Picking Transportation Spending Priorities

There is never enough money or time to do everything.  So decision-makers always have to prioritize where to spend and what to spend on.  Other than using some random selection method, this requires having criteria (the more explicit the better) and a transparent process of applying those criteria – both understandable and visible from evaluation through decision-making.

For transportation, in addition to the standard economic development rationale, even as modified by other economic policy goals such as regional fairness and Smart Growth, the 2009 Transportation Reform Act required MassDOT to work towards a more energy-efficient, environmentally protective, and health-supporting system.

But even beyond those already broad criteria, in terms of general well-being the taxpayer will get the maximum overall return on their transportation dollars if project selection evaluation also considers the degree to which the work will improve…

  • Livability – Increasing the ease of safely moving around in a healthy and clean environment with affordable options for both local and longer trips.
  • Increased Usage – focusing investment on where the most people are (including the young, old, disabled, and unconfident), the places they most want to go to, and the types of activities they most want to do.
  • Equity – reducing disparities in transportation facilities and transportation-related living conditions.

There is, fortunately, a lot of reinforcing overlap among the full range of prioritizing criteria.  While it is useful for prioritization evaluation to be as quantitative as possible, there is an inevitable degree of subjective assessment as well.  So it is important to create a robust process of civic engagement in decision-making involving citizens and advocates from a broad range of fields such as public health, recreation, environmental and climate protection, social services, and others.

And two general principles emerge:

  • Give priority to the denser residential and commercial parts of every region across the state;
  • Give priority to making up for our past imbalanced investment in car-centric facilities and wealthier-class areas.

Specifically, this translates into three major areas of investment:

  • Creating Complete and Safe Streets & Bridges that incorporate the maximum possible accommodations for walking, cycling, wheelchair, and other non-car uses;
  • Creating Greenway Networks of off-road multi-use paths and “near-road” cycle tracks or buffered bike lanes.
  • Increasing Accessible and Affordable Modal Choices by expanding public transportation options in underserved areas of the inner cities and across the state.



The standard rationale for transportation projects is economic development – increased business and (hopefully good) jobs.  These are legitimate and worthwhile goals.  On a strictly monetary ROI basis, the state probably gets the most bang for its buck by investing in attractive commercial districts or developments which lead to increased revenue for private, local and state coffers alike.

But simply following where private capital leads is not enough – the state has broader goals than just supporting the pursuit of private profit.  For example, corporate investment has focused on the Boston Metro area, but the state’s dispersed population will be better served if growth can also be channeled into our 11 to 24 outlying “Gateway Cities” (e.g. Fall River, Brockton, Worcester, Holyoke, Lawrence, Pittsfield).  Along with that regional targeting, the public good is enhanced by progress towards Smart Growth goals of preserving open space and enhancing “village centers” — meaning that projects to revitalize downtown commercial districts should take priority over outlying areas.

The 2009 Transportation Reform Act adds several other goals, including the transformation of our overall transportation system towards more energy-efficient, sustainable, environmentally protective, and health-supporting methods and modes.  When crafting its long-term investment plans, MassDOT needs to find ways to measure how much a proposed project contributes to progress towards, or away from, it’s mandated goals and then use that quantitative analysis as part of its evaluation process.

As a member of the LivableStreets Alliance, I believe that transportation’s ultimate value is as a powerful tool for improving our quality of life – for making our communities better places to live, work, shop, play, learn, socialize, raise families, grow old, have fun.  I began thinking of prioritization in terms of bicycling infrastructure.* But I’ve begun thinking that the same ideas are relevant to walking, transit, and even car infrastructure (meaning that it may not be useful for air or water transport or for freight haulage using whatever mode). So here are some other frames that I think provide useful selection criteria for the “where” and “what” questions.

Enhancing Livability –

From a transportation perspective, three qualities make somewhere a good place to be.  (1)  Ease of safely moving around – between home and work or school, to visit friends or do daily tasks.  (2) Healthy and clean – facilitates safe physical activity, has low levels of air, water, and noise pollution.  (3) Affordable choices – for both local and longer trips.

Specifically, this means reducing car congestion and emissions through designs that makes it easy for as many people as possible to choose to walk or bicycle if not to their ultimate destination at least to where they can pick up public transportation.  It means not only “completing” every street to maximize facilities for non-Single Occupancy Vehicle travel, but also finding every opportunity to institute “traffic calming” and pedestrian-friendly intersections that slow traffic and make the right of way safer for people both inside and outside cars.  It means not only taking wheelchair access seriously (meaning going beyond curb cuts to sidewalk width and quality), but also vastly expanding bus, rail, and trolley services not only in the Metro region but around the state.

