How WSDOT will be picking the right transportation investments for economic vitality

By Rayla Bellis

Smart Growth America and SSTI recently helped the Washington State Department of Transportation take a groundbreaking step to align its transportation investments with statewide policy goals.

Most states have defined a set of transportation goals, but few DOTs have taken the next step and designed and funded projects to meet those goals.

WSDOT is seeking to change that by developing a comprehensive “Practical Solutions Performance Framework” to bring the state’s transportation policy goals directly into its decision making at every level, from statewide planning down to roadway design. The new framework will help WSDOT determine which transportation problems are most critical and which potential investments will move the state toward its vision for the future.

“WSDOT is working to make the best use of our limited resources by investing in the priorities residents and businesses really care about,” said Marshall Elizer, Assistant Secretary for Multimodal Development and Delivery. “That takes more than just stating a commitment. It takes work with our stakeholders to understand their priorities and bring those priorities into everything we do in a transparent and consistent way.”

WSDOT is regularly on the forefront of innovative practices—for example, they are launching the first state DOT artist-in-residence program. WSDOT has also long been a national leader in tracking the performance of the roads, bridges, and transit systems they’re responsible for and sharing that information with the public.

However, as WSDOT knows, simply tracking the performance of what you have built isn’t enough. With the new performance framework, WSDOT will be able to proactively assess how well potential projects are likely to advance the state’s goals and then prioritize investments accordingly.

Prioritizing the best transportation investments for the economy

SGA’s assistance helped develop an approach for assessing one of the department’s goals in particular: economic vitality. SGA and WSDOT worked with stakeholders to answer three key questions: what does economic vitality look like for the state, how does transportation impact the economy, and how do we measure that to guide decisions? The result is a report with recommendations for WSDOT’s Economic Vitality Performance Framework, which WSDOT will develop further and begin to use over the coming months.

“Economic vitality” is a challenging concept to define succinctly because it can mean vastly different things from region to region and industry to industry. Even more challenging is measuring and isolating all the ways the state’s transportation network contributes to economic vitality. While there are transportation models designed to assess economic impacts of transportation projects, states cannot easily apply them on a system-wide basis across all types of projects and geographies. Some states traditionally used level-of-service as a proxy for measuring economic impact, but more and more are recognizing the flaws of that approach.

To develop a more comprehensive approach, WSDOT and SGA engaged stakeholders in different regions to define what economic vitality meant to them and what role the transportation system should play in supporting state and local economies. There were three main outcomes that stakeholders associated with economic vitality:

  1. Mobility
  2. Business growth and diversity
  3. Quality of life

WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar noted, “in all of the regions, we heard about the importance of creating high quality places through transportation in order to stay competitive. Our stakeholders told us that economic vitality isn’t just about supporting business growth and providing reliable freight access to get goods to market; it’s also about creating a high quality of life and improving community health.”

Stakeholders also emphasized the importance of making sure the state’s transportation investments help the economy grow equitably. They argued that transportation investments should help preserve community affordability and give areas facing disinvestment a boost that benefits existing residents instead of leaving them behind.

SGA’s report recommends ways to measure how well WSDOT’s investments will contribute to the three economic outcomes identified in their outreach. Examples include measuring how readily people can access jobs and services, how well investments will encourage biking and walking in areas with health disparities, whether investments support growth in existing community centers, and whether residents can afford the costs of housing and transportation in their area.

Other states may be able to use WSDOT’s work as a model to bring these considerations into their investment decisions.

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.