Using GIS to Improve Decision Making and Project Tracking in North Carolina

Posted on: September 27th, 2013 by Carrie Kissel

Two conference speakers responding to audience questions while sitting at tableOn April 25, 2013, the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) Research Foundation held the Rural Planning Organizations (RPO) America Peer Symposium in Greenville, SC.  This event was sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and was held in conjunction with the National Rural Transportation Peer Learning Conference, an annual meeting organized by the NADO Research Foundation and Development District Association of Appalachia.  The Symposium brought together transportation professionals from across the nation and addressed how rural and small metro regions and their partners have improved the planning and implementation process of vital transportation projects by strengthening communications and collaboration across state, regional, and local agencies.

One noteworthy presentation was by Paul Black, Director of the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization (FBRMPO), which is a program housed in and staffed by the Land-of-Sky Regional Council.  The presentation was entitled From Cradle to Construction: Planning for Transportation Infrastructure, documenting the MPO’s efforts to streamline the planning process and seek alignment among multiple plans and policies.

Box 1. French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization

Location: Western North Carolina

Area Served by MPO: Buncombe, Haywood, and Henderson Counties; and the Cities of Asheville, Biltmore Forest, Black Mountain, Canton, Clyde, Flat Rock, Fletcher, Hendersonville, Laurel Park, Maggie Valley, Mills River, Montreat, Waynesville, Weaverville, and Woodfin

Need / Motivation for Initiative

In order to ensure that project decisions went through a consensus-based approach, were consistent across plans, and represented the best possible decisionmaking, the French Broad River MPO mapped projects from a variety of plans with different data sets. Understanding the exact project scope and sequence of timing for related projects is critical to amending plans so that they reconcile and inform the region’s prioritization process as they select projects for inclusion in the region’s Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

Map of planning area for French Broad River MPO and neighboring Land-of-Sky RPOBlack observed that a disconnect had been occurring, where new projects that had not been through the strategic planning and consensus-building process of other plans were being included in their TIP, while other projects identified in the region’s Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) according to the region’s goals and objectives had not moved forward.

While acknowledging that plans and priorities do change over time, Black noted, “The region had worked through the planning process to discuss issues of priority and geographic equity, and developed consensus in planning process. Why go through those discussions again in prioritization process?”

Funding and Planning Process

FBRMPO conducted its analysis using federal planning (PL) funding that is available to MPOs.  Under the LRTP element in the region’s work program, MPO staff analyzed data and inventoried projects from multiple plans, so that “as we go into next plan, we have an inventory of projects to pull from,” Black says.

For the technical analysis, the MPO used GIS to compare projects from the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), North Carolina Department of Transportation’s (NCDOT) Strategic Planning Office for Transportation (SPOT), MPO Long-range Transportation Plan, and Comprehensive Transportation Plan that is adopted by all local governments, MPOs and RPOs, and the North Carolina Board of Transportation.

Graphic shows the plans consulted in the process of analyzing project lists.

MPO staff compared projects from several different plans. Graphic courtesy of Paul Black, FBRMPO.

 

Data compatibility issues complicated the process.  FBRMPO began by analyzing data within the STIP, as the most complete set of data, but realized it contained projects such as major resurfacing that are outside of the purview of the MPO’s capital planning process, instead being considered a maintenance responsibility of NCDOT’s local highway division.  Rather than lose all the data associated with those projects by deleting the records, MPO staff defined attributes within the database that would exclude the projects.  The STIP also defined project phases in the smallest increments, compared to other plans analyzed in this process.  NCDOT phases projects according to their ease of construction and funding, with certain critically needed segments of a project being completed faster than others.

Next, MPO staff analyzed projects submitted to NCDOT for prioritization.  The DOT’s Strategic Prioritization Office for Transportation was created following an executive order by former Governor Beverly Perdue, seeking to improve transparency and project delivery.  The office has developed a data-driven process that also incorporates scores for local input, by which projects are ranked.  This process has been an iterative one over the past few years, with several new changes mandated by the state’s legislature in 2013.  The results of the SPOT process are one element that is considered in programming projects in the STIP.  The project data collected through SPOT’s prioritization became the model data in FBRMPO’s project comparison database, with project termini being defined as attributes within the GIS and data becoming a base score used to rank project priority.

The MPO’s Long-range Transportation Plan (LRTP) contains a specific project list that is limited to the amount of funds projected for the plan time horizon, in this case 25 years.  By comparison to other plans’ datasets, these projects were over-segmented.  FBRMPO staff ensured the correct project identification label and termini showing each project’s extent were correct, but dissolved extra segmentation.

In the final step of the initial phase of the project comparison, MPO staff added the 30-year Comprehensive Transportation Plan (CTP).  This type of plan is unique to North Carolina, and is mutually adopted by the state and local planning partners such as all MPOs and RPOs, municipalities and counties.  It represents a community’s consensus on the transportation network that will be needed to support anticipated development over the plan’s time horizon and is intended to cover all modes of transportation.   For MPOs, the CTP process is intended to be complementary to the federally required LRTP.  The CTP includes initial problem statements and purpose and need about projects to satisfy requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act, which can help speed the project development process.  However, CTP project data proved problematic, with limited attribution and inconsistent termini identification.

Because all the plans and project data had been developed at different points in time, they had different attributes that did not initially match up.  After manipulating the data to make the various project lists more consistent, the process resulted in a full inventory of all projects that had been identified in the region’s plans.

