This article is a section in the 2014 NADO Research Foundation report Moving toward Performance-based Transportation Planning in Rural and Small Metropolitan Regions.
Since the early 1990s, Pennsylvania has had a highly collaborative transportation planning framework, where the state’s MPOs and RPOs work closely together and with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) headquarters and district staff to complete long-range planning, short-range programming, and special studies. In 2010, PennDOT acquired a statewide license to the prioritization software Decision Lens, and made it available to all of its regional planning partners. This allowed them to select and weight quantitative and qualitative criteria for all projects and for particular funding areas, and the regions also input projects. As RPOs and MPOs analyzed the relative importance of various criteria by weighting them, they could see the impact on project priority. Through this process, the RPO and MPO leadership had the opportunity to envision what a set of policy choices would look like in practice, and to use the end results of prioritization in making resource allocation decisions as they programmed projects in their regional Transportation Improvement Programs, which are integrated into the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program.
In the last round of long-range plan updates, completed in 2012 for the rural regions, PennDOT required the regional planning partners to develop and include performance measures, but left up to the regions what those measures would look like. Most included a mix of metrics regarding the characteristics of the system and measures of plan completeness. For the North Central RPO, an important feature was an implementation plan matrix identifying who was chiefly responsible for implementation of the strategic actions and would be expected to help make progress on a given measure, as well as the approximate timeframe for completion.
In late 2014, the planning partners across Pennsylvania decided to form a work group to focus on performance measurement in the transportation planning process. The practice of creating work groups on different topics has been helpful in the past, and are utilized extensively to set standards and achieve consistency between partners and PennDOT. Each work group has a membership that includes representatives of rural, small metro, and large metro regions, as well as the state (including transportation modal offices when appropriate) and FHWA division staff. One of the state’s most active work groups is to produces financial guidance, which guides the funding assumptions made within each region’s transportation planning process. Another shapes the development of the regions’ planning work programs (UPWP) by identifying the range of tasks, and expectations for those types of tasks, that regions can complete with their allocated planning budget. The new performance work group will be expected to develop guidance in order to institutionalize performance measurement in the transportation planning process. The guidance developed by the performance measurement work group will be instrumental in future long-range plan updates and in aiding the state to work toward compliance with federal requirements on performance-based planning.
Going forward, state and regional partners agree that there are numerous challenges to implementing a performance-based planning process. If needs-based metrics show all funding going to a small number of high-population regions, the result will not be politically acceptable or maintain buy-in to the transportation planning process across the state. The smaller, less populous regions would not be able to improve or maintain their performance and would lead to a further disconnect between planning regions.
Even with new revenues from Pennsylvania’s Act 89 adopted in 2013, the state still faces a shortfall to preserve its existing system. Removing structures from service has been a topic of discussion in order to decrease the amount of funding needed and to prioritize the most critical infrastructure. A pilot project in one county has identified redundant bridges. These were local bridges located near other bridges in the system that could carry traffic with minimal impact on mobility or access by emergency medical services. Although the topic is still in its infancy, disinvestment is an important part of the performance measurement conversation in Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.
Creating institutional structures that address consistency, like Pennsylvania’s work groups, help to ensure that the state, regional, and local levels agree on basic tasks and end goals for conducting the transportation planning processes and measuring performance.
Regions have different interests and different needs. By focusing on process rather than prescription, Pennsylvania has moved toward performance-based planning and programming in a manner that allows for innovation and meeting regional goals while laying out a statewide framework.
For more information and an example of Pennsylvania’s regional planning work programs and deliverables, visit www.ncentral.com/trans.
Achieving consensus on the performance measurement process can be difficult. Various leaders and stakeholders may have vastly different perspectives and desired outcomes for the transportation system. Once a system has been put into place, participants may not like the overall results of their project ranking process, or they may have particular projects that they want to support or oppose for local reasons.
This might occur because the criteria that were chosen to rate projects, or perhaps the weighting given to the various criteria, do not give high scores to the projects that truly do represent the regional vision and policy goals in the plan. For example, if an important policy goal in an adopted regional plan is to direct investment to particular areas to support economic development, there may not be an easily accessible data point to use in reporting a measure that could be used to program a project. But if economic development is not considered as a key component of a projects’ score in the ranking process, even with a qualitative measure, the results of a data-driven process might easily be questioned by stakeholders.
Regions might go through an iterative process of figuring out their criteria over time, as performance measures are adopted or abandoned, redefined or weighted differently, until the outcomes meet the region’s needs.