While many factors play a role in creating an efficient transportation system, the adoption of an accurate quantitative process analyzing the costs and benefits of a project is one of the most important steps to improving the overall highway network. Unfortunately, much of the federal surface transportation reauthorization bill process often focuses on political goals, not the policy goals of improving mobility. When Congress tackles the next surface reauthorization bill, it should try to prioritize the efficient use of resources in ways that will meaningfully improve transportation and our ability to move people and goods.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, using life-cycle cost analysis and multifactorial scoring systems are critical to making decisions on whether to fund a transportation project. States should also consider the role of emissions and freight. If Congress is looking for a national metric, one could be modeled after two of the states—North Carolina and Virginia—that are considered to have the most effective, objective selection processes.
The North Carolina 2013 Strategic Transportation Investments Act, for example, allocates transportation project funding on the basis of how the projects will perform on three key criteria:
- The needs of the state’s 14 transportation divisions (30 percent);
- Regional impact (30 percent); and
- Statewide impact (40 percent).
Since implementing this process, North Carolina has been able to dedicate more resources to capital and bridge spending, while maintaining top 25 rankings in pavement condition.
Similarly, in 2014, Virginia adopted the Prioritization Process for Project Selection, which instituted a method for quantitatively scoring the state’s proposed transportation projects before they are then reviewed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB). Virginia House Bill 2 created ‘Smart Scale,’ which uses 10 criteria to measure project effectiveness. The criteria are weighted as follows:
- The reduction of congestion (35 percent);
- Project readiness (25 percent);
- Service deficiencies (5 percent);
- Reduction in vehicle-miles traveled (5 percent);
- Improvements in transportation safety (5 percent);
- Increased connections between activity centers (5 percent);
- Increased regional and modal integration (5 percent);
- Improved bicycle and pedestrian travel options (5 percent);
- Improved management of existing operations (5 percent); and
- Cost-sharing with other entities (5 percent).
Since implementing this scoring process, Virginia has been able to maintain high-quality pavement conditions and improve additional highways.
The next surface transportation bill should include a federal system that uses a similar process to evaluate the costs and benefits of proposed projects. Such a system might compare the costs of reducing the number of congestion hours for a roadway or achieving a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Typically, state departments of transportation build projects and then get reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Transportation. In reimbursements, states could be incentivized with a 20 percent bonus to complete projects with strong benefit/cost ratios and penalized 20 percent for moving ahead with projects with poor cost/benefit ratios.