Virginia’s New Road Funding Process — Less Political but Still Opaque

Project scorecard for
Project scorecard for improvements to intersection at Patterson Ave. and Parham Road.

by James A. Bacon

In a rare bipartisan achievement, Virginia is doing something that no other state in the union is doing: basing its transportation investments on an objective scoring system.

Earlier this month, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) approved $1.7 billion to be spent on 163 projects selected through the System for the Management and Allocation of Resources for Transportation, or SMART SCALE. The process rates projects for their impact on safety, congestion reduction, accessibility, land use, economic development and the environment.

“SMART SCALE revolutionizes the way Virginia delivers transportation,” wrote Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed Sunday. “Future administrations can’t develop wish lists on a whim. Projects must be scored and vetted through the data-driven system.”

The bottom-up process starts with a consistent set of standards by which localities select projects for scoring. All nominated projects are screened and scored and funding recommendations made on the basis of the scores. The scenarios are presented to the localities and the public for a round of input. Then the CTB has the final say.

The legislation setting up the new system originated with General Assembly Republicans and was embraced by Governor Terry McAuliffe. The reform is remarkable in that the governor and powerful legislators relinquished much of their power to reward friends and punish enemies through the doling out of transportation dollars and turning it over to a process-driven system.

“No longer are we allowing politics and wish lists determine what gets built. This process is critical to moving people, jobs, and commerce, all of which is essential to building the new Virginia economy,” said McAuliffe in a press release touting the CTB vote.

“With SMART SCALE, we are promoting greater accountability, safeguarding against waste and ending the politicization that has been rampant in our transportation process for so long,” said House Speaker William J. Howell in the same press release.

Bacon’s bottom line: So, I can visit the SMART SCALE website and find a list of 287 projects along with a breakdown of their scores. There, I can see that a project about a mile from my house — $5 million to make improvements to the intersection of Patterson Avenue and Parham Road, a miserable, stinking, soul-scorching abomination of a crossroads if there ever was one — ranked 92 statewide among all projects. And I can view the scores assigned to a variety of metrics, as seen here:


That’s all well and good, but none of this is intuitive. I don’t have the faintest idea what these scores mean. Are higher scores better than lower scores? I can imagine that a major benefit of the project would be improving “travel time reliability,” as reflected in its 24.6 score. But why would “travel time delay” be so meager at 0.6? Isn’t that closely related to travel time reliability? Is the same scale being applied to each criteria? Is the scale 0 to 1, 1 to 100, or something else entirely? The explanation on how to read a scorecard doesn’t help much.

And how about the data underlying this statistics? How many car crashes and injuries occur at this intersection? How many hours of delay occur, and how is that number measured? How does one calculate the increase in access to jobs? And how does one evaluate the impact of the project on land use?

The information available to me as a member of the public doesn’t allow me to evaluate much of anything. Further, I can’t imagine being a CTB board member and finding the data any more helpful — unless they are given special training in interpreting the numbers or have VDOT staff at their beck and call to answer their questions.

While SMART SCALE undoubtedly represents an improvement over what preceded it, the state might as well be publishing its scores in hieroglyphics. Transparency is not served when the the scoring system is so indecipherable as to be unintelligible as to defeat all efforts at understanding.

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10 responses to “Virginia’s New Road Funding Process — Less Political but Still Opaque”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Perhaps this might be considered movement in right direction, but there is good reason to doubt it. Recall the voluminous traffic study that tells the concerned reader far less than nothing, obscuring all the major problems, unknowns, and risks to reach precooked results to achieve hidden agendas and in so doing to fool the public. Any expert who refused to the hide truth from the public lost all their clients.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Unfortunately I agree with Mr. Bacon and one small correction – I believe North Carolina did something similar a couple of years back.

    but yes – for all the HOORA over this “open and transparent” process – it’s damn inscrutable for the average person… so that’s a big FAIL!

    Now – VDOT – and the MPOs and others who have been “trained” seem to understand for how it works , i.e. they know what the “good” and “bad” metrics are when proposing a project so it actually has a chance of competing but one of the most important changes also not well understood is that once a project gets approved – it’s fully funded through completion.

    no more stranded projects – no more new projects added when there is no money for them and they end up with too many projects in the 6yr plan for the funding.

    If this works – as advertised – from now on – when a project gets approved – it’s on a defined timeframe from start to finish. They can tell you the projected completion date.

    but as far as the average person understanding how a project advances – or not – they’re not there yet… it’s as inscrutable as how the General Assembly does legislation!


    p.s. – the General Assembly totally changed how proffers worked – that would be a good subject to blog ….also

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I’ve heard the most objections to scoring projects from landowners/developers and smart growthers. The former fear an inability to manipulate the system to cover a project with virtually only private benefit to one that is covered with public interest paint. The latter fear transit and bike/ped may not be able to trump actual reduction in traffic and improvements in safety.

