Technical assistance helped six MPOs improve how they prioritize projects

By Rayla Bellis

Transportation agencies around the country are seeking more performance-driven approaches for prioritizing investments. We now have better tools than ever before for assessing outcomes from transportation investments in order to put scarce dollars to their highest and best value. However, integrating those tools and approaches into existing systems and shifting decades-old decision-making culture is easier said than done. That’s why it is noteworthy that some leading regions around the country are making real strides to better align their spending with their priorities by using performance measures.

Through a grant from the Kresge Foundation, Smart Growth America worked with six regions over the past year to help them use performance measures to advance transportation projects that line up with their priorities for the future. SSTI supported several of the regions, focusing on helping each MPO tie their investments to policy priorities like economic vitality, accessibility to necessities, and equity. The six MPOs were:

  • Michiana Area Council of Governments (South Bend, IN)
  • Roanoke Valley Transportation Planning Organization (Roanoke, VA)
  • Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (Des Moines, IA)
  • Imperial Calcasieu Regional Planning and Development Commission (Lake Charles, LA)
  • Rapides Area Planning Commission (Alexandria, LA)
  • Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (Sarasota, FL)

We asked these MPOs to talk about how they are using performance measures to change how they plan their transportation systems and prioritize projects. They are taking steps that many other regions and states will soon be following. Their innovations, challenges, and lessons can help peers tackle similar change.

Introducing new ways to pick which projects to fund

Most regions have a clear list of policy goals for their transportation systems, but many do not tie those goals directly to how they prioritize projects. The MPOs are all taking action to change that by introducing criteria for prioritizing investments that directly align with their stated priorities. Several have already established scoring systems to rank potential projects based on their goals. Many common policy priorities, like equity and quality of life, have traditionally been difficult to measure, so this systematic approach is a game-changer.

“In reviewing our past planning efforts we realized that there was not always a great connection between the projects selected for funding and our long-range plan’s goals. We also had more project requests than funding. Identifying performance measures and targets allowed us to prioritize the projects that would best help achieve our plan’s goals and make the best use of limited resources. [The assistance] helped us refine our scoring process to ensure it was meaningful and performance-based, understood by non-technical stakeholders, and easily implementable by MPO staff.”

– Dylan Mullenix, Assistant Director, Des Moines Area MPO

Helping people access the jobs and necessities

A number of the regions we worked with wanted to find ways to base their funding decisions more directly on giving residents better access to economic opportunities and services like health care, education, and grocery stores. For example, the Michiana Area Council of Governments is developing an Access to Core Services Plan. SSTI provided technical and policy guidance on how to conduct an analysis of access to core services in the region for the plan. We also demonstrated how to conduct project-level evaluations as part of the process for prioritizing investments moving forward.

Ensuring economic competitiveness

SSTI also helped MPOs determine how to use performance measures to invest in the right projects for the long-term economic vitality of their regions, particularly projects that will help draw a talented workforce, retain residents, and grow a tourist economy. Many regions measure their economic success by looking at how projects would reduce traffic congestion, but doing so does not capture the range of impacts transportation investments have on local economies.

“The Roanoke Valley Transportation Planning Organization is working to make the region more economically competitive by identifying places where growth is desirable and sustainable because plans for future development enable multimodal connectivity and mobility. The technical assistance provided helped us better understand performance measures and how we can more directly achieve our transportation and economic development goals through targeted investments.”

– Cristina Finch, Director of Transportation, Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission.

Creating equitable and affordable transportation

Equity was a common thread throughout this work. Several regions wanted to further elevate needed investments in disadvantaged communities to improve access to economic opportunities and essential services. Some regions also wanted to prioritize investments that address community affordability. For example, the Sarasota/Manatee MPO hopes to raise the priority of projects that make it easier to walk, bike, and take transit to food, medical, or education facilities to help reduce the costs associated with accessing those necessities.

“Our partnership changed the transportation planning conversation in our region by bringing new voices to the table, from health and social service providers to environmental scientists. Using the FHWA performance measures framework, we have gone beyond traffic management and turn lanes to consider affordable housing, access to services for disadvantaged neighborhoods, and advancing best practices. We are confident this will lead to project priorities that consider all modes and that better serve all users.”

– Leigh Holt, Strategic Planning Manager, Sarasota/Manatee MPO

Supporting people who want to walk and bike safely

We helped several regions determine how to place greater priority in their process on investments that make it easier to walk and bike safely. These regions wanted to invest in projects that not only improve the health of residents by providing options for exercise, but also support local economies by contributing to a quality of life that attracts residents and tourists.

“During the workshop, the team encouraged us to renew our initiatives in active transportation for healthier communities. Our agency had developed a metropolitan bike and pedestrian master plan; however, as a result of the push, we began the process of actually producing every project in that plan. These 57 miles of active transportation improvements will be in place within the next six years! Furthermore, we are now replicating the same award-winning process in a neighboring urban area to further the goal of healthier communities through active transportation across our region.”

– Matt Johns, Executive Director, Rapides Area Planning Commission

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.