Just How Smart Is the Smart-Scale Scoring System?

Over the past month Del. Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton, has criticized the state’s Smart Scale scoring system for allocating transportation dollars. By law, he says, the system is supposed to prioritize congestion mitigation. But the latest round of allocations was biased heavily in favor of land use and economic development. As a result, a Metro station project near the planned Amazon HQ2 project received funding while a Rt. 7 improvement project with greater congestion-mitigation benefits did not. This year the overwhelming majority of Northern Virginia transportation funds are going to projects inside the Beltway and only a pittance to counties on the metropolitan fringe. LaRock says the system is “seriously broken.”

Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue defends the Smart Scale methodology. As it happened this year, yes, Northern Virginia road and highway funding did fall short. He offers two justifications. First, congestion mitigation is not the only factor considered in Smart Scale, and the other projects offered tremendous benefits in other areas. Second, Smart Scale measures congestion mitigation per dollar spent. Improvements to Rt. 7, benefiting LaRock’s Loudoun County constituents, would have ameliorated a lot of congestion, but it is also a very large, very expensive project.

LaRock has a response to that. Peculiarities in the Smart Scale methodology had the effect this year of diminishing the weight given congestion mitigation projects. The state’s top congestion-relief project, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion, offered benefits so far and above all other projects that it minimized the weighting of congestion benefits for those projects.

The issues here are arcane and difficult to explain. Thus the debate boils down to he-said, she-said with LaRock and Donohue on opposite sides of the controversy. But the annual allocation of roughly $800 million yearly in transportation construction dollars is at stake. LaRock, along with Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, has launched the first major challenge to the scoring system, which was designed with the hope of taking politics out of transportation decision-making.

Herewith, Bacon’s Rebellion offers a tutorial on the mechanics of the Smart Scale system, the allocation of state transportation funds, why the Crystal City project scored higher than the Route 7 project, and why LaRock thinks the methodology needs reform.

Multiple buckets of transportation funds

There are multiple buckets of transportation construction funds. Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the regions with the worst congestion, levy regional taxes that pay for regional projects. Each region has its own governing body to select projects funded with those dollars. Smart Scale is the tool used to allocate transportation projects funded by roughly $800 million in statewide revenue sources.

Under state law, 50% of the statewide dollars must be allocated proportionally to the state’s nine transportation districts. The other 50% can be allocated anywhere in the state. Smart Scale evaluates both regional priorities and statewide priorities. This year 25% of statewide transportation construction dollars was steered to Northern Virginia. Hampton Roads also won 25% ($200 million) for the bridge-tunnel project alone.

In the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads districts, congestion mitigation is given the highest weight. Other districts weigh criteria differently, depending upon regional priorities. More rural districts, for instance, tend to give economic development higher priority.

Weighting ratios

The Smart Scale process assigns the following weights to different scoring criteria in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads:

  • 45% Congestion mitigation. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) uses a Travel Demand Model to calculate the project’s peak-period throughput in total number of people and reduction in person-hours of delay.
  • 20% Land use. VDOT calculates the project’s impact on land use in regions with more than 200,000 population, recognizing that certain human settlement patterns — particularly dense, mixed-use projects — generate fewer traffic trips per household than others. Says Donohue: “The land use measure looks at how can we facilitate more growth that has a lower impact on the transportation network.”
  • 15% Accessibility. Accessibility measures a project’s ability to increase the access to jobs of people generally, and disadvantaged populations specifically. A GIS tool calculates the number of additional jobs accessed per person.
  • 10% Environmental quality. This yardstick measures a project’s impact on air quality, wetlands and other environmental factors.
  • 5% Safety. This measure estimates a project’s expected impact on the number of moderate injuries, severe injuries, and fatalities.
  • 5% Economic development. This category measures the square footage of commercial/industrial space supported, improvements to travel-time reliability, and tons of freight impacted. The economic impact improves with proximity to ports, airports, warehouses, and intermodal facilities.

After crunching the numbers and getting values for six categories and 14 sub-categories, the Smart Scale model produces a “normalized measure” for each. This is critical in the LaRock-Donohuse debate. According to VDOT’s “How to Read a Scorecard,” the value is “normalized as a percentage of the highest Measure Value in that year’s cohort of projects.” Thus, if a project garners an exceptionally high score for congestion mitigation — 100 in the case of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel — all other projects will measured as a percentage of that high score, giving them relatively low normalized measures.