    One factor that I like is under Accessibility – Increase in Access to Jobs. I recall the TPB uses commutes of 50 minutes or less. Giving business and other employers access to more job candidates and residents access to more jobs seems to me to a positive public benefit. I also like the criteria for safety improvements too.

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “One factor that I like is under Accessibility – Increase in Access to Jobs. I recall the TPB uses commutes of 50 minutes or less. Giving business and other employers access to more job candidates and residents access to more jobs seems to me to a positive public benefit.”

    Bravo for that comment!!!

    Putting workers close to where they work (or conveniently so despite distance) is absolutely key to solving Fairfax county’s traffic problem. This should the primary and critical test of all new development and redevelopment in Fairfax County.

    For this mandae will surely solve over time Fairfax County’s traffic problems while it also avoid wasting billions more on road improvements that will only cost ever more for ever more smaller and shorter term benefits, only to attract ever more traffic. This mandate will also obviate the need for more ill conceived executed mass transit. What today like more roads wastes vast sums of money for little long term benefit save for the wealthy while it unfairly shifts costs and inconvenience onto those working citizens least able to bear those costs and inconveniences.

    In addition, this long term paradigm shifting strategy and tactic will also insure the building of close in residential. At the same time it will mandate the reinvention of obsolete and harmful dinosaur buildings like the Exxon Office Complex that generates massive volumes of traffic on already failed roads that will impose huge additional costs on everyone else.

    Most importantly of all this policy WILL GIVE THE AVERAGE CITIZENS OF FAIRFAX COUNTY AND THE ENTIRE REGION their lives and their families, and their time outside work to back to those citizens and their families instead of wasting their lives, livelihoods, and financial security in one and two hour commutes while paying obscene tolls for the “privileged.” I am told that today’s tolls cost a commuters $60 a day to drive from Frederickburg, Virginia to work in Friendship Heights Maryland. Imagine what dynamic tolls in Fairfax County will do to those tolls in ten years of “growth” that separates people from where they need to work.

    In short, worker living close and conveniently to their jobs eats traffic, opening up the roads everyone else, shoppers, schools buses, day care, soccer matches, and everyone else people do improve quality of their life.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Edits to last two paragraphs.

      Most importantly this policy WILL GIVE THE AVERAGE CITIZENS OF FAIRFAX COUNTY AND THE ENTIRE REGION their lives, their families, and their free time back. Instead of wasting their lives, livelihoods and families in one and two hour commutes while paying obscene tolls to do so.”

      I am told that today’s tolls cost $60 a day to drive from Frederickburg, Virginia to work in Friendship Heights Maryland. Imagine what dynamic tolls will be in ten years of future “growth” that continues to separate people from where they need to work.

      In short, when workers live close and conveniently to their jobs, this eats traffic everywhere, gives them their lives back, and opens up the roads for themselves and everyone else, whether shoppers, schools buses, day care, soccer matches, and everything else people do to improve quality of their life.

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      One of the charts I have seen indicates a large number of people living in Prince Georges County and eastern Montgomery County have home-work commutes well in excess of 50 minutes. The jobs aren’t there. And given MWCOG projections for job growth, they still won’t be there 30 years from now.

      I think there would be regional benefit in transportation improvements that enable these people to get to jobs in western Montgomery, the District and NoVA with shorter commutes. Cutting a one-way trip to work and home again from 60 to 45 minutes would benefit both workers and employers, IMO.

      I cannot tell you which, if any, projects would do this. But I’d like to see the TPB highlight them.

  5. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    Let me see if I can shed some light on this:

    The bottom row of numbers works this way, and we’ll use delay (since it has a useful units of person hours). And we’ll use the scorecard above and its value of .6 for the exercise…

    Alright, whoever submitted this improvement for scoring through the SmartScale process had other projects of number X. Let’s just say – for example – that of the X amount of projects one of them had a reduction in delay of 100 person hours (I’m using this for a conveniently round number, it doesn’t need to be 100). Of all the projects submitted by an entity, whatever project has the biggest impact on that category is 100% and everything else becomes a percentage of that. For our example, the 100 person hours project is the 100% value and this Patterson/Parham project only reduces delay by .6% of that 100 person hours, or 36 minutes. So in that category it gets a score of .6.

    The takeaway is that for a given category, the project that has the largest impact gets the 100% score and all other projects that make an improvement in that category are based on whatever percent of that largest value they are (so for our example something that reduced delay by 50 hours – say a roundabout at Forest and Glenside – would get a score of 50%). That’s how you get any of the numbers in the lowest row.

