-benefit analyses without putting out a call for new projects. Projects were scored relative to one another, rather than on a flat scale, based on their currently defined scope and latest approved funding. There were numerous opportunities for review of the methodology by ARC's planning partners in the region.

Consistent with the Governor's congestion task force recommendations, ARC gave congestion reduction the heaviest weighting in the resulting methodology (70 of 100 total points). This was further broken down into "recurring" congestion, which received 50 points, and non-recurring or "incident" congestion, which received 20 points2. The definition of recurring congestion was based on level of service (LOS) and ARC examined the intensity, duration and extent of congestion experienced to assign points. Incident (i.e., non-recurring) congestion was a complicated measure to develop, since ARC did not have comprehensive data on crashes, spills, location-specific weather conditions, etc., but the agency was able to use existing data sets to make approximations and estimates. The last 30 points were equally split between environmental impact and support for the Regional Development Plan (RDP).

In total ARC scored 188 projects. Jackson noted that this list may look short in comparison to those of other MPOs because there were a number of criteria that had to be met just to qualify for scoring, which trimmed the pool of projects. In order to qualify, a project had to be a capacity adding/system expansion project with federal dollars that was already listed in the prior plan and was located on what ARC had identified as the "regional strategic transportation system." ARC limited the pool to projects that already had federal funding commitments on the assumption that those would be the highest quality projects submitted. There were also a number of types of projects that were not scored using ARC's methodology, such as new alignments, new interchanges, and interchange capacity/upgrade projects.

(For more information on ARC's project prioritization methodology, please see:

Following are highlights of the discussion that followed this presentation, including some clarifications on the ARC methodology. Participant MPOs were particularly interested in ARC's distinction between recurring versus incident congestion.

  • ARC had significant inter-agency collaboration, resulting in about a 6-month approval process for the methodology. ARC had significant Board involvement and support in the initial stages of developing the framework and methodology but most of the scoring of projects itself was done internally by ARC staff.
  • ARC noted that the distinction between incident and recurring congestion is important, because it allows them to tailor their approach in addressing different problems. If a town wants to widen a roadway, for example, but ARC's analysis of crash data indicate that a turn lane is more appropriate, the methodology allows ARC to demonstrate that. The methodology allows the agency to emphasize safety and enforcement in appropriate circumstances rather than just capacity expansion. Other MPOs thought this was an interesting approach, but some were skeptical. One participant thought it would be interesting to go back and score the projects again without making the distinction to see if resulting scores would be very different, and parse out whether the distinction really contributes value.

4 — Participant MPOs' Project Prioritization Processes

A) Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG): George Scheuernstuhl
Scheuernstuhl explained that DRCOG's scoring strategy is to be simple and clear, rather than trying to design the most precise quantifiable method possible. DRCOG scores roadway capacity projects in the following way:

  • Congestion severity: 35 points
  • Cost per person mile traveled: 15 points
  • Gap closure: 10 points
  • Arterial Road Spacing: 5 points
  • Regional System Classification: 4 points
  • Total Users: 4 points
  • Serves Urban Forms: 5 points
  • Safety: 6 points
  • Urban Growth Boundary/Area: 2 points
  • Serve Major Intermodal or High Security Facility: 4 points
  • Multimodal Corridor: 10 points

Projects that do not score a minimum of 50 points will not be included in the Plan and TIP. So far Scheuernstuhl noted this method has worked quite well, though the question of how to score interchanges (as raised earlier) arose for them several TIPs ago as well.

B) North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG): Michael Burbank
For its latest Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP), NCTCOG decided to be less technical and appeal more to common sense and expertise in evaluating potential projects for inclusion, knowing that some projects would have to be deferred due to financial constraint requirements. The goal was to create an MTP and corresponding shorter-range TIP that could be fully implemented sooner rather than later. NCTCOG sorted projects into three categories — Priority One, Priority Two, and Priority Three. Priority One projects were either already environmentally cleared, or soon to be cleared, and had major funding commitments already in place. All Priority One projects were automatically included and recommended in the MTP without going through a scoring and prioritization process. The three criteria used to designate Priority One were:

  • NEPA Status — the project had to be already cleared, or very close to completing, the environmental impacts statement (EIS) process;
  • Funding — the project had to have a funding source already identified;
  • Cost effectiveness — NCTCOG had to determine that the project was cost effective.

Priority Two and Priority Three projects were not already environmentally cleared, and were lacking funding commitments, and as a result, were evaluated, scored, ranked, and prioritized through a technical project evaluation methodology.