The normalized measure is then multiplied by its weight (45% in Northern Virginia in the case of congestion mitigation projects) to yield a “factor value.” Then follows a series of synthesized values including weighted factor value, project benefit, Smart Scale Cost, and Smart Scale score.

Route 7 versus Crystal City Metro

Route 7 project Smartscale scores. Click for more legible image.

VDOT publishes a scorecard and detailed statistics for each project. The scorecard for the Route 7 project in Loudoun County would make safety and operational improvements between Route 9 and the Dulles Greenway toll road. The project would cost an estimated $127 million dollars. The methodology estimates that rush hour capacity would increase by 1,548 persons daily and the rush hour delay would be reduced by 529 person hours. But by comparison to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, Route 7 warrants a “normalized measure value” of only 5.5 on a 100 scale, thus severely diminishing the weight given to the project’s most important benefit.

As this low score flows through the scoring system, the project ends up with a 4.7 project benefit and a Smart Scale score (project benefit per $10 thousand cost) of 0.4.

Crystal City Smartscale scores. Click for more legible image.

The Crystal City Metro project would construct a second entrance to the Crystal City Metrorail Station in Arlington. The project cost is $90.8 million, $52.9 million of which would be funded through Smart Scale. The project provides less congestion mitigation than Route 7 — a rush-hour capacity increase of 1,236 persons and only 67.5 person-hours saved. But the project scores extremely well in economic development (primarily square footage of office space supported), the environment, and land use. Indeed, for land use, the Metro project scores 100.

As these scores flow through the Smart Scale, the project benefit is 29.0 and, adjusted for benefit per $10 thousand) it rates a 5.5.

Says Donohue: “What are the congestion benefits relative to the costs? The two projects have similar congestion benefits. But Crystal City scores higher on environmental and land use, promoting growth in a way that will reduce the impact on the transportation network in the future.”

Funding was tight for Northern Virginia this round. The Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion snagged $200 million, or about half of every transportation dollar that could be allocated anywhere in the state. Such an anomaly probably won’t happen again next year, says Donohue. Even if the Route 7 project didn’t make the cut this year, eight of the top 10 congestion-mitigation-per-dollar projects in Northern Virginia did get funding. “How has legislative intent been tossed out the window?”

Daniel Davies, LaRock’s legislative assistant, says LaRock asked Donohue to treat the bridge-tunnel as the outlier it is, score it separately, and then to res-core all the Northern Virginia projects. “Sure, go ahead and fund the HRBT, but don’t kill all the other congestion-mitigation projects statewide.”

Davies also contends that the “land use” and “accessibility” categories overlap to a large degree — both give a bonus to density — and should receive less than a combined 35% weight. If Smart Scale treated the bridge-tunnel separately as an outlier and weighted congestion mitigation 65% for Northern Virginia, he says, Smart Scale would have provided funding for the Route 123 interchange project in Prince William County.

LaRock is not the only elected official to complain about Smart Scale. He’s just the one to stick out his neck and challenge the methodology publicly. Says Davies: “The Secretary [of Transportation]’s office caught flack from all around the state.”

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14 responses to “Just How Smart Is the Smart-Scale Scoring System?

  1. Easier to find the Holy Grail than to develop a system that would stop the complaints. I’ll always remember being in line for a sandwich at Chicken’s in the Capitol during the Baliles transportation special session, striking up a conversation with a delegate. Are you holding out for that bypass, I asked him? No, he said, I was promised that for my last vote! (Dalton’s gas tax…) He had another price in mind for his vote this time. So I do think the Smart Scale as now devised is a step toward something better, anyway….it is fair to ask the critics how they would do it differently.

  2. I give credit to Jim for his much better explanation of how SmartScale “works” and I doubt seriously if LaRock has read it, much less tell us how it should be made “better”.

    Down Fredericksburg way, we’re a lot like Loudoun in that we’re both exurban counties with large numbers of commuters that work in NoVa and yes, our region has also complained that “our congestion” is not being “scored” fairly.

    So, here’s the thing. If we changed SmartScale so that it would elevate his Route 7 in scoring – and we used that SAME scoring methodology for the rest of the state – his project would have heavy competition and likely would score lower than others even then.

    The KEY to SmartScale is using the SAME scoring across the board so that your pet project is competing on an apples-to-apples basis rather than on how good your backroom politics are – and in my mind that’s a huge step up from how we used to do prioritization.

    VDOT does favor projects that move people over projects that move cars. My guess is if LaRocks constituents got together and promoted Bus Rapid Transit – it would get funded!

