by James A. Bacon
After lengthy study, the Commonwealth Transportation Board yesterday approved new metrics for prioritizing transportation funding in Virginia. The new metrics are designed to create objective criteria for evaluating the selection of road and rail projects. It remains to be seen how the metrics will be applied in practice, but in theory they represent a big step forward.
As seen in the chart above, the metrics will be assigned different weights for different parts of the state. For instance, Category A, which assigns the greatest weight to congestion mitigation, consists primarily of the highly congested Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads transportation planning organization districts. Category D consists mainly of lightly traveled rural districts. (View the classifications here.)
The different weights reflect the different priorities of different parts of the state. The classifications and methodology can be amended as needed to reflect changes in priorities and advances in technology, data collection and reporting tools.
Here is a breakdown of the measures that go into the weighting framework:
These metrics will provide CTB board members unparallelled insight into the relative benefits of different transportation options. It should be much more difficult now for any administration to gain approval for “highway to nowhere” road and rail projects.
Bacon’s bottom line: I have long called for tools that make it possible to measure projects based on their “Return on Investment,” reflecting congestion mitigation, safety improvements and environmental benefits. This methodology goes beyond that by incorporating additional measures, such as economic development and accessibility, but falls short by providing no mechanism for calculating ROI. Given the complexity of the evaluations, it may be impractical to boil down all these metrics to a single ROI figure, so CTB board members will retain considerable discretion.
Some of the criteria look really fuzzy. How does one evaluate “land use consistency?” How does one measure “project support for economic development”?
Despite modest reservations, the new approach appears to represent a big step forward by limiting the potential for ideology, politicking and log rolling in transportation funding decision-making. I look forward to seeing how the new methodology works in practice. While one can rarely go wrong by taking a cynical view of human nature and the political process, I am hopeful that the transparent use of objective metrics will curb the worst instincts of the political class.