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How to Choose the Right Transportation Project

New measures weigh risk vs. reward

Choices | October 2, 2013 | By James Bruckbauer

About the Author

James Bruckbauer is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @jimbruckb. Reach him at james@mlui.org.

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Last month I posed a question about how we use limited transportation dollars: Is it time to measure a project’s true return on investment?

As local, state, and federal governments try to dig themselves out of major deficits, every dollar must count. Now, more than ever, agencies are adopting better criteria for choosing projects, better ways to measure a project’s performance, and better indicators for success over the long term.

Rather than simply spending limited dollars, it’s critical that we invest our limited tax dollars on projects that preserve our existing roads, improve quality of life, and generate needed economic development.

When a wise buyer makes a major purchase like a car or house, she usually looks at how much the item will cost, what the maintenance and insurance costs will be, and then weights those costs against the benefits.

The same thinking should go into transportation projects, but for so long, decisions were based on politics, not economics.

But how should we choose the right transportation projects in first place?

I’ve focused my research lately on how transportation agencies, like the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Virginia DOT and North Carolina DOT, are strengthening the process by which they choose their transportation projects.

Based on my findings, the trends in transportation decision-making are clear: The criteria for comparing projects are becoming increasingly data driven, outcomes-based, and focus on preservation, long-term costs/benefits, and economic return. 

Below I’ve listed a few ways agencies are starting rank potential transportation projects.

How to measure a project’s benefits:

Does the project have regional and local support?

Does the project improve access to jobs, schools, stores, and parks?

Does the project improve access to a wider range of choices like buses, biking and walking?

Will the land use changes bring destinations closer together?

Will the project result in an increase in property values?

Will it reduce travel time over the long-term?

Will this project reduce fatalities, injuries, and crash costs?

Does this project reduce long-term maintenance and repair costs (also called life-cycle costs)?

Does the project reduce CO2 emissions and improve energy efficiency?

Does it improve the existing transportation network?


How to measure a project’s cost:

How much will the project cost, including private, local, state, federal sources?

How much money is needed for capital costs?

How much money is needed for operations and maintenance?

When we will need to replace the asset?

How much congestion will be created during construction?

How much noise will the project create?

Is there funding available for the project?

Can we attract private sources of funding for this project?

What timeframe does this project require?

Is this part of a bigger project?

What’s the 30-year impact on traffic congestion?

The Traverse City area’s regional transportation planning body, the Traverse City Area Transportation and Land Use Study (TC-TALUS), is ahead of its peers. The agency already recognizes that a transparent, systematic, outcomes-based, data-driven approach for ranking projects is needed. In fact, from what I can tell, the TC-TALUS process is a model for other places.

Soon, TC-TALUS will compare potential transportation investments and create a long-range plan that will improve this region’s mobility. The plan will focus on ways to improve travel time for those that need to get across the region.

On Thursday, the group will begin looking at evaluation criteria. They’ll meet at 1:30 P.M. at the Garfield Township Hall (3848 Veterans Dr. Traverse City).

For questions about TC-TALUS, contact Matt Skeels: mattskeels@nwm.cog.mi.us

Hungry for more information about transportation planning in the Traverse City area? Check out A Citizen's Guide to Transportation Planning in Northwest Lower Michigan.

James Bruckbauer is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @jimbruckb. Reach him at james@mlui.org

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