An important step in aligning the datasets was assigning project termini as attributes in the underlying project data.  In order to maintain information about where a project originated and its scope in each plan where it appeared, FBRMPO staff assigned attributes in the project database such as CTP_FROM and LRTP_TO, which identified both the geographic extent of each proposed project and the original source plan for the information.

The biggest data issue that FBRMPO has experienced is trying to make sure plans are reconciled correctly, so that as projects are finished, the database can demonstrate the amount of investment that has occurred in the region and its member jurisdictions.  This is not necessarily easy to track, as projects have become segmented over time, with certain portions of some projects being completed more quickly than other sections.  In the future, the MPO intends to improve the database underlying this GIS undertaking, by creating an attribute table that includes “ideal” future cross section and cost estimation information.

The end result of the project comparison has been that FBRMPO was able to identify inconsistent project termini.  The maps developed in the process enabled visual representation of the progression of the projects’ planned implementation.  This has allowed the region’s decisionmakers to amend plans to ensure project scope and effective sequencing.

Implementation Effectiveness and Next Steps

The MPO is amending its current CTP to better reflect the projects that were developed through a consensus-based process.  Analyzing the financial resources likely to be available to the MPO and its members will allow the region to amend its LRTP with new project scopes as well.

Photo of man in wheelchair on wide sidewalk

FBRMPO is analyzing all of its plans for consistency with NCDOT’s Complete Streets Policy. Image courtesy of FBRMPO.

The initiative’s next step for analysis has been to analyze projects according to the state’s Complete Streets policy, which was adopted by the North Carolina Board of Transportation in 2009 and requires NCDOT to consider and incorporate transportation mobility for all users for both new projects and when improving existing parts of the transportation network.  According to Black, FBRMPO has begun by looking at all the projects in the STIP that are scheduled far enough in the future to affect design and identify where the state’s Complete Streets design guidelines can be addressed.  Those amendments will be adopted by the MPO board in fall 2013, and then the region will begin to look at adding Complete Streets to its analysis of the projects in its LRTP and CTP over the following several months.

In addition, FBRMPO intends to add a freight and delivery component to ensure that the movements of goods as well as people are considered explicitly in the project development process.

The region is also working on developing criteria for prioritizing projects and performance metrics to help the MPO measure how it is meeting its strategic goals for the transportation network and deliverint projects.  One way the leaders are identifying potential metrics is to look at projects that are intuitively improving the system and identify why, such as the crash rate, congestion, or other factors addressed.  “We try to match up our LRTP goals to projects that are moving forward, and this [GIS analysis] has really exposed that disconnect.  For example, the MPO’s top goal is system preservation, but the long-range plan is all about new improvements because the local NCDOT division is responsible for maintenance funding and projects [that preserve the system], rather than the MPO” says Black.

Relevancy

The technical analysis that the MPO is going through will guide future plans and tie more closely to project ranking processes.  In 2014, FBRMPO will begin the process of updating both the North Carolina-required CTP and federally required LRTP.  The two plans will be completed in parallel to maximize the amount of public engagement and avoid over-scheduling public meetings.  But the two strategic plans do have somewhat different processes, purposes, and audiences and will result in separate, yet complementary, documents.

Black says, “Trying to keep people focused on the long time horizon of 2035 is part of the challenge of completing long-range plans.” Also, aligning regional priorities with available funding is difficult, but it helps the region to identify realistic projects that may be able to be programmed within a community.

Beginning in 2014, the project data that has been reconciled across plans will improve the projects that are submitted to NCDOT’s SPOT for prioritization through its data-driven process, which is one factor in the state’s programming effort for the STIP.

MPO staff members are also entering historic data about projects from the TIP that are complete.  This level of project scrutiny enables FBRMPO “to report back to our constituent members to show progress that is being made and generate reports on how projects are getting delivered,” says Black.

He concludes: “An important thing to come out of this process has been realizing that we can go through the process of gaining consensus to set up strategic goals and project priorities multiple times, and come up with different results each time.  We want to make sure we have just one consensus-based process for all the plans so we don’t re-do it, and so that we respect all the time, thought, and effort that goes into people contributing to these different plans.  That also makes it easier to advocate for projects that are consistent with and appear in multiple consensus-based plans.”

Sources

  • Paul Black, From Cradle to Construction: Planning for Transportation Infrastructure, presentation given during the 2013 National Rural Transportation Peer Learning Conference, April 25, 2013.
  • Personal Communication with Paul Black, 2013
  • NCDOT (2012), Draft Guidance for North Carolina’s Comprehensive Transportation Planning (CTP) Process (https://connect NULL.ncdot NULL.gov/projects/planning/TPB%20Documents/IP-CTP-Guidelines NULL.pdf) (PDF)
  • NCDOT (2012), Complete Streets Planning and Design Guidelines (http://www NULL.completestreetsnc NULL.org/wp-content/themes/CompleteStreets_Custom/pdfs/NCDOT-Complete-Streets-Planning-Design-Guidelines NULL.pdf) (PDF)
  • French Broad River MPO (http://fbrmpo NULL.org/)
  • Land-of-Sky Regional Council (http://landofsky NULL.org)

Return to 2013 Symposium Overview

This case study was researched and written by NADO Research Foundation Associate Director Carrie Kissel and is supported by the Federal Highway Administration under contract number DTFH61-10-C-00050 through the NADO Research Foundation (www.RuralTransportation.org).  Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.

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