Getting smart about transportation spending

Mass. taking big step forward with system that will score proposed projects

MAKING DECISIONS ABOUT transportation spending is a little like shopping for dinner at the supermarket. Chances are that you considered a number of factors before you got to the checkout counter. You consulted nutrition labels and compared prices. You planned around your family’s individual preferences and health needs and considered how foods would pair up.

If planning a meal can be complicated, just imagine drawing up a “shopping list” for a successful transportation system. Ideally, each project would come with the equivalent of a “nutrition facts” label that analyzed the costs and benefits, including how each project would affect local economies, jobs and education, climate change, and public health. With money as tight as it is, public officials should be comparison shopping – trying to find frugal solutions for transportation challenges.

Unfortunately, that is not quite how transportation planning works. In Massachusetts, as in most states, the transportation shopping list is driven as much by political considerations as substantive ones. It’s rare to see a rigorous comparison of project benefits based solely on merit.

But a great leap forward in transportation policy is quietly occurring in Massachusetts thanks to a new, smarter project evaluation system that will help state officials decide which projects are worthy of taxpayer dollars. Under a new set of criteria, proposed projects would be judged more objectively on their contributions to goals like safety, mobility, health, and cost-effectiveness.

For 18 months, the Project Selection Advisory Council – a group comprised of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and state transportation experts that was created under the 2013 transportation finance act – has been working under the radar to come up with better ways to evaluate transportation projects. Its recommendations may determine whether plans for passenger rail from Boston to Springfield and to the South Coast move ahead, or whether South Station expands and new interchanges on Interstate 495 and Route 128 get built.

Recently, the council presented its recommendations. While they don’t go as far as we’d like, they mark the first step in a transition to a new era of data-driven decision-making at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation – one with great potential benefits for the Commonwealth.

Here’s how the new system will work:  Each proposed project will be evaluated and scored on several measures, including cost effectiveness, economic impact, environmental and health effects, safety, and social equity.

Then the project will be categorized by whether it maintains existing infrastructure or adds capacity to our current state transportation network. Six categories of projects would be created: highway maintenance, highway capacity, MBTA maintenance, MBTA capacity, regional transit authority maintenance, and regional transit authority capacity. Road improvement projects will only be compared to other road proposals; MBTA projects will only be evaluated against other MBTA plans; and regional transit authority services will only be judged against other RTA projects.

MassDOT would then establish funding targets for each category and prioritize projects by score. The resulting plan would be evaluated to determine whether projects meet the state’s overall goals, such as keeping our transportation system well-maintained, ensuring safety, making it easier for people to get around, reducing air pollution, and mitigating climate change.

The council’s recommendations include several improvements to the current way of selecting projects. The safety and mobility of all transportation system users – not just motorists – will be taken into account when projects are evaluated.

Project costs will be tallied over their full lifespan, helping to ensure that Massachusetts does not wind up building things today that we can’t afford to maintain tomorrow.  Perhaps most importantly, the project evaluations will be made public before the decisions are finalized, providing a new level of transparency to one of the most mysterious areas of decision-making.

Nevertheless, while this new system is a marked improvement over how things are done now, the council’s recommendations miss the mark in two respects.

First, the council backed away from its earlier plan that would enable comparison of various types of transportation projects – allowing the benefits of, say, a transit project to be considered alongside those a proposed road project.  The council said that allowing direct comparisons of road and transit projects, for example, could have the effect of “potentially disadvantaging certain important project types – “important,” of course, being the kind of subjective judgment the new data-driven process was intended to eliminate. Other states, most notably Virginia, have adopted project evaluation processes that compare and contrast various types of transportation options. Massachusetts should do the same.

Second, the proposed scoring system gives the environmental, public health, and social equity impacts of projects relatively little weight, with those factors accounting for no more than 20 percent of the combined score.  Whether a project expands opportunities for lower-income children and adults isn’t even considered specifically in some categories. If Massachusetts is going to meet key goals in those areas, that has to change.

The Bay State is legally bound to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 80 percent by 2050. Because transportation infrastructure lasts for decades, every investment we make today must contribute toward meeting that mandate. Meanwhile, as Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter has pointed out, access to transportation is a prerequisite to help people to rise out of poverty. As state residents, particularly in the Gateway cities and rural areas, continue their quest for economic opportunity, transportation’s role in supporting economic advancement is critical.

Meet the Author

Rafael Mares

Vice President, Conservation Law Foundation
Meet the Author

To its credit, the council recognized that its criteria and processes aren’t perfect and has left the door open for further refinements. These faults aside, the release of the council’s project selection criteria is a big step toward ensuring that our public officials will be “smart shoppers” when it comes to making state transportation investments. MassDOT should continue to pursue better-informed transportation decision-making that furthers progress toward a cleaner, healthier, more prosperous, and more equitable Massachusetts.

Rafael Mares is a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. Maddie Ribble is director of public policy and campaign strategy at the Massachusetts Public Health Association.