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

One of the hidden gems in the 2009 reform law creating Massachusetts new Department of Transportation is the requirement for a five year Capital Investment Plan (CIP).  The state spends billions of dollars a year on our transportation system;  creating a plan that maps out what is needed to meet our mobility, prioritizes spending, and reveals remaining funding and project gaps is a no-brainer.  In fact, MassDOT is required to create “a comprehensive state transportation plan… [to] ensure a safe, sound, and efficient public highway, road, and bridge system, to relieve congestion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve the quality of life in the Commonwealth by promoting economic development and employment…[and] cost-effectively meet the transportation needs of all residents.”

In the recently issued draft of the first CIP, MassDOT acknowledges that “while much important work has been done in the development of this first iteration of the capital investment plan, much more still needs to be accomplished to meet the vision of the Act.”  Unfortunately, this is an extremely correct statement.  Therefore, it is important to suggest ways that future versions of the Plan could be made more transparent and useful as a road map for the implementation of the transportation Act’s vision – and to also point out ways that the current version points in the wrong direction.

Key to improvement would be restructuring the Plan around what must be done to achieve the state’s transportation goals, not just relating to mobility but also including transportation-related goals such as clean air and water, smart growth, physical activity and public health, community livability and social connections, as well as economic development – whether spelled out in the Transportation Reform Act or other laws and regulations.  Accomplishing our goals requires going beyond maintenance of our current assets to describe the targeted, transformative investments needed to move from our current car-centric trajectory towards the 21st century, multi-modal vision embodied in the Commonwealth’s new transportation modernization act.  It also requires correcting the current car-dominant imbalance in our investment plans to give special priority to transit, pedestrian, and bicycling facilities.  Finally, it requires identifying and empowering a group within MassDOT to take the lead in creating the needed plans. 

 

TRANSPORTATION versus STRUCTURES

A capital investment plan is, by definition, about things – what needs to be maintained, improved, or built: an asset management program.  But a transportation plan, of which the CIP is a component, is about a larger issue – how to move people and goods around in a manner that best promotes well-being.  Other sections of the 2009 Massachusetts Transportation Reform Act make it clear that the desired transportation system should serve “all users, including individuals of all ages and abilities, pedestrians, bicyclists, transit vehicles and riders, and motorists.”  Specifically, it “shall…ensure the implementation of measures that facilitate equitable bicycle and pedestrian access in the planning and development of all transportation facilities… [and the creation of] complete streets.”

This language parallels that of the federal DOT, whose March 2010 policy explicitly states that walking and bicycling must get equal consideration with other transportation modes on all transportation projects, including “new, rehabilitated, and limited-access bridges” and on detours during maintenance projects, and should NOT be treated as secondary amenities to be dealt with as resources permit after providing for motorized travel needs.

A useful, road-map Capital Investment Plan should be framed around the Commonwealth’s overall mobility vision and needs – which are barely mentioned in the current draft.

The first section of future CIPs should discuss all laws, regulations, and public goals — both explicitly and indirectly relevant to transportation — established by the state and federal government to determine explicit or implied transportation-related requirements.  This would include, for example, laws and regulations requiring increased pedestrian and traffic safety, that limit greenhouse gas or health-impairing auto emissions, that encourage “smart growth, open space preservation, and healthy physical activity, or that reduce our dependence on imported fuels.

After describing what we are trying to accomplish, the next section of the CIP should analyze current and projected transportation demand – how many people and how much stuff will need to move from where to where over the next 10 to 20 years.   This will involve economic, demographic, environmental, and other factors.  The assumptions underlying the projections should be fully revealed and a range of alternatives tested.  For example, most of the formulas typically use to estimate future car traffic contain assumptions of annual growth in vehicle miles traveled.  In fact, in many places traffic numbers have stayed flat or even declined over the past five years (starting even before the recession), while the number of transit users and bicyclists has rapidly increased, so it is important to explore various scenarios about future possibilities.

Then, the Plan should analyze how to meet this future transportation demand while also achieving our goals.  It might require changes in the modes of travel, or changes in the types of vehicles being used, or changes in the location and usage of mass transit, and other options.  This section should describe the trade-offs among these options, including the difficulties in implementing the optimal mix and ending up with specific suggestions for the most feasible approach.

Only after setting this context does it make sense to discuss specific capital investments; only then can the plan be clear about the extent to which each project will help move the state towards the achievement of its mode-share and other goals.  The current draft CIP pulls together a lot of important information, helping educate the public and our legislators about issues that have previously remained obscure – particularly the enormous gaps between our current resources and our current transportation system’s needs.  But these improvements do not substitute for structuring the CIP around what investments are needed to meet the state’s transportation-related goals.

ASSET MANGEMENT versus SYSTEMIC CHANGE

The draft Capital Investment Plan devotes a lot of space to asset management.  Taking care of what we already have is clearly a priority – too many bridges and roads are in bad shape, too many intersections are unsafe.  It makes total sense to fix what we already have before building more highways or flyovers.

But, as already suggested, in order to create the 21st century transportation system envisioned by the 2009 Act and state leaders, we need to do more