Making the most of transportation dollars to Rebuild Illinois - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Making the most of transportation dollars to Rebuild Illinois

The capital bill unlocked money to improve our state’s transportation infrastructure. Data-driven decision making can lead us toward the smartest use of that money.

Elon Musk’s net worth? $38 billion. For perspective, Illinois will spend nearly that much – $33 billion – in state funds over the next six years on transportation infrastructure, thanks to the 2019 passage of the Rebuild Illinois capital plan. How can we get the most from our money? For basic maintenance, the process recently became clearer, as the Federal government requires state Departments of Transportation to develop Asset Management Plans, which utilize a data-driven process to prioritize pavement and bridge maintenance projects. Transit agencies also must develop Transit Asset Management Plans. But a question remains: For projects beyond simple maintenance, how do we get the most from our limited transportation funds?

The good news is that in December 2019 the Regional Transportation Authority codified a commitment to developing such a process, which is under development now, with an initial version out by summer. For the Illinois Department of Transportation (DOT), however, no clear policy framework prioritizes which major investment projects ultimately end up in the Illinois DOT’s Multiyear Program.

Performance-based planning is a data-informed planning practice that increases transparency, sets long-term investment goals and delivers results

Federal Requirements for Performance Based Planning

In recent years, starting with the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), Federal transportation funding authorizations have begun requiring data-driven processes. Performance-based planning is a strategic approach toward future investment decisions that uses data on system performance to select high-impact projects that help achieve mobility goals. The idea is that making data-driven decisions and using performance measures to track outcomes will better ensure that projects are delivering the desired results, like helping us get where we need to go more efficiently, giving us more transportation choices, improving livability of communities and reducing safety risks. For example, if Illinois decided to focus on the number of jobs a transportation improvements would improve access to, a performance-based planning process would use the number of jobs the project would connect to as one of several measures to help inform investment decisions, with more priority given to projects that increase access to job locations.  

Nearly 80 percent of Illinois residents support a transparent transportation planning process that relies on data and public input. 

The 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) required that performance measures be established for specific transportation programs. In 2016, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) published the final rules on state and metropolitan transportation planning, which established new requirements for state DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to transition to performance-based programs. Under these rules, state DOTs and MPOs are now federally required to track a set of transportation performance measures and to set targets to guide progress. These performance measures include roadway pavement condition, bridge condition, congestion, non-single occupant vehicle travel, emissions, traffic safety and transit asset conditions. Therefore, all transportation investments states and transit agencies make should be reasonably expected to move the state toward achievement of the targets it sets. For example, Illinois Federal safety targets and progress toward achieving them are tracked here.

Indeed, Governor Pritzker’s Infrastructure Transition Report listed this as a major priority:

Implement more transparent and objective project selection Illinois needs a more transparent and objective project prioritization process for capital funding. In addition to project cost and other existing measures, prioritizations should more clearly focus on factors such as resident impact (e.g., safety, congestion reduction, or usage), economic impact (e.g., measures of inclusive growth such as increased mobility for disconnected communities, improving higher education institutions, or stimulating industrial growth), and climate impact and resiliency. A transparent process, executed in close coordination with local governments, could provide the legislators with the proper tools for long-term decision making to drive robust growth and fix deficient infrastructure.

Illinois Residents Want Transparency

Why does this matter? Illinois residents have shown that they want increased clarity on how transportation funds are being spent. According to a 2019 survey commissioned by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, nearly 80 percent of Illinois residents support a transparent transportation planning process that relies on data and public input. A few years ago, in 2016, Illinois residents overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the state constitution that ensures transportation funds are used for transportation projects. The bottom line? Residents want to be sure that transportation tax dollars are used to improve transportation, and to understand how projects are chosen.

We’re adding more roads while failing to maintain the ones we already have.

Illinois needs to focus on outcomes

What does Illinois need to do now? We need to ensure that every investment is moving us toward the results we want. In recent years, that has largely not been the case. For example, we’re adding more roads while failing to maintain the ones we already have. According to Transportation for America’s Repair Priorities report, Illinois added 13,000 new lane miles from 2011 to 2017, while the maintenance backlog increased by 67%. Every new lane-mile of road costs approximately $24,000 per year to preserve in a state of good repair. Meanwhile, Illinois’ population has been flat during this time period. At the same time, traffic-related fatalities have been on the rise. In 2018, 1,031 people died on Illinois roads. Road users in Illinois were 12% more likely to be in a fatal crash in 2018 than 2010. Pedestrian fatalities have increased 43% between 2010 and 2018. When we see numbers like these we need to ask ourselves how we need to invest differently to get different results.

Other states have embraced performance-based planning to strategically decide how to invest transportation dollars. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Oregon, Kansas and other states have established good models that:

  • Articulate transportation goals
  • Evaluate proposed projects against goals
  • Track project performance
  • Communicate the process to the public
Virginia's SmartScale dashboard

Virginia's SmartScale dashboard

For example Virginia's SmartScale bills itself as “investing limited tax dollars in the right projects that meet the most critical transportation needs in Virginia.”  Each project is scored based on a set of criteria and results are shared publicly on the DOT website.    

Illinois has worked internally to develop criteria for prioritizing projects and developed a draft tool in 2017 which was presented at MPC by IDOT. What’s needed is a commitment to use them consistently. There is no better time than now to institutionalize and fully implement performance-based planning for Illinois transportation. We all want to be able to get to work, school, the store and the park quickly, safely and to have choices. Good transportation enables us to live our best lives. Performance-based planning will help us get the most out of our transportation tax dollars.

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