Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Transportation Investment Decisions: A New Approach?

In a recent opinion piece, Michael McLaughlin, the new, hard charging transportation director for the Metropolitan Planning Council, makes a strong pitch that having greater transparency in the way the State prioritizes its transportation capital investment decisions will increase the prospects for increased capital funding:

It's time for a dose of sunshine. Taxpayers deserve to know why Illinois is choosing to invest where, and an answer to the question: What will we get for our money? That's why state. Reps. David Miller (D-Dolton) and Michael Tryon (R-Crystal Lake) and state. Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Highwood) have introduced the Illinois Capital Investment Accountability Act (HB 801 and SB 1582). The bill would institute an accountable, transparent selection process that relies on regional input to determine which transportation projects receive funding.
. . .

The governor and the state Legislature must begin work on a multibillion dollar state capital investment package this year. But any plan for more funding for roads, rails and bridges must be paired with a process like the one proposed in the Illinois Capital Investment Accountability Act. Without one, it will not be a surprise if taxpayers in Illinois refuse to support a new capital investment proposal and our transportation system continues to slide into a worse state of disrepair.

The current version Capital Investment Accountability Act to which McLaughlin refers can be found here. The bill is directed at capital investment decision making by the Illinois Department of Transportation. IDOT would be required to establish and coordinate a Statewide Prioritization Committee and Prioritization Committees in the nine IDOT districts.

Within each IDOT district the District Prioritization Committee will prioritize transportation investments in the area not covered by a metropolitan planning organization. The metropolitan planning agencies within each district will prioritize projects within their jurisdiction. The Statewide Prioritization Committee will prioritize transportation investments for "statewide projects," defined as:

"Statewide projects" means traffic control improvements procured by the Department on a statewide basis, weigh stations, state park projects, contract maintenance performed by non-state forces, emergency road and bridge repairs, and federally authorized Equal Employment Opportunity training programs and support services.

By March 2008 the Statewide Prioritization Committee will do the following:

(1) Establish uniform statewide evaluation criteria
for project prioritization derived from the State
transportation goals. The Statewide Prioritization
Committee shall establish no fewer than 5 and no more than
10 criteria;

(2) Establish a uniform statewide process for
calculating a project's benefit/per-capita cost; and

(3) Determine the process by which it will evaluate and
prioritize Committee and MPO proposed projects in order to
develop the comprehensive project prioritization plan. . . .

By May 1, 2008 the metropolitan planning agencies and District Prioritization Committees will review the evaluation criteria established by the Statewide Prioritization Committee and establish within a specified range the weight to be given each criterion.

The Prioritization Committees and MPOs will then kick into high gear. They will each develop a prioritized list of proposed transportation investments within their jurisdictions using the evaluation criteria and forward this list to the Statewide Prioritization Committee.

The Statewide Prioritization Committee will then develop a comprehensive and prioritized list of all the projects submitted by the MPOs and District Prioritization Committees. This comprehensive list will serve as IDOT's annual project program for highways, mass transit and railroad systems. The list will also guide the development of the State Transportation Improvement Plan, Master Plan (yes, Virginia, there really is one!) and Five Year Project Program.

IDOT will submit this comprehensive list of prioritized projects to the Governor and the General Assembly in January of each year. The Governor's proposed capital budget then will be scrutinized against the comprehensive list:

The Chairpersons of the House and Senate committees having jurisdiction over transportation matters shall, within 14 days after the Governor's submission of the proposed capital budget, convene a joint subject matter hearing to consider the comprehensive project prioritization plan and the impact of the proposed capital budget on the State's implementation of projects contained therein.

It is very interesting that while the Governor's proposed capital budget is to be reviewed against the comprehensive list of prioritized projects, the General Assembly's enactment of the transportation budget is not. Thus, the Governor could follow the comprehensive list of prioritized projects exactly, but the General Assembly could reject that approach in favor of "pork barrel" earmarks to favored projects of dubious merit and not be held accountable under this bill.

The meetings of the MPO and the Prioritization Committees are subject to the Open Meetings Act. There are requirements that the public be allowed to review and comment on proposed prioritization plans, but membership on the various committees is limited to public officials.

The lack of meaningful capital investment prioritization is a common criticism of the RTA. That criticism should also extend to the Chicagoland Area Transportation Study, now part of Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which likewise failed to prioritize transportation projects in northeastern Illinois.

The bill has another important weakness in addition to letting the General Assembly off the hook with respect to its adherence, or lack thereof, to the carefully prioritized list of transportation projects. That additional weakness is the bill's failure to provide any direction with respect to what criteria the MPOs and various prioritization committees should use in ranking proposed transportation investments.

Maybe this lack of specificity is designed to avoid alienating any interest group and their political representatives. It is hard to be against "good planning." But it is very easy to oppose a bill, for example, that gives public transportation projects a higher priority than highway expansions, all else being equal. Or maybe the bill's lack of specificity concerning evaluation criteria is out of respect for the transportation professionals. Well, that's not likely since the transportation professionals at the RTA and CATS have failed to evaluate and rank the proposed transportation investments under their authority and IDOT is hardly a model of transparent decision making when it comes to how it selects transportation projects.

So, in the end, the bill would be stronger if it told IDOT and the public what principles the General Assembly believe should guide which transportation projects should get funded, in what order, and in what amounts. Nonetheless, it is heartening that these legislators are focused on the serious problem that McLaughlin identified in his article, namely, the public's unwillingness to support major new transportation investments unless they have some assurance that the money is going to be spent in an efficient manner on projects that will do the most good (however that is defined).

The public has read all too much how at the federal level transportation money is being spent on Alaskan style bridges to nowhere. They don't want to pony up more money at the state level until they are convinced that the same won't happen here.

The Illinois Capital Investment Accountability Act is sponsored in the Illinois House by Representatives David Miller, Michael Tryon, John Fritchey, Kathleen Ryg and William Davis, and in the Illinois Senate by Senator Susan Garrett.

276 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Ack! So many lists and priorities and committees and evaluation criteria. Would this bill be a net help, or would it just throw more confusion and bureaucracy into an already confusing process?

Maybe people perceive the decision process as opaque now simply because of its complexity.

Rich said...

Well, I think people who have lived in Illinois any length of time also perceive the decision process as opaque because of Illinois' long history of corrupt and incompetent governance. People assume the worst here, and are still often unpleasantly surprised. This bill seems to me to be at least a good start in changing that, and among the sponsors I recognize two of the best north-suburban legislators--Kathy Ryg and Susan Garrett. So I'm going to check with my own state rep and senator and see if they're on board with this.

On an entirely unrelated matter, may I implore our Sick Transit blog host to please choose a color scheme other than white on black? There's a reason books aren't printed that way, and it's not just the cost of ink!

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