Project Prioritization: Case Study: North Carolina Develops Statewide Performance-based Prioritization Process

In 2009, under direction from the new governor, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) commenced efforts to launch the state’s strategic prioritization process.  NCDOT’s Strategic Planning Offce of Transportation (SPOT) was charged with developing a data-driven, transparent process.  The process would ultimately result in a 10-Year Work Program and the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP).  The three-member SPOT team designed a new process around three primary NCDOT goals: Safety, Mobility, and Infrastructure Health (Condition).  The new process, according to Alpesh Patel, SPOT Senior Transportation Engineer, “formalizes the use of data to determine project need” around these three goals.  Local planning partners also contributed to the development of the new process through webinars and regional meetings. (6)

The ranking process works as follows: projects are sorted by goal and then by transportation tier—statewide, regional, and subregional—within each goal.  A project’s total score combines quantitative data, qualitative data, and multimodal points.  For the first version of Prioritization (referred to as “P1.0”), quantitative data points accounted for the majority of a project’s total score and were based on crash rates, capacity/traffic counts, and pavement conditions.  Qualitative points were assigned based on a top 25 ranking by each MPO, RPO, and NCDOT Division Office (Figure 13 shows the state’s 17 MPOs and 20 RPOs; 14 NCDOT field or Division offices work with the regional partners).  In this manner, the new process, says Patel, “provides a balanced picture of projects scores reflecting both data and local interest throughout the state.”

Finally, SPOT awards multimodal “bonus” points to highway projects that encourage efficient connections between transportation modes.  The three tiers within each goal category address the different transportation needs and interests of urban and rural areas.  Quantitative data points are weighed more heavily for higher-tier statewide projects, and decrease for regional and subregional tier projects.  Local input points are weighed more heavily for subregional tier projects, and decrease for regional and statewide projects.

According to Patel, in P1.0 the state and regional/local partners found their priorities were generally in alignment.  Patel says that the majority of MPOs and RPOs support the new statewide prioritization process; however, some of the larger MPOs found the exercise a burden due to the challenge of satisfying a large number of municipalities within a top 25 ranking process.  Following the qualitative input of MPO and RPO partners, SPOT finalized project rankings and published results for both partner and public consumption.  These results are also forwarded to a separate NCDOT division for programming projects based on funding allocations and eligibility.  This input helps drive the creation of NCDOT’s 10-Year Work Program and STIP.

Within the last year, SPOT has continued to reach out to its partners to improve the project prioritization process. According to Patel, the initial selection of quantitative criteria for Prioritization 1.0 flowed easily from NCDOT’s goals.  A work group (consisting of MPOs, RPOs, and other governmental agencies) was convened in 2010 and contributed to the enhancement of this criteria and helped shape the second version of Prioritization (P2.0).

In response to the input of MPO and RPO partners, Prioritization 2.0 will incorporate new criteria, including benefit/cost (measured by travel time savings) and economic competitiveness.  P2.0 will also include criteria to address modernization issues identified by partners, including sight distances and deficiencies in lane and shoulder widths.  The strategic prioritization process will formally engage planning partners every two years and will continue to be improved and refined over time.

Elements of the new process are also being employed for purposes outside of STIP preparation.  MPOs and RPOs in North Carolina prepare regional transportation improvement programs.  These processes are separately developed at the local level.  Patel says that some MPOs and RPOs have revised their regional processes to incorporate elements of the new statewide prioritization process.

North Carolina’s transportation reforms, which resulted in a new statewide project prioritization process, have been well received.  According to Patel, MPOs and RPOs are comfortable with the openness and transparency of the new process.  SPOT has heard positive feedback on the process from board members at the state level and division leadership alike.  Says Patel: “It’s a success story.” For more information, visit, or view the 2012 National Rural Transportation Peer Learning Conference presentation by Alpesh Patel and Bjorn Hansen (Centralina COG/Lake Norman RPO).

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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.

Joe has thirty-one years of experience having served in city, county, regional, national association, and government management since 1991. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a candidate for a master’s degree in Public Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.

McKinney has provided congressional testimony on numerous occasions regarding the importance of regional development organizations in helping shape the nation’s economic growth. He is nationally recognized for promoting innovative solutions in areas such as planning and economic development, workforce development, transportation and transit, and aging services.

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