Last week I was asked to privately comment on a priority ranking system being developed by a state DOT. After providing a (not flattering) critique of the proposed ranking system, I then offered my thoughts on how I would develop one.

Since I'm quite confident my suggestions will generate little more than amusement for anyone beyond the individuals/organization that requested my thoughts, I've decided to share them here. I'm not trying to embarrass any specific DOT or endanger any relationship (I was asked to comment in private) and so I've replaced the name with XDOT. Go ahead and substitute whatever your local DOT is because my advice would be the same.

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First, XDOT should not be prioritizing projects, it should be prioritizing corridors. Where are the most important and productive places and then what are the transportation corridors that connect them? Rank the corridors first and that will give a good sense of where the real priorities need to be.

Once that is done, then prioritize projects within each corridor. I would suggest the following ranking for projects within a priority corridor.

  1. Critical Safety. Address a safety issue that has become critical, where there have been repeated accidents and a likelihood of future problems.
  2. System Preservation. We need to prioritize maintaining what we have, especially in the most critical corridors.
  3. Removal of Access. Access points along a corridor are the leading source of accidents and primary source of congestion. Removal of accesses between destinations (aka: productive places) is the lowest cost and most effective way to improve the operation of a transportation corridor.
  4. Increase Capacity. Once access management has been attained, managing capacity is a relatively straightforward task. When travel demand between two productive places increases to within design, there are any number of alternatives that can be explored.
    • Construction of additional lanes.
    • Congestion pricing to spread peak flows into non-peak times.
    • Deployment of bus rapid transit.
    • Construction of a rail line.
    • Other
  5. Provide Alternatives. Priority should be given for improvements that provide alternatives for travelers between productive places.

Note that none of these criteria are applicable within a productive place. Within a productive place, highway standards are counter-productive to creating and sustaining value in a network of local streets. If XDOT is going to maintain local streets as part of its overall transportation network, it needs to do the following.

  1. Turn Back. Provide local governments with the option to take over the maintenance of local streets. This should be done in places where the priorities of the local government (value creation) and those of the DOT (automobile transportation) conflict.
  2. Improve Access. On a local street network, economic value is created by having a high degree of accessibility. That means dramatically slowing cars so that the street environment is conducive to turning traffic, parked cars, pedestrians, bikers, people in wheelchairs, etc… Forgiving design principles do not apply in urban areas along street and must be reserved for highways. On urban streets, safe and valuable streets are constructed by focusing on accessibility over traffic speed, volume and level of service. In this environment, congestion becomes a self-correcting mechanism through land use and tax policy (which XDOT does not control).
  3. Invert Principles. To create valuable and productive urban environments, forgiving design principles – where the driver is forgiven for mistakes by providing wide lanes, wide shoulders and clear zones – need to be inverted so that the mistakes of pedestrians and bikers are forgiven and do not result in getting hit by a car. The key therefore is to slow the automobiles. From a design standpoint, this means designing to accommodate automobiles in a pedestrian environment (instead of what is commonly done today, which is to find ways to accommodate pedestrians in an auto-dominated environment).
  4. Prioritize Alternatives. Providing alternatives to the automobile – whether walking, biking or transit – needs to be a high priority within urban areas.

As a final comment, note that there is nothing directly here about economic growth, job creation or revenue generation. That is because these are the byproduct of a successful transportation system, not the reason we do transportation.

Economic growth is a complex undertaking that is only going to be done successfully at the local level. If XDOT chooses to be actively involved in economic development (instead of focused on transportation), the only thing it can do is to bestow advantage upon those businesses set up to exploit highway access and automobile mobility. That is a policy decision of considerable complexity and nuance and, therefore, is best left to the local government acting on local streets. This, after all, is where the impact of such decisions are most keenly realized.

Job creation is also the byproduct of a productive transportation system, not its cause. There are two types of jobs relating to transportation: those from construction and those that come from the ongoing use of the system. For the former, a $1 million maintenance project will employ comparably as many people and have as significant of a short term stimulus impact as a $1 million expansion project. There is no discernable job creation argument for favoring new construction/expansion over maintenance.

For the latter, again, XDOT is not in a position to address the deep complexity and nuance that comes with local economic development. XDOT has no local land use authority. It does not do direct assessments. It cannot give tax subsidies to businesses or examine a balance sheet to ensure it is choosing the right partner. In short, it lacks all tools to undertake local economic development except for the blunt instrument of being able to conduct millions of dollars of transportation improvements which, by their design, favor one location over another, one style of business over another, one community over another.

When it comes to revenue generation, it is not clear what is being implied by the current ranking system. XDOT receives a good portion of its revenue from the gas tax. Does this mean XDOT policy should facilitate driving conditions where the maximum amount of fuel is consumed? Is “revenue generation” meant to apply to federal or state government revenue? If so, none of the current benefit/cost analysis approach used by XDOT or DOT’s nationally contemplate this. Instead they rely on the perceived value of time saved, which is not correlated with government revenues.

If “revenue generation” is meant to apply to local governments, XDOT has a tragic misunderstanding of how local governments operate and the poor returns of such DOT-led investments. For example, if the DOT spends $10 million on an interchange, this costs the local government nothing yet creates a platform for all kinds of quick and easy growth in the local tax base. Does XDOT intend to provide every city with this type of windfall? How is it decided who gets this windfall? Is it right for taxpayers statewide to enrich property owners who gamble correctly on interchange locations or should that windfall be recouped through an assessment? When XDOT picks a winner, how does this impact other public and private investments within the community?

For a variety of reasons, cities, which budget year to year, will almost always favor the free money that comes from XDOT improvements even if the long term financial implications are negative.

In closing, in the current framework as proposed, there are no “metrics” that can be applied to capture the economic impacts of different XDOT projects. There is no coherence in a paradigm where constructing new systems to enhance Level of Service objectives is valued five times more than preserving the systems we already have. That is nonsense, completely out of touch with public priorities or the funding challenges XDOT faces. It is only in a fundamental realignment of priorities that XDOT can hope to do more with the resources it has and is likely to access in the coming decades.

- Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP, President of Strong Towns