    The simple reality that VDOT knows and is trying to convince others of is that we cannot continue to build roads for exurban commuting for single occupancy vehicles.

    If the roads are tolled – like the Hampton Roads Project – they also stand a better chance.

    Maybe if he proposed Rt 7 to be tolled with HOV riding free…

    • Delegate Dave LaRock

      I have read it, and have made suggestions to “make it better.” The issue here is that this years’ allocations made a mockery of legislative intent in many areas. I brought this to the Secretary of Transportation’s attention in a letter on Jan. 18th, and have continued pushing on this ever since. What happened this year is that the “Congestion Mitigation” factor was practically wiped out for every other project, state-wide, by the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. This led to “Land Use” and “Environmental” factors dominating the allocation decisions in Northern Virginia, with 58% and 19%, respectively, of the “Project benefit score” for the funded projects; “Congestion Mitigation” only accounts for 7.6% of the benefit these projects will bring, according to the administration’s numbers. Instead of mitigating existing congestion, they are, as clearly stated in Dep. Sec. Donohue’s quote, above “…promoting growth in a way that will reduce the impact on the transportation network in the future.”

      My suggestion was to treat the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel as the outlier it obviously is, and modify the “Weighting typology category A” (NoVa, Hampton Roads, and Fredericksburg MPO) ratios to increase the congestion mitigation factor to 65% by reducing Land Use to 5% and Accessibility to 10%. My staff ran this scenario, and it would have led to much more balanced results this year.

  3. The only way to stop all the complaints is to have an infinite source of money. And that is not going to happen. No matter what system one devises for divvying up a limited pot of money, there are going to be winners and losers. The key is ensuring that the criteria being used are objective and are designed to accomplish agreed-upon objectives. Bureaucrats need to be challenged to defend their methodologies and legislators should not hesitate to do so. However, beecause only two legislators, who are threatened electorally, are squawking, and the responses of the administration seem reasonable, that would suggest that the Smart Scale system meets the tests of objectivity and accomplishing agreed-upon objectives.

  4. Yep. These guys are pandering to the folks who want more roads and no tolls on them and there is a certain logic to it because if a politician actually defended SmartScale and VDOT, they’d likely get tossed.

    I just want to point out that Loudoun CAN affect the score by putting in local money or advocating for tolls – which is what Hampton Roads did for the tunnels.

    But the days of gobbling up state money for sprawl roads to serve solo commuters to upscale exurbia are about done. They need to do what Hampton Roads did – institute a local tax for transportation – and consider tolls.

    • Delegate Dave LaRock

      Loudoun does put lots of local tax revenue and bonds towards transportation projects. For the Rt. 7 project, they included local and NVTA funding in their application, but the administration threw those out and also increased the project cost significantly (from $15M SMART SCALE on a $36M project to a $127M project 100% SMART SCALE).

  5. Development begets traffic and big developments beget lots and lots of traffic. Transit does help with traffic growth but more people drive than take transit. For example, the opening of the new Cap One HQ building near the McLean Silver Line Station has increased ridership to and from that station by 18%. That’s good but how many more people are driving to the Cap One location instead of other office buildings scattered around NoVA?

    Landowners have noticed that more people are using SOV vehicles to get to and from Tysons. As a result, they are lobbying harder for higher parking maximums. Transit oriented development?????

    TDM only addresses projected traffic growth from a single building and not total traffic. Thus, we have Tysons landowners generally meeting their fairly aggressive TDM goals while traffic in Tysons, McLean, Vienna and Falls Church has greatly increased. Apps like WAZE make it worse. While typing this post, I heard a load truck. I looked out the window and saw a very large flatbed truck carrying construction supplies turning from my 30 foot wide street to an even narrower one.

    Transit is also welfare for developers. From the billions that Phase 1 of the Silver Line costs, Tysons and Reston landowners paid $450 million. DTR drivers are paying the bulk of the costs. Transit enables the density at Tysons and Reston, which, in turn, makes developers and landowners hundreds of millions.

    If the State really clamped down on SOV use in Tysons, businesses would likely move elsewhere where SOV regulations are less. Yet if they don’t, development and traffic will continue to destroy the quality of life in NoVA.

    Poring more money into either roads or transit isn’t going to make things better, only less worse.

    • TMT is right. Absolutely right. So is Dick’s 3.21 pm comment. Mr. Davies does not know what he is talking about. Nor does Mr. LaRock. Money needs to go to wildly different and new solutions that eat traffic instead of compounding it while thwarting new and different solutions that will pull out bad habits by their roots.