According to Burbank, this method worked very well. There seemed to be broad support at both the policy and technical committee levels, and no projects in the plan proved to be particularly controversial.

C) Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC): Pat Waskowiak and Lynn Spencer
Similarly to NCTCOG, H-GAC decided to perform a less technical analysis for its last long-range plan, Envision Houston, as it had for prior plans. H-GAC used the estimated letting date as a proxy for the priority of the project and placed the project in the long-term plan or TIP based on where it stood in the NEPA process, and whether or not it had local funding.

H-GAC uses the TELUS web-based system to allow applicants to submit potential projects online. Applicants provide project information about land use factors, the stage of environmental review, and project partners. Projects are then categorized by type (e.g., System Development and Preservation, Demand Management and Air Quality, Operations Management, Transit and Livable Centers). Applicants are also required to supply qualitative information on the environmental justice, safety, economic development, transportation choice, emergency evacuation, goods movement, and regional significance impacts of projects. This assures a degree of subjective analysis in final project prioritization. After scoring projects, H-GAC staff prepares the TIP based on project information. H-GAC staff then meet with local representatives to review projects already submitted to the TELUS database and identifying additional potential projects for submittal.

Following are highlights of the discussion that followed participants' presentations.

  • Several participants noted that their MPOs weighted congestion relief more heavily in prior plans (much like ARC does), but decided to place less weight on that factor in more recent plans.
  • Participants were interested in NCTCOG's approach to move away from a highly formalized and technical analysis. NCTCOG found that in addition to saving significant internal effort, its new approach was generally accepted by the public. Projects not selected for inclusion in the long-range plan were listed as "deferred" to indicate that a funding source had not yet been identified. "Deferral" does not imply a lack of support for the project concept.
  • DRCOG noted that like H-GAC, it uses an online system for users to submit project information, which includes a self-scoring component for users to assess how well their projects meet basic quantitative assessment. H-GAC does not include a self-scoring component in TELUS, since self-scoring is most effective when the number of subjective or qualitative factors is minimal , but does provide applicants with a checklist to ensure that all required documentation has been submitted.
  • Effective allocation of Preliminary Engineering (PE) funds is becoming a challenge for some MPOs as project sponsors are eager to begin projects before assuring NEPA compliance. One MPO representative noted that the agency has programmed enough PE funds to support an 18-year TIP.
  • The EIS process is increasingly challenging for many MPOs. One participant noted that his agency has $100 million worth of projects in varying stages of the EIS process alone. Another mentioned that because the process can take a very long time to complete (in some cases up to a decade), it is possible that by the time the process is finally completed the region may no longer want or need the project in question. Others explained that the rising complications and costs of preparing environmental documents has resulted in removing projects from the TIP or long-range plan.
  • MPOs do not have to use the same methodology for selecting projects from one long-range plan to another and one MPO representative noted frustration with the lack of consistency in this process. MPO boards provide critical guidance on important prioritization factors, scoring criteria, and methodology and must be able to respond to local, regional, and statewide conditions or initiatives as they arise. Finding the appropriate balance between flexibility and consistency is a challenge for many MPOs.

5 — Prioritization Process for Transit Projects

A) Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) — David Jackson and Heinrich McBean
Jackson and McBean discussed the transit component of ARC's project prioritization analysis.

ARC developed a rigorous technical analysis for evaluating and including transit projects in the long-range plan. A multi-party Transit Planning Board (TPB) composed of all the transit operators in the region was tasked with developing:

  1. A genuine concept for transit in the region;
  2. The institutional structure to support it; and
  3. A funding structure to implement the plan.

The TPB developed a Regional Transit Institutional Analysis (RTIA) framework to describe the region's transportation priorities. ARC will use its next long-range planning process (for its 2035 plan) to further develop the institutional and funding structure.

Developing a method to score transit projects was a challenge because quantifying the congestion relief impacts of transit capital expansion projects is an inexact science. ARC chose to use the FTA Summit model, in which the user benefit is calculated based on travel times (i.e., travel time saved by taking transit relative to an auto in congested traffic). The model relies purely on economic theory and produces fairly consistent user benefits. ARC created a new alternative scenario for each transit project, then compared the results with impacts of other transportation projects and assigned each a score between 1 and 50.

B) Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG): George Scheuernstuhl
DRCOG coordinates its transit project analysis with a single transit provider in the region (which provides nearly 99 percent of Denver-area service). Local-option sales tax generates significant funding for transit in the region, and service expansion is sometimes funded through federal Surface Transportation Program (STP)3 funds.

Typically, the transit district submits projects directly to DRCOG for consideration in the TIP and the plan. For a local government to propose a new transit service TIP project, project sponsors must demonstration that at least three years of funding is in place, along with realistic ridership projects.

Following are highlights of the discussion that followed these presentations.

  • ARC attempted to make an "apples-to-apples" comparison between transit and roadway projects. This is a very different approach from many MPOs that may define transit benefits in terms of emissions or other factors separate and apart from roadway project benefits. In addition, many MPOs do not classify congestion as "incidental" versus "recurring." ARC observed that a methodology that does not demonstrate the congestion-relief benefits of transit may systematically incentivize roadway projects to the disadvantage of transit.
  • Participants' reactions to the ARC process were positive. One MPO representative observed that while an agency may discuss the benefits of transit projects, an analysis often turns to roadway projects for congestion relief. If the agency could show an apples-to-apples comparison like ARC did, transit projects might score higher in their process. Another participant felt that MPOs' hands are tied to a certain extent — it is difficult to let transit projects compete on an equal playing field when the funding does not come on an equal playing field. Another added that it also comes down to the decision makers in your region and oftentimes they want to keep transit and roadway projects separate. Still, some participants felt well positioned to rethink the way they approach transit prioritization in light of the discussion and expressed an interest in having ARC come to do a site visit and tell them more about their approach.
  • Limited funding can become a catalyst for improving project quality. ARC observed that transit projects often come better put-together at the point of submittal than highway projects, which is due at least in part to their transit district's reliance on federal funding and the New Starts program, which have very stringent criteria to which proposed projects must adhere.
  • The importance of the MPO relationship with the transit agencies in their region is key. If that relationship is not strong it could take eight months just to come to agreement around how to spend one year's worth of money. The relationship can be complicated by the number of transit agencies in the MPO planning region. One MPO noted that their biggest challenge regarding transit selection is that it took a full year to negotiate agreements for how to allocate 5307 funds among the four transit agencies in their region. Establishing a strong regional strategy could help in circumstances where more than one transit agency exists.
  • Categorizing bus rapid transit (BRT) is a challenge since it falls somewhere in between highways and transit. One participant tried ranking BRT with light rail and commuter rail and found that they are really different modes and made for a difficult comparison.

6 — Technical Analysis — Environmental Impacts
David Jackson, Senior Principal Planner, ARC

Fifteen percent of ARC's total project scoring is an environmental analysis that provides disincentives for projects with negative environmental impacts. ARC performed a spatial analysis using a weighted overlay tool in ArcGIS to calculate direct measures for environmental impacts, assuming a 100 ft buffer for line projects (i.e. roadway corridors) and a 200 ft buffer for point projects (i.e. interchanges). A fine-grained analysis was performed for the entire region, and values between 0 and 20 were assigned to each grid cell. The regional environmental analysis was then overlaid with project buffers to determine individual project scores. Findings show that new interchange projects scored quite well in this framework, since they do not impact as large an area as an entire corridor project.

Following are highlights of the discussion that followed this presentation.

