03/05/10 — New road project selection system unveiled

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New road project selection system unveiled

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 5, 2010 1:46 PM

KINSTON -- A new method of selecting highway projects, based more on pure data and leaving less room for politics to play a part, was unveiled recently by state Department of Transportation officials.

For the most part, the new system appeared to receive a favorable response from local officials, but there were still some reservations among the crowd of about 75 who attended the event held at the Global TransPark.

Several people questioned if and how economic development factored into criteria used in the selection process. Of particular concern was the economic impact of the state ports. The audience members said something was needed to level the playing field for the eastern part of the state.

The new process revolves around three classifications -- safety, mobility and infrastructure health.

* Safety projects are those in which the primary purpose is to improve safety. For example, projects could include guardrails, traffic signals, rumble strips, runway lights and rail crossings.

* Mobility looks at ways to improve access or mobility such as highway widening, new location projects, new buses for a new bus route and multi-use trails.

* Infrastructure health includes projects to reconstruct, rehabilitate, resurface, repair or replace the infrastructure.

The meeting was the third in a series across the state at which state officials are explaining the new process.

"This is the result of Gov. (Beverly) Perdue asking us to be more transparent and less political in our project selection process and to make sure we involve the MPOs, RPOs and the public in the process for developing the criteria that is very data driven in terms of ranking our projects. We are presenting today for the first time that the public will see it, the rankings after it has run through that model that we have developed," said Terry Gibson, state Department of Transportation administrator.

Flexibility is the key, he say.

"There always needs to be flexibility for those kinds of things," Gibson said "One of the things that we cannot get away from is that we are working statewide in an entire logistics plan. There is a group the governor has looking at logistics in North Carolina that is really getting into a lot of discussion with the ports. A lot of different modes of transportation affect the ports. How we begin to prioritize the need based on the economic development piece, I think, is going to have to come from that level.

"When you get on the statewide tiers then the rank for input changes in terms of RPOs (Rural Planning Organizations) and MPOs (Municipal Planning Organizations) that have a lot to say on the regional and sub-regional levels, a little less when you get on the statewide tier. Again, anything the secretary (of transportation) moves is going to have to be open and transparent. If he moves it, it is going to be because the logistics team said this is important to North Carolina and noted to why it was. If this movement is not open and transparent then we have failed, and that is not what we are about."

Public response to date has been good, Gibson said.

"I think folks are excited about the data-driven process and I think so far they have been pleased. One of the things we definitely want out of these meetings is that if they see something that just doesn't make sense from a local level, tell us. Let's try to get the thing right and that is really what our goal is today.

"It is to present the logic behind where we go to and to make sure we are receiving any additional comments as we begin to move forward with the next steps of this process."

The process got started early last year after DOT was told to move forward by the governor, although discussions were held prior to that, he said.

There is no legislative action behind the decision. Rather it was started by executive orders from the governor, he said. Even though it lacks the weight of law, Gibson thinks the new process will survive even after Gov. Perdue leaves office.

"I think it is going to be very permanent because of the process that we have used, because we have opened the doors to the MPOs and RPOs and the public," he said. "Because we have opened it up for them to have such a big input I think going backwards is the wrong thing to do and I just don't think it will be easy to go backwards. We have opened that door. We have said we want it to be open and transparent, data driven. I really think that it is going to support itself.

"I think public scrutiny and public involvement and the role these organizations are playing are going to make it very difficult to go back. I think the people felt like it was a very political process and I feel like we probably were not as open and transparent as we needed to be. I think that is what brought the governor to say what she said that she wanted an open, transparent data-driven process. I think that was driven by what she was hearing from the people."

The next step will be the funding process and scheduling constraints.

There are more than 1,100 projects totaling $45 billion, he pointed out.

"We have $9 billion, so obviously this is not going to be the STIP (State Transportation Improve-ment Plan)," he said. "This is the bigger listing of what everybody wants in a prioritized rank. The next step is now how do we begin to apply funds in a manner that makes sense."

The process will include the funding complete with all of the strings attached to state and federal funding, air quality issues and which projects are technically ready, he said.

The resulting list will become the draft STIP.

"We will come back out again and ask the MPOs, RPOs and the public, 'did we get I right?'" he said.

The Board of Transportation at its June meeting will vote to adopt five-year and 10-year work programs. In doing so DOT staff will be authorized to take the draft STIP included in the 10-year work program for public comment.

After June, DOT officials will meet with the MPOs and RPOs to review the list and make adjustments. The public will have about nine months in which to comment.

Following the public comment period, DOT will make any necessary changes to the draft. A final list will be published in April, 2011 with final approval by the Board of Transportation in June 2011.

Projects in the five-year work program are not part of the prioritization because the department has said the first five years of the projects have already ready been committed to by the state as such there is no need to go through a ranking process, said Don Voelker, director of the DOT Strategic Planning Office of Transportation.

"We have committed to delivery of 95 percent of those," he said.

"This prioritization process is about projects beyond the five years," Gibson said. "If the project is outside the five years, even if the data points are not there, there are points given to the local RPO and MPO and the public to say that we want to complete that route. If you are from Wayne County and you voted you want that (U.S. 70 Bypass) project to continue and the RPO said that is our No. 1 project that plays into that quantitative figure and that is how it would get pushed forward. It would just not hang out there forever.

"It (new process) is good for the public, RPOs and MPOs. Even if when the rankings come out and you don't agree with the rankings, at least you can understand how we got there. I think that is critical. We are showing how their projects came out in the rankings for the three categories. We are asking them does it make sense. Is there something we need to tweak or change? We want to seek the comments, do we have the rankings right before we seek the funding piece."