Thinking the Big Thoughts about Transportation Planning

Dironna Belton

by James A. Bacon

Under the auspices of updating the VTrans 2035 transportation plan, the McDonnell administration is executing a far-reaching overhaul of Virginia’s strategic planning process. The new approach would use performance metrics for such criteria as safety, congestion, the economy and the environment to create a data-driven system for prioritizing transportation projects.

The Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment (OIPI) under Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton is developing a complex methodology for linking transportation goals such as “increasing mobility and accessibility” to investment priorities, and then rating the investment priorities. By measuring investment performance, OIPI will develop the capability over time to predict the impact of competing investments on a range of desired goals.

Virginia has all the components, it just hasn’t stitched them together in an approach that will inform decision making, says Dironna Belton, policy and program manager. The McDonnell administration recruited her from Tennessee, where she had worked as a transportation planner, to oversee the initiative. Among the reasons she took the job, she says, is that the initiative could make Virginia a national leader in the use of performance measures to guide transportation investment.

The VTrans 2035 Update represents, as its name implies, an update of the earlier VTrans 2035 plan. The research component is less exhaustive than the earlier exercise, and the planning horizon remains the same. However, the McDonnell administration is using it as a vehicle to advance reforms of the long-term transportation planning process as well as to recommend broad policy directions and funding sources.

The update will have little immediate impact but it will create a “framework” that will align the long-term planning of state transportation agencies and regional transportation planning organizations.

The framework lists seven broad goals such as  “economic vitality” or “coordination of land use and transportation,” each of which could be advanced by a variety of investment priorities. Specific projects would be rated on the basis of need — how much they “move the needle” of performance metrics — as well as affordability, ease of implementation and impact of not making the investment.

Highly rated investment priorities will be reflected in agency and MPO plans and programs.

The VTrans report also will recommend options for dealing with declining state funding for new construction projects. In contrast to previous McDonnell administration proposals to tap General Fund revenues, proceeds from the sale of state ABC stores or royalties from oil and gas drilling, the draft VTrans recommendations advocates a user-pays logic for raising revenue.

Among the recommended revenue sources are levies that are “based on travel, not strictly fuel usage and vehicle purchases” as well as “user fees such as tolls and locally based tax revenues” such as impact fees, proffers and special tax districts.

2 Responses to Thinking the Big Thoughts about Transportation Planning

  1. Now there’s a job for the Strong of Heart and Eternal Optimist.

  2. metrics that are subjective and not measurable are not metrics though and if they are ‘weighted’ – even more arbitrary.

    I like the idea but I’m a skeptic about how it will be done.

    Also , the last JLARC report has some excellent suggestions that have yet to be implemented with respect to how VDOT represents existing projects. The report states, for instance that there is a difference between VDOT’s 6yr plan and the way that FHWA documents them. This leads to confusion and uncertainty among not only the MPOs but the VDOT districts themselves.

    http://jlarc.virginia.gov/meetings/December10/transbrf.pdf

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