  • ARC assumed some degree of mitigation in its environmental analysis but also assumed that there would be impacts. Environmental criteria do not replace the NEPA process, but provide a first glance so that when a project does get to the NEPA stage it would already be documented if there are some issues for consideration.
  • Since environmental factors only account for 15 of ARC's total 100 points, it is unlikely that a good project from the standpoint of congestion would be thrown out solely on the basis of environmental impacts in its analysis.
  • ARC considered using some type of air quality impact evaluation for individual projects, but found that existing tools are rather crude so decided not to go that route this time around. Other MPOs have not pursued that type of criteria either.
  • Some MPOs felt that since federal law requires projects to eventually go through the NEPA process, it is redundant to include environmental criteria at the beginning as well. One participant explained that environmental criteria can be used for different purposes. For some MPOs, for example, the environmental factors come into play more as a question of project readiness than scoring points — they give priority status within the plan to projects that are already part way through the NEPA process.
  • Incorporating environmental criteria could be a way to proactively engage the environmental review process. MPOs can think about what they hope to avoid in environmental review and design a set of environmental screening criteria to address those issues upfront. Some state DOTs, for example, are now sending their staff to work with MPOs to help streamline environmental processes upfront because they realize they get a better product at the end of the line.
  • One participant noted that he enjoyed learning about ARC's process. He did not know of other MPOs that are doing environmental analysis to this level and thought that ARC could really be on the cutting edge.
  • Several participants noted that the biggest environmental issue they are facing is environmental justice (EJ). MPOs are required by federal law to address EJ, but there are no standardized methods to evaluate it.
    • One MPO created an overlay tool and made a basic assumption that so long as a project was located in an "EJ area" (i.e. low-income or minority community) it was good and would be helping that area, and created some scoring to reflect that.
    • Another MPO responded that it is not enough to assume that simply locating a project in an "EJ service area" makes it a good project and, in fact, they often hear the opposite.
    • Other MPOs evaluate EJ by performing an analysis for EJ service areas to assess how general accessibility and transit accessibility would be impacted by the proposed plan.
    • An observer noted that MPOs have to be very careful with defining and evaluating EJ because it can be characterized in so many ways. He also suggested that it may be better to use qualitative analysis for making EJ determinations rather than trying to design a quantitative process.
    • One MPO noted that even though they use both quantitative and qualitative measures to address EJ, it remains a challenge. She also noted that EJ is an area of public concern, and that the feedback they receive from community members covers a broad variety of issues, including whether they have provided public information in Spanish or if there is a translator or childcare provided at public meetings.

7 — Technical Analysis — Regional Development Policy
David Jackson, Senior Principal Planner, ARC

The last 15 percent of project scoring weight in ARC's new methodology is the degree to which projects support its Regional Development Plan. Scoring long range projects in this category posed numerous challenges, however. On one hand ARC felt that projects lacked sufficient detail at the time of submittal for effectively evaluating their benefits. On the other hand, when you ask applicants to be too specific it can become difficult to prioritize for the long-term. An outstanding question for ARC is how to ensure that they get enough detail to evaluate projects without creating a 25-year TIP.

Following are highlights of the discussion that followed this presentation.

  • One MPO commented that keeping its long-range plan from becoming a 25-year TIP is exactly why it does not include the level of detail that ARC does in its project prioritization process. Another responded that its criteria categories are similar to those used by ARC but much more general so that the long range plan does not have the same level of detail as the TIP.
  • Another MPO noted that, although it talks about regional development goals often, it struggles with how to support its policy board in acting on these goals. It has issued calls for projects that support regional development goals but without the weight of its board behind them, it has not gone very far.
  • DRCOG actively and intentionally rewards projects for how they shape broader issues of growth and development of the region and awards points on how well a proposed project implements the stated development goals of its plan. Projects get points, for example, if they are within the urban growth boundary or increase density within the development area or establish an urban development reserve or even if the sponsor had acquired open space during the last TIP cycle. It also provides incentives for meeting small-scale criteria like establishing a storm water utility or runoff threshold, and project-level categories like serving an urban center or including bike/pedestrian provisions. It also has a guidance document called the "mile high compact" that jurisdictions can sign, in which they commit to develop comprehensive plans and plan projects that support the region. Signing the compact allows projects to receive additional points and, to date, jurisdictions representing 90 percent of the region's population have signed on. Although DRCOG provides many opportunities for regional development goals to impact project scoring, it is wary of too heavily weighting projects that are more "developments" than transportation projects. For this reason, DRCOG set a goal of maintaining a minimum of 50 percent of its scoring points for explicitly transportation-related measures to ensure that development goals do not exert undue influence on project selection.

8 — Other Technical Analysis Considerations: Freight and Economic Development
David Jackson, Senior Principal Planner, ARC

Jackson noted that aside from congestion relief or environmental impacts, there are many other issues MPOs could address in their project prioritization methodologies, such as freight movement or economic development. ARC learned this when it found some projects with significant economic development components were not scoring well because it had not designed any weighting to capture that value. For example, there was an older town center that residents wanted to help revitalize with a bypass (because there were many trucks passing through the area), but the bypass did not score well because it could not demonstrate immediate congestion benefits and had a multiple year payback period. Jackson asked if any of the participant MPOs address these issues in their processes and, if so, how?

Following are highlights of the discussion that followed this presentation.