    Next is what percentage of any given category is toward the total of its supercategory. So delay is 50% of the available score for Congestion Mitigation and increase in throughput is another 50%, so you take .6*.5 and add that to .2*.5 and you get the total points score for the Congestion Mitigation supercategory, which is – if my math is correct – .4.

    Next is the round of weighting by supercategory. Because Richmond Region isn’t Northern Virginia or Hampton Roads, Congestion Mitigation is only weighted at 15%, so you take .4*.15 and you get .06 towards the total overall benefit score for the project. For this project the overall benefit score is 2.41.

    The next step is taking the benefit score of the project and dividing it by the project cost, this fraction is then multiplied by 10,000,000 (this go around at least, basically the multiplier is whatever gets the resulting decimal up to a whole number). The larger that number – benefit/cost – is the better the project is.

    I hope that explanation helps, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to explain with just text.

    Oh, additionally, travel time reliability and delay are two different things – you can actually improve travel time reliability and make overall delay worst. Travel time reliability is basically how much variability in travel time a traveler can expect in their daily commute. The lower the variability the less frequently a driver will encounter a situation where Monday it takes 30 minutes to get to work, Tuesday it takes 10 (which we’ll say is no delay), Wednesday it takes 35, Thursday it takes 20 and Friday it takes 12. Increasing the travel time reliability means that maybe everyday it takes 21 minutes instead. The delay is still the same overall, but now you have a better idea of when you have to leave every day to be where you’re going on time.

    1. Thanks for the explanation. It makes sense. However, it reinforces my sense that the score card will not be of much help to the layman.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    well , LOFL – you’re a better man than I – your explanation is similar to one given to the MPO folks and I still am flummoxed so let me go back and re-read since you do seem to have it.

    This sounds like something that could be put into an computerized algorithm – further distancing it from one group or another “interpreting”

    however – one thing they are not doing I think is modelling improvements relative to a projects performance within a transportation network.

    In other words – a “bottleneck” my actually be affected by other dynamics in the network and how well an improvement performs may actually – vary according to one else is happening on the network.

    this is sort of why if you make an improvement – it may actually end up improving congestion at THAT location by MOVING it to another place – rather than actually resolving it!

    to find that out – you’d actually have to be able to model the proposed improvement IN THE CONTEXT of the larger network.

    However, this does not negate the value of the scoring system as long as it maintains it’s basic fidelity and is not “updated” by adding manual processes done by humans making opinion calls.

    I also fully expect developers and others who might benefit from improvements to take the scoring system and figure out how to manipulate it to their advantage.

    So the longer term utility of the tool may well depend on how much is codified as algorithms that are not easy to “tamper” with – i.e. find out what those weak points are – and “harden” them from being manipulatable.

    Finally – the scoring system is still not immune from politics – I guarantee but what it does promise is that it will be obvious when politics is involved and that’s why I would hope they would continue to formalize the processes themselves so that they cannot be easily co-opted..

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Putting workers close to where they work (or conveniently so despite distance) is absolutely key to solving Fairfax county’s traffic problem. ”

    I am of the view that certain forces have essentially “undone” the “live close to where you work” ideal.

    First is the nature of work – globalization and automation and monumental faster-moving changes in the economy – mean people will change jobs – jobs they did for 5-10 years all of sudden are no longer the same.

    This has been ongoing for decades but now a single simple innovation can essentially change industry business models almost overnight.

    Second – Beltways – which basically are the antithesis of live-work-local.

    beltways not only power commerce – they empower mobility for people so that you CAN change jobs without having to move… Moving used to be an impediment to taking a new job and even after deciding to move – finding a location near to the job was an additional effort.

    Third – our tax code. Yes – when you incentivize owning a home by making the mortgage interest deductible – you tip the scales with regard to whether renting verses owning has advantages – for many people.

    Once someone “invests” in a home – it becomes somewhat of an anchor that will keeps the person there – even if their job moves further away.

    Fourth – and finally – if single-family detached housing is one of the most sought after choices of housing – and it’s become financially out of reach in urbanizing areas – like Fairfax – people will “use” the beltway and them main interstate spokes of the beltway to move to the suburbs and commute.

    In short – I think the nature of work combined with how we do beltways – have conspired to undermine “live where you work” in ways that are fundamental and likely not reversible.

    If the above thinking has any merit – I wonder how that gets factored into a scoring system – i.e. would roads that serve commuting and sprawl to the suburbs score as “well” as roads that serve improving the MSA transportation network ?

    I predict the scoring system will undergo changes as issues like this are further addressed.

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