Spending smarter: lessons and opportunities for state DOTs

By Chris McCahill

Two states that are changing how transportation investments are prioritized were featured recently on an SSTI webinar. Virginia just funded a third round of projects under its Smart Scale program, while Hawaii piloted its own SmartTRAC program with help from SSTI and Smart Growth America. SSTI will soon be launching a new project to learn from these past experiences and guide future programs, and we invite interested agencies to reach out.

The Hawaii DOT piloted its SmartTRAC program late last year with a focus on five criteria: traffic reduction, safety, preservation, access, and protecting environmental and cultural resources. The department’s experience, along with feedback from MPOs and local agencies, are now helping shape a more formal program. Some immediate needs it will be looking at are an improved application process and more emphasis placed on safety and system preservation.

Virginia’s program, established under a succinct law in 2014, is described in detail on its website. Chad Tucker, the Program Manager in Virginia’s Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, discussed how the program has evolved as well as lessons the department has learned.

He points out how important the program has been for managing the state’s diminishing transportation funds. The available money has dropped from $1.4 billion in its first round to about half that amount in the most recent round, while the number of applications increased by 46 percent. Under the program, however, a project’s rating is based on points earned per dollar requested, meaning there’s a benefit to requesting less money. This has encouraged cost savings through “common sense engineering,” according to Tucker, and lets applicants leverage local funding.

[Figure 1. Overview of Smart Scale allocations. Source: Virginia OIPI.]

Moreover, the state cannot submit its own project applications, which was controversial at first, but helps ensure local and regional support for proposed investments. “Believe me,” said Tucker, “I was one of the ones pushing back… but it was the right decision.”

Ultimately, these programs have helped the agencies level the playing field for multimodal investments that address a diverse range of state needs. And while each state’s needs are different, both agree on the benefits of being more transparent about investment decisions.

SSTI will be launching a study with other University of Wisconsin researchers over the next 18 months to develop recommended practices for prioritizing transportation investments. We encourage DOTs and MPOs who are considering different approaches, or starting to think about the process, to contact us, as we’ll be looking for examples and study participants.

Chris McCahill is the Deputy Director at SSTI.