  • One MPO participant responded that its main economic development issue is congestion preventing people from getting to work. Economic development is also an issue for local governments, who often favor commercial development projects (i.e., "strip mall economic development") since they generate lots of revenue and the sales tax is local government's prime source of funds. The MPO is trying to integrate transportation with economic development by concentrating new commercial developments through TOD or urban centers. While this MPO will take economic development factors into account in their project selection process, however, it still requires that transportation or transit is the central feature of the project to be approved.
  • Another MPO noted that for its latest TIP update, it conducted an aerial analysis on major thoroughfares and how they relate to economic development (in terms of serving as commercial manufacturing and/or employment centers) but explained that for the RTP it looks at higher level issues and would not do more than have a qualitative discussion about the economic development (or other) benefits a given project could provide.
  • Quantitative analysis can only go so far and at some point the more qualitative desires of an MPO and its state, federal or local partners have to come into play. Additional issues like freight and economic development are an example of that and point to the reason why some MPOs have decided to reduce the technical complexity of their processes. There is so much uncertainty and potential for change with projects at the point of submittal that it is not always clear whether evaluating each project upfront provides real value long-term. It is difficult to know what might change over the course of developing a project that would change the evaluation result. Designing a methodology to fully capture the potential value of different project components is a challenge.

9 — Cost/Benefit Analysis for Project Scoring
David Jackson, Senior Principal Planner, ARC

As part of its technical analysis, ARC performed a cost-benefit analysis on proposed projects. The analysis was limited, and focused almost exclusively on congestion benefits relative to project cost, though fuel savings were later built into the model. Although the MPO board supported this approach, ARC has received some criticism for failing to take other costs and benefits into account (e.g. maintenance costs or project benefits in years other than 2030)

Following are highlights of the discussion that followed this presentation.

  • Although some MPOs do include a cost/benefit analysis for project selection in the TIP, none of the participants aside from ARC do so for the long-range plan. One participant noted that it is a tremendous amount of work and that she was not sure what would happen if she asked her staff to take on this level of analysis. She observed that her MPO used to conduct a more detailed technical analysis like ARC, but the members of their technical advisory committee (TAC) directed them to steer away from that level of formalization and detail because they worried it focused too narrowly on individual projects, rather than looking at the region as a whole.
  • An overly quantitative method fails to demonstrate the many types of benefits aside from congestion relief. On the other hand, having a core issue motivating the plan simplifies the evaluation process.

10 — Wrap-Up Discussion and Reflections
The peer exchange closed with a moderated discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of ARC's long-range project prioritization methodology. Participants responded to what they heard during the event, reflected on their own processes, and shared opportunities for improvement.

What made ARC's new method and long-range planning process a success?

  • Leadership — There was a unique confluence of leadership between the chairman of the MPO board and the mayor of Atlanta that helped make ARC's process a reality.
  • Public Involvement — ARC staff held three rounds of public meetings and hosted a series of all-day working sessions with senior leadership in the region in the year and a half of developing their new methodology. This helped to build a broader public understanding of the process and address key issues and challenges.
  • Learning from Others — ARC wanted to understand how other regions approached project prioritization so it invited representatives from San Diego, Phoenix, Washington DC, and Denver to come and hold working sessions to inform the development of its new method.
  • Innovative Programs — ARC's Livable Centers Initiative, for example, was pivotal to the success of the process, because it has led to a broader public awakening and interest in transportation and development issues in the region.
    • H-GAC noted that it has been successful in using a Livable Centers Initiative to help select the best projects for inclusion in its plan and engage the broader community in the planning process as well.

Are there any final thoughts or reflections for ARC on its new methodology?

  • ARC used a highly detailed analysis in response to a mandate from above (i.e. its Governor and its board). Without a similar mandate, other MPOs might need a long lead time to gain the necessary support from their Boards and regional partners to replicate ARC's methodology.
  • It is clear that ARC is a leader in this arena — it put a tremendous amount of work and thought into its process, and should be commended for that. However, that does not mean that other agencies should use the same methods. It is positive to see that each region has its own process because that means each MPO is responding to local needs, which is what should always drive the planning process in the first place.
  • It is clear that ARC is a leader in this arena — it put a tremendous amount of work and thought into its process, and should be commended for that. However, that does not mean that other agencies should use the same methods. It is positive to see that each region has its own process because that means each MPO is responding to local needs, which is what should always drive the planning process in the first place.
  • If ARC can use this level of analysis as a tool, rather than a crutch, for making tough decisions or facilitating consensus, then its new methodology is a true success. A word of caution, though, is that it is important to be realistic about how and to what degree an MPO can rely on numbers. Technical analysis is not equal to transparency because it relies on numerous assumptions. Long range projects often are characterized by rough scope definitions and inexact cost estimates. These issues can unfairly impact project scoring and selection when using a detailed analysis process.
  • In order to create a plan with real synergy, it is more important to have the MPO board adopt a strong, clear vision or overarching policy framework than it is to have a detailed technical analysis. MPOs can get lost in an overly technical or quantitative analysis examining individual trees rather than looking at the forest as a whole.
  • It is valuable to share strategies and experiences with one another and learn how each MPO approaches the planning process, especially for those that share the challenges of population growth, air-quality non-attainment status, and rising funding constraints. Although it is unlikely that MPOs will copy one another's methodologies outright, forums like this provide the space for participants to think about how they can tweak their procedures to improve project selection processes in the next updates to their short-term and long-term plans.