High Use –

The more people who use a transportation facility the higher its value. Achieving this requires focusing investment on where the most people are and the places they most want to go to:   (1) within or between areas of higher density; (2) connecting residential and commercial or recreational areas; (3) creating complete networks so that people can get to as many possible destinations as possible; and (4) expanding recreational opportunities that are easily accessible to large populations.

Specifically, this means prioritizing urban areas.  It means making bike facilities more attractive to the “traffic-intolerant” majority of potential users — off-road paths or near-road cycle-track facilities, and transforming the rest of the urban street layout with traffic calming, road diets, bike lanes, bike parking, count-down walk signals, etc.  It means focusing on commuter routes (which usually extend beyond downtown areas) as well as expanding recreational facilities located near large populations.  While it is always worthwhile to opportunistically take advantage of any road or development project to demand the inclusion of top-quality bike and pedestrian facilities – no matter how connected those facilities may currently be to the surrounding transportation system – it is important to have a plan for eventually connecting those isolated pieces into a coherent network.

Equity –

There will always be some degree of inequality in almost every sphere of existence.  But that doesn’t mean that we should exacerbate it.  Even more, we have both a moral and a self-serving interest in doing what we can to reduce disparities – recent research makes it clear that the more severe the gap between best-off and worst-off in a society, the more dysfunctional are social, family, and even personal relations at every level of that society (for more, see The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett).  At the same time, simply because a place or people are needy does not make them appropriate investment recipients — throwing money at a hopeless situation is wastefully dumping good into bad and will have no long term impact.  There has got to be something to build on, some reason to believe that new investment will pay off – although figuring out what creates that potential is as much a subjective/political process as an objective evaluation.  Still, reducing inequity, promoting fairness, giving everyone a fair share requires that priority should be given to areas of (1) past underinvestment; (2) which has caused people to have less access to jobs, services, products, or recreational opportunities; or (3) which has suffered disproportionately from the negative effects of our transportation system (e.g. pollution, noise, injuries).

Specifically, this means giving extra attention to low-income or immigrant neighborhoods as well as the needs of the disabled population no matter where they live.  It means being aware of asthma and diabetes “hot spots” as well as the latest findings about the dispersal of damaging ultra-fine particulates around major roads.  It means being sensitive to issues of cost, dignity, and local habits – probably emphasizing transit, walking, and recreational cycling more than bike commuting (or assuming that people can afford bicycles and cars in the first place).

Caveats:  “Principled Opportunism” and Constituency Building

Since there is never enough money, it is almost never possible to implement all of a large vision at one time.  But neither is it ok to use that as an excuse not to begin.  For example, it appears that some MassDOT project leaders think that because there are inadequate pedestrian or bicycle accommodations on either side of their project area, it doesn’t make sense to “waste space” on them inside the scope of work.  But this kind of short-sightedness just perpetuates the problem, creating a “reason” for the next project to also ignore walker and cyclist needs.   We have to include as much of our ultimate vision in every piece of work we do, no matter how scattered or short.  In fact, it is sometimes easier to gain support for “closing a gap” than to start something new.

And gaining support is another twist in the story.  A legitimate consideration in choosing transportation projects is its political impact – will it increase support for moving forward with the additional work required to implement the larger vision or goal?   Using the prioritization criteria outlined previous will help.  But when you are dealing with politics it is necessary to go beyond technocratic issues.

For example, it is fashionable these days to denounce “earmarks” and other types of legislatively-directed investment.  And these can easily lead to wasteful spending on projects that would not meet any rational set of criteria.  But we live in a democracy, and part of what fuels our legislative process is allowing representatives to show that they’re able to secure funds for local projects.  If getting enough votes to pass major legislation requires a bit of this kind of legal bribery, then I don’t mind.  And earmarks, or post-legislatively giving an Administrative green light to projects in a powerful legislator’s district, can also provide a certain amount of legitimate geographic distribution of resources.  Of course, all this can get out of hand.  But we should remember that the private sector misuses enormously more money and resources than the public sector – and focus more of our outrage about waste, fraud, and abuse on those culprits, whose leaders usually end up walking away with huge personal gain on top of it all.

In any case, it is important that we do what we can.  As the old Rabbis were supposed to have said:  “It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it.”

(* Thanks to John Hersey, of the Planners Collaborative, for his ideas and for helping me focus on this issue.)


Related Posts:

Going Mainstream: Overcoming Discouragements to Walking & Bicycling

Transportation funding Decision-Making: Four Ways To Fix The MPO Process

Five Steps To Make GreenDOT Real: From Promise to Impact on Transportation and Climate

You Can’t Plan A Route Unless You Know Where You Are Going: Comments on MassDOT’s 2010-2015 Capital Investment Plan

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