Project Prioritization: Statewide and Regional Transportation Improvement Programs

Of responding organizations who perform transportation activities in rural areas, 71 percent reported compiling a regional TIP or list of priority projects for consideration for the STIP.  Over half of these organizations (56 percent) reported that their regional TIP or list of priority projects is updated annually; 26 percent reported that they are updated every two years, and 6 percent reported that they are updated every three or more years.  A few RPOs (7 percent) reported that the regional TIP or list of priority projects is updated continuously, or as needed (5 percent).  The majority of respondents (80 percent) most recently compiled a regional TIP or a list of projects for the STIP between 2010 and the present.  Another 18 percent compiled a regional TIP or list of projects for the STIP between 2008 and 2009, and only one organization did before 2008.

Projects that are included in the regional TIP or list of priority projects are most frequently ranked on a multi-county regional basis (59 percent).  In other instances, projects are ranked on a county basis (15 percent), or the lists of priorities are not ranked (13 percent).  RPOs are roughly split on whether all projects are considered through a single decisionmaking process, or whether projects are separated by type (highways, bridges, enhancements, transit, etc.), with 52 percent ranking different types of projects separately and 48 percent putting them together.

Of the respondents who complete a regional TIP or list of priority projects as part of their planning work program, 68 percent share it with member local governments and stakeholders, while 78 percent submit it to the state DOT and 35 percent share it with neighboring rural and metropolitan planning organizations.  Sixty-two percent of respondents say their region’s TIP is considered in development of the statewide transportation improvement program, or STIP, and 57 percent indicate that their region’s priority projects are included in the STIP.  The states that commonly include the region’s priority list in the STIP include Arizona, California, Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington.  These states use a variety of methods for including the regionally signifcant projects.  For instance, Arizona, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Iowa are among a few states that use a formula to determine funding amounts that are hypothetically sub-allocated to each region.  As a result, the regional TIPs are constrained in RPO regions just as in MPO regions.  Other states, such as Missouri and Kentucky, develop priority lists within each region that are further prioritized at the DOT District level, and in Missouri, a special class of projects of statewide signifcance are determined in a transparent process by all of the state’s planning partners (MPOs, RPOs, and their local government members along with the Missouri DOT).

The results of the planning process vary according to the structure and function of RPOs, as well as the level of responsibility within their local government members.  In general, the state DOT considers the rural regional planning documents as it develops the statewide transportation plan and selects projects for eventual construction through the STIP.  In some cases, the state DOT takes a fiscally constrained regional TIP or a selection from among the priority needs of a region, and uses that as the section of the STIP for that geographic area, as is more common with metro regions.

Because decisionmaking about transportation investments occurs in the ranking and programming of projects, the NADO Research Foundation sought to analyze the criteria used in regional planning by RPOs and small MPOs.  It is most common for regions to combine qualitative factors with numeric ranking criteria, with 56 percent of respondents using the two together.  Another 26 percent use only qualitative criteria, while 18 percent use only a numeric scoring process.

The criteria used to select and rank projects for inclusion in the regional TIP or list of priority projects are provided by the state DOT for 12 percent of respondents, as occurred in the new process initiated by the North Carolina DOT’s Strategic Planning Office of Transportation for the 2010 STIP (see accompanying case study).  However, 36 percent of RPOs reported that criteria are determined at the regional level, either by a regional transportation governing board or policy or technical committee (30 percent), as is the case with the Yakima Valley Conference of Governments (see accompanying case study), or by regional transportation planning staff (six percent).  A number of RPOs rank projects based on criteria that are jointly developed by state DOTs and regional leadership (22 percent).  Other RPOs reported that no set criteria are used to rank projects for inclusion in the regional TIP or list of priority projects (24 percent).

Through analyzing planning documents, the NADO Research Foundation identified patterns in the criteria used to rank projects included in the regional TIP (or the region’s recommendations for the STIP if no rural, regional TIP is developed).  The seven planning factors identified in the 2005 surface transportation authorization (known as SAFETEA-LU) are frequently used even though there is no federal requirement that rural regions consider them.  Criteria relating to safety, mobility, use, connectivity, economic impact, and condition of the facility are the most commonly cited decision factors used in considering project ranking.

For data that are readily available, specific quantitative numbers are used to figure the project’s score.  Safety is usually a quantitative measurement, such as accident rate, but also includes qualitative measurements, such as project effects on pedestrian and bicycle safety.  Data such as average annual daily traffic, level of service, and volume/capacity ratio give an indication of the use of the facility.  Common quantitative criteria indicating the condition of the facility include pavement quality index or pavement condition index, structural capacity, bridge sufficiency rating, International Roughness Index, or lane width deficiency.

Economic impact measurements are usually qualitative and vary widely from region to region.  The Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission (SEIRPC), for example, places great emphasis on economic impact criteria.  Some SEIRPC criteria include: promotes general economic development locally and regionally; enhances or improves tourism; improves or enhances movement of freight and services; improves or enhances the movement of workers; improves access to jobs and opportunities; and improves access to other transportation facilities. (2)

For economic impact criteria, projects are often assigned a score based on whether or not the project lies in a corridor or zone identified through the policy goals, such as areas with high growth potential due to connections to markets and other economic hubs, or economically distressed areas. (3)

Scoring for economic development, mobility, and connectivity generally indicate the presence or absence of a condition, rather than an indication of how much an economic characteristic is present in a proposed project.  For example, the Lowcountry Council of Governments in Beaufort, South Carolina uses a ranking schema in which projects may be awarded 0 or 25 points for facilitating freight movement and 0 or 15 points for providing opportunities for targeted business sectors.  However, 0, 1, 3, or 5 points are awarded based on economic development potential, which is determined based on whether development is expected in a certain time frame, the availability of other infrastructure for businesses locating in that corridor, availability of sites, existing development, and related issues. (4)

Environmental impact scores in some cases are based on the extent to which the NEPA process has been fulfilled (which tend to start at 0 for no preliminary environmental evaluation and range to positive scores if evaluation has been started or completed), while in other regions the environmental criteria reflect the variety of impacts possible in a transportation project, with negative scores assigned if the project is found to have harmful environmental or community impacts. (5)

Other issues are also commonly seen in project ranking schemas, including equity within the region or state, time since last project in a region or jurisdiction, project readiness, and funding sources, such as project cost, the security of matching funds, source of funding, the amount of a local match, the alignment of resources, cost benefit, financial viability (comparing project and maintenance costs and vehicle miles traveled), and cost per unit change in condition.  Another set of qualitative criteria cover the extent to which projects are consistent with statewide or local plans.

Planning practitioners indicated that although these other factors do not relate as closely to the performance of the transportation infrastructure or as indications of economic development, they are significant to public and public official support, maintaining buy-in for the planning process, and ensuring the fastest possible pace for project delivery.

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2023 Impact Awards

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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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