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VI. Key Contacts

Key Contact: David Jackson, Senior Principal Planner, ARC
Address: 40 Courtland Street NE
Atlanta, GA
Phone: 404-463-3271
Fax: 404-463-3254
Key Contact: Theresa Perrone, Community Planner, USDOT Volpe Center
Address: 55 Broadway
Cambridge, MA
Phone: 617-494-1344
Fax: 617-494-3260

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VII. Attachments

A: Participant List

First Last Agency E-mail
Guy Rousseau ARC
Kofi Wakhisi ARC
Jane Hayse ARC
Tom Weyandt ARC
David Emory ARC
Heinrich McBean ARC
Dan Reuter ARC — Land Use
Tracy Clymer Cambridge Systematics
George Scheuernstuhl DRCOG
Andy Edwards FHWA
John Humeston FHWA Headquarters  
Ben Williams FHWA Resource Center  
Darby Mori GRTA
Henry Green GDOT
Jason Crane GDOT
Margo Trugueros GDOT
Tim Kassa GDOT - planning
Srikanth Yamala GHMPO
David Fee GHMPO
Dania Aponte GRTA
Kirk Fjelstul GRTA  
David Cassell GRTA
Cheri Matthews Henry County
Michael Harris Henry County  
Pat Waskowiak HGAC
Lynn Spencer HGAC
Claudia Bilotto HNTB  
Gloria Gaines MARTA  
Michael Burbank NCTCOG
Patrick Vu SRTA  

B: Agenda

Program for Monday, October 29, 2007

8:30 am 9:00 am Register and Breakfast
9:00 am 9:30 am Welcome and Introductions
9:30 am 10:00 am Overview and Goals for Peer Exchange
10:00 am 10:30 am Presentation and Discussion of ARC's Long Range Regional Transportation Planning Policy (Federal, State, and local issues and constraints impacting long-range transportation planning in the Atlanta region)
10:30 am 10:45 am MORNING BREAK
10:45 am 11:30 am Participant MPO Presentations on Long Range Regional Transportation Planning Policy (Federal, State, and local issues and constraints impacting long-range transportation planning in peer regions)
11:30 am 12:00 pm Summary and Wrap-Up on Policy Discussion
12:00 pm 1:00 pm LUNCH
1:00 pm 1:15 pm Regroup
1:15 pm 1:30 pm ARC Project Prioritization Process Overview
1:30 pm 2:30 pm Technical Analysis — Congestion Scoring (All)
- Tools for Analysis
- Roadway Recurring Congestion
- Transit User Benefits
- Roadway and Transit Non-Recurring Congestion (Safety)
2:30 pm 2:45 pm AFTERNOON BREAK
2:45 pm 3:15 pm Technical Analysis — Environmental Impacts (All)
3:15 pm 3:30 pm Technical Analysis — Regional Development Policy (All)
3:30 pm 4:00 pm Expanded Technical Analysis Considerations (All)
- Freight Movement
- Economic Development
- Project Level Air Quality Impacts
- Transportation System Security
4:00 pm 5:00 pm Project Scoring, Reporting, and Benefit-Cost (All)

Program for Tuesday, October 30, 2007

8:30 am 9:00 am Breakfast
9:00 am 9:15 am Review
9:15 am 9:30 am Goals of Today's Agenda
9:30 am 10:00 am Challenges and Needs for Improvement (All)
10:00 am 11:30 am Group Discussion and Presentation of Challenges and Best Practices in Project Prioritization
11:30 am 12:00 pm Summarize and Conclude
12:00 pm 12:15 pm Volpe Wrap-Up and Evaluations

C: Participant MPO Websites

Atlanta Regional Council

Denver Regional Council of Governments

Houston-Galveston Area Council

North Central Texas Council of Governments

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