  6. Wow ! Such agreement! The motivation for more, bigger, wider roads is not coming just from pandering politicols – they get their energy from exurban-solo-commuting constituents.

    We have a ton of them in Fredericksburg – and their basic viewpoint is that they have a RIGHT to drive solo every day – a 80-100 mile round trip and that the state is FAILING them by not keeping up with enough infrastructure that they are already paying for with their taxes.

    But as I have opined here before – this exurban commuting thing is NOT unique to Washington. It’s COMMON across the country in most if not all our urban job centers. People want a good job – they don’t want to live in the city – they want a house with a yard on a cul-de-sac in the “burbs” and for 1/2 or less what inferior housing would cost them in the urban centers.

    New York City is in the process of institution what boils down to a “Cordon” toll which basically is an inscribed area that costs tolls to enter. They have some advantage in natural boundaries – rivers but they still have to draw an artificial boundary in Manhattan.

    The way this “works” is NOT with toll booths. They are no longer used. The tolls are totally electronic – either with the use of an in-car transponder or via license plate readers. Either way- if you cross that line in a car – you pay – a varying toll depending on the time of day and congestion levels.

    People then make choices about time and money just like they do when they fly an airline and it costs a lot more to fly the same plane in high demand periods than low demand periods.

    Roads have to start functioning like that.

    You also have to make parking more expensive and transit needs to transition to a 21st century mobility model and move away from it’s 1930’s era model.

    The thing that is amazing to me – is again – this is a COMMON urban plague of a problem and the “planners” – including those “Smart Growth” folks seems to have not yet arrived at a “cure” – a “recipe” that “works” – it’s still conjecture and various advocacies for various ideas – few of which are universally accepted as known solutions.

  7. This points up one of the many reasons why the Time has Come at Long Last for an altogether New Day in the Shenandoah Valley, one of ever greater prosperity, variety, and higher quality of life. Just like what happened to Arlington County from 1975 to year 2005.

    • Oh – life there is going to be ruined! That’s depressing…HOT lanes up to New Market or Staunton…..multifamily towers blocking the views….Thanks for that vision, Reed!

      • “Oh – life there is going to be ruined!”

        Your comment is completely understandable. I should have been far more clear in explanation. I should have referred to the renaissance of Arlington’s new downtown that was built in revolutionary fashion on the ruined skeleton of its old downtown that earlier had been emptied out, and rendered obsolete, by Fairfax’s Counties brazen theft of I-495, the Capital Beltway, around DC on Virginia’s side of the Potomac River. This outrageous heist began in the early 1960s.

        Now, however, the similarity between the renewal of Arlington’s new downtown corridor from Rossyln to Ballston to the upcoming renewal of the Shenendoah Valley will be remarkable similar for a host of reasons, yet the results of each renewal will also by remarkable different, as each must be custom tailored to local geography, culture and purpose. Steve, you’ll be a very happy camper in your golden years.

  8. Just FYI – HOT lanes/Dynamic tolling are not a one-size-fits-all solution. You put them where demand exceeds capacity. It’s not designed to penalize anyone for driving – it’s very much like what the airlines do when demand exceeds their capacity. They put a price on it – and people decide if it’s worth it to them to be on the roads at that hour – solo.

    They STILL have a choice. They can usually drive the “free” lanes or they can pay a premium for a less congested, quicker trip.

    People makes choices and there are consequences for those choices.

    We cannot build enough capacity for everyone to drive solo at peak hour – not physically and not fiscally. That’s a reality, not an advocacy for “punishing” – the “punishment” comes from gridlock and VDOT has a responsibility to do SOMETHING to mitigate it – if they can – and HOT lanes is one way.

    I-81 is a different kind of road. It’s not an urban road serving exurban commuting… So HOT tolls will not work. Truckers can’t HOV and most folks who take longer trips are locked in to a solo or HOV trip – they really can’t “carpool” with others from one location to a destination like we’d see with folks in Fredericksburg headed to the Pentagon.

  9. I just want to point out also – if you actually look at he SmartScale score for the Route 7 project – it does score 3.1 for congestion and .1 for land use and .1 for economic development so basically it IS scored on congestion mitigation! The “problem” is that it does not score well compared to other projects on “congestion mitigation” in no small part because it’s a commuter road for SOV and that will not score well these days.

    NO project that is primarily targeting more road capacity for SOV exurban commuting is going to score well – whether it’s Loudoun or Fredericksburg, Richmond or Hampton Roads.

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