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Improved Transportation through Statewide Collaboration

Date:
April 25, 2013
Topics:
Case Studies, Funding and Finance, Resources

On 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 presentation was by Chris Cummings, Interim Freight Planning Program Manager at the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).  His talk described ConnectOregon, a grants program responsible for significant improvements to freight transportation and public mobility across the state.

Box 1. Oregon

Area:  95,988 square miles (2010 Census)

Population:  3,899,353 residents (2012 Census)

ConnectOregon is endowed by Oregon’s Multimodal Transportation Fund (MTF), and it provides grants and loans for non-highway transportation projects, including air, marine, rail, and public transit infrastructure improvements.  Funding is awarded to projects that promote economic development in Oregon.  Since the program’s inception in 2005, ConnectOregon has awarded grants totaling more than $334 million and has leveraged over $499 million to fund regional multimodal transportation projects that link to the statewide transportation system.

ConnectOregon_ACTMap

Need / Motivation

The program was established to respond to a lack of sufficient capital and technical capacity (i.e., engineering, planning, labor and/or equipment) within local government and businesses to undertake multimodal transportation projects.  According to Cummings, “The state realized there was no funding source for non-highway transportation projects.”  He acknowledged the presence of federal grants for local projects through Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but highlighted the scarcity of consistent state-sponsored funding for these projects.  In creating the MTF, the legislature found that public financial assistance could help support these transportation projects, and in doing so, foster long-term economic growth and job creation.

Planning Authority

Three main planning authorities shape the ConnectOregon process.

  • ODOT sets the selection criteria and tracks the public benefits derived from its investments.
  • The Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) is the governing body of ODOT and works in conjunction with them to guide the planning, development, and management of a statewide integrated transportation network to provide safe and efficient access and enhance Oregon’s economy and livability.
  • The Area Commissions on Transportation (ACTs) are regional review committees chartered by the OTC that address the local and regional transportation needs.  They play a key advisory role for ConnectOregon, along with other state transportation infrastructure and capital investment programs such as developing regional priorities for inclusion in the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) and Oregon Transportation Investment Act (OTIA).  Similar to regional planning organizations that support statewide planning in several other states, the ACTs raise awareness about those programs and establish a public process to provide communication and interaction between the OTC and local stakeholders.  Further, they facilitate cooperation among local governmental jurisdictions to expand opportunities for local citizen involvement in ODOT’s decision making.  In some cases, the ACTs personally work with the smaller communities in filling out and formatting applications as well as helping identify the small match that is required from all project applicants.

Funding

ConnectOregon has completed three two-year project cycles since 2005 and is currently in its fourth cycle that runs from 2011 to 2013.  Of the 424 applications received by the OTC, 203 (approximately 48 percent) were funded.  The MTF finances the program through Oregon lottery-backed taxable and tax-exempt bonds.  For cycles I, II, and III, the Oregon legislature allowed for the issuance of $100 million in lottery-backed revenue bonds and granted $40 million for the 2011 to 2013 biennium.  In all, $834 million, including $499 million in matched and leveraged funds, has been spent on ConnectOregon multimodal transportation improvements projects.

Planning Process

Once the ACTs have raised awareness of ConnectOregon and applications have been submitted, they then conduct an initial application review.  According to Betty Riley, the Executive Director for South Central Oregon Economic Development District (SCOEDD), which provides staff support for the South Central Oregon Area Commission on Transportation (SCOACT), the regional proposal rating process differs slightly from that of the state level because applicants deliver presentations showcasing the project’s expected benefit to the community.

Box 2. ODOT Project Selection Considerations

Proposed transportation projects are rated based on the following considerations:

  1. Reduction of transportation costs for Oregon businesses or improvement of access to jobs and sources of labor;
  2. Creation of economic benefits to the state;
  3. Provision of a critical link connecting elements of Oregon’s transportation system that will measurably improve utilization and efficiency of the system;
  4. Degree to which the cost of the proposed project can be borne by the applicant or loan from any source other than the MTF;
  5. Timeline for completion

(ConnectOregon Report, page 2)

Through that process, the ACTs rank applications on priorities for the region and sort them into tiers (see Box 3) based on ODOT’s selection criteria (see Box 2).  Tier scoring is carried out by ACT and modal staff, ODOT economists, and Oregon Regional Business Development specialists, who base the scores on information provided by applicants in their initial applications.  The tier process is purely to inform the final review committee as to how well projects meet ODOT selection considerations and does not guarantee projects will be funded.  After the initial review process, representatives from each ACT attend a final review committee meeting with Oregon modal committees to make the case for their recommended project rankings to be awarded funding.  There is a separate process for projects to be selected for inclusion into state and local transportation plans.

Box 3. Project Tiers

Tier 1 (41-50 points) – The application demonstrates the project meets all five considerations thoroughly.

Tier 2 (31-40 points) – The application demonstrates the project meets most considerations thoroughly.

Tier 3 (21-30 points) – The application demonstrates the project meets some considerations thoroughly.

Tier 4 (1-20 points) – The application fails to demonstrate the project meets any of the considerations thoroughly.

(ConnectOregon Report, page 3)

Implementation Effectiveness

In 2012, ODOT conducted a survey for grant recipients who had completed projects to determine project impact and effectiveness after implementation.  The surveys broadly identified project benefits under four categories, listed below along with an example case.

  1. Reduced transportation costs for Oregon businessesConnectOregon provided funds to the Tidewater Terminal Company’s terminal in Umatilla.  The upgrades lowered truck loading times by 40 percent, saving Oregon businesses time and money receiving or shipping goods via the terminal.
  2. Improved access to jobs and sources of labor.  Community Connections of Northeast Oregon, in conjunction with ConnectOregon, improved the mobility of area residents in Baker, Union, and Wallowa counties by constructing a transit hub that combined all local transit services as well as expanded intercity bus routes.
  3. Provision of economic benefits.  PC Energy Biodiesel Blending Facility matched ConnectOregon funds with their own $2 million investment to rehabilitate over 900 feet of rail to deliver biodiesel fuel more efficiently to the City of Ontario, OR.  The project cut transportation costs for businesses and created 20 construction jobs and six permanent jobs.
  4. Provision of critical transportation linkages.  ConnectOregon funds were used by the City of Ontario, OR to improve and extend the runway at Ontario Municipal Airport to accommodate commercial aircraft, increasing business competitiveness with nearby cities.

(ConnectOregon Report, pages 4-9)

In the future, ODOT aims to gather more quantifiable outcomes and information to determine how funded projects fit within relevant local, regional, and state transportation plans.  This will allow strategic allocation of funds to places and industries most in need, and to do so in a way that will help secure funding for future cycles, thereby maintaining the program’s longevity.  To this end, ODOT established a performance program called Measures of Success for the current funding cycle, with plans to expand it in future cycles.  Funding recipients report whether they did or did not meet their project goals within 18 months of project completion.  For the current funding cycle that ends in 2013, ODOT staff anticipates performance reports will be completed by mid-2015.  The outcome does not affect an applicant’s allocated funding; rather, it is a means for the OTC to gain feedback to improve its review and implementation process.  In these early stages of Measures of Success, the process of reporting performance is fairly straightforward.  For instance, an applicant could establish a pre-funding objective to increase freight rail speed and conclude the project a success upon raising average speeds from 25 to 50 mph.

The process will be kept simple because many applicants do not have capacity to develop complex performance measures or execute cost benefit analyses.  Cummings stressed that for ConnectOregon to continue its success, it is important to keep a balance of simplicity and sophistication during the measurement process so that all parties can contribute.

Relevancy

In January 2009, ODOT published Oregon’s ACTs, Cross-Jurisdictional Collaboration and Improved Transportation Planning, an examination of the role ATCs have played in addressing regional transportation issues their possible future roles.  ConnectOregon was mentioned on numerous occasions as being a successful example of effective collaboration among the ACTs and state-level agencies such as ODOT and OTC.  Riley agrees, “It’s a good model, especially for smaller counties, ACTs work with ConnectOregon to provide a line of communication and support to small communities and mandates that they receive at least ten 10 percent of the awarded funding be allocated to each region.  Otherwise the counties probably wouldn’t see anything at all, and the funds would go to large urbanized areas.”

This finding is supported by Cummings as well.  He confirmed that “The program’s biggest success is the stakeholder buy-in.”  Through his participation on the application review committee, he has observed very little negativity in the decision process.  “Certainly, people had hoped for a little more for their mode or their region, but, generally, people and all the committee members agreed that the projects that were funded were definitely good projects.”  On top of the 10 percent given to each region, funding has generally been distributed to regions in proportion with their population.  “We’ve had definite success.  We’ve managed to revitalize short line rail service and match a tremendous amount of funding,” concluded Cummings.

Most unsuccessful applications have been due to the timing of their funding, inability to provide a match, underdeveloped environmental reports, or not being ‘project ready’.  Cummings commented, “We’ve learned from these applicants each year and have tightened up our application questions, our review process, and the timelines.”  He observed that if ConnectOregon had a dedicated funding source so that the two-year cycles were guaranteed, it would prevent applicants from submitting their projects before they are ready.  “We get applications that are not ready to go, but that is because applicants don’t know if there will be another round.  If they knew there was another round coming in two years, they would hold off and make sure to be ready for the next round.  This doesn’t ensure they will get funded, but it gives them a better chance,” he remarked.

According to both Riley and Cummings, the ConnectOregon program is just as important—and has equal energy put into it—as the STIP and other state programs do.  Overall, the program is considered an applicable model in funding alternative transportation projects that serve the state, regional, and local levels.  The program has played a key role in attracting and maintaining support from planning authorities of all levels through developing a unique review and performance monitoring process.

Sources

This case study was written by NADO Transportation and Communications Fellow Agnieta Sharpe, under the supervision and direction of Associate Director Carrie Kissel.  This work is supported by the Federal Highway Administration under contract number DTFH61-10-C-00050 through the NADO Research Foundation’s Center for Transportation Advancement and Regional Development (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.