State Transportation

By Yonah Freemark

In 2003, Minnesota became the first state in the country to develop a comprehensive performance-based transportation plan. Rather than selecting projects arbitrarily, Minnesota’s leaders agreed to a process that identified specific goals for the transportation system, developed policies to achieve those goals and selected the projects that best met those policies. In so doing, it created a framework for transportation reform across the U.S., inspiring the Metropolitan Planning Council’s (MPC) calls for prioritizing investments based on merit. This case study examines the performance measures Minnesota and now North Carolina utilize to help identify priority projects.

Statewide planning in Minnesota

The statewide plan identifies 10 top priorities for improving the network. Unlike many state transportation plans, Minnesota’s attempts to address mobility goals on a variety of scales—both for intercity connections and neighborhood links—and does so across transportation modes.

In fact, while the plan places importance on improving the state’s highways, it also goes out of the way to emphasize the specific needs of Minnesota’s economic and population center, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The plan notes that it “moves the region away from its long-held and historical approach of attempting to build its way out of congestion by adding more highway lanes… to a more innovative, balanced, and financially realistic effort to address regional mobility needs.” As such, Minnesota demonstrates that it is possible to think about transportation at a statewide level while keeping the needs of major urban areas in mind.

Minnesota has been developing a framework for judging appropriate infrastructure investments since the early 1990s. Beyond the policy priorities that the plan identifies, it tracks and reports performance data through the state’s Office of Investment Management, which acts as an internal auditor in the state Department of Transportation to ensure that projects are moving ahead according to the state’s vision.

The process identifies overall investment needs and projected future revenues—but then sets investment goals based on the plan’s performance measures. Thinking ahead, the plan then prioritizes unfunded investment needs, an important step because this allows the state to plan for what projects will come next if a new source of funds is identified.

Prioritizing in North Carolina

North Carolina has also been at the forefront of transportation funding reform. In 2009, the state government introduced its “From Policy to Projects” decision-making system which uses a strategic, performance-based process to determine which transportation projects to prioritize. It is a useful model for any future transportation investment plan in Illinois.

The Policy to Projects program establishes a long-range, 30-year transportation plan that recommends a vision for changes in the state’s transportation network. Then, using a data-driven evaluation process, specific projects are selected for the next 10 years. Finally, the state, working with the federal government, develops its State Transportation Improvement Plan, based on secure knowledge of five-year funding flows. This Improvement Plan is then translated into the Department of Transportation's project work plan.

This process enables the state to make a performance-based judgment about the appropriate investments given limitations on funds. For example, for the 2015-2020 five-year plan, North Carolina has roughly $9 billion to appropriate to highway projects but $45 billion in desired investments—representing 1,100 projects in total. Another $1.5 billion is available for non-highway projects. Dollars are allocated based on “buckets” of funding, with 60 percent of money going to construction and engineering, 30 percent to maintenance and 10 percent to operations, administration and transfers.

The State has a scoring system it uses to differentiate between all of the different potential projects on offer, and select the most impactful ones. The formula for highway projects is documented in the following table.

 

 

 Highway Mobility

 Highway Modernization

 

 Tier

 Statewide 

 Regional 

 Subregional 

 Statewide 

 Regional 

 Subregional 

 State 
 Quantitative 
 Data 

 Congestion

20%

20

20

10

5

 Benefit/Cost

20

15

 Safety

10

5

5

10

10

10

 Pavement 
 Condition

10

5

5

10

5

 Economic 
 Competitiveness

10

5

 Lane Width

20

15

10

 Shoulder Width

20

15

10

 Local 
 Input 

 Division Rank 
 (top 25 projects)

20

25

30

20

25

30

 MPO/RPO Rank 
 (top 25 projects)

10

25

40

10

25

40

Depending on the location of the projects, regional bodies such as the local Department of Transportation division and the local Metropolitan Planning Organization (such as the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning) play an important role. These organizations rank projects themselves and their advice plays a major role in determining the choice of one project or another. Each of the data input into the formula is based on a calculation of project effectiveness.

For example, the congestion score equals ((Existing volume/capacity ratio x 100) x 60%) + ((Existing volume/1,000) x 40%).

In order to avoid conflict between different parts of the state, North Carolina uses an “equity formula” to make sure that funds are allocated across the regions.

More recently, the state has introduced revised scoring parameters, but the new formulas remain consistent with the performance-based approach of the initial reforms.

The importance of performance measures for public investment

With limited—and, in some cases, declining—public resources, the choices we make about which transportation projects to invest in can make a critical difference in terms of affecting the economy and mobility of our regions. Minnesota and North Carolina demonstrate how clear, empirical measures can be used to improve the planning process. MPC’s campaign for performance measures both for the State of Illinois and for the Chicago region is inspired by these precedents.

Photo Credit: State Transportation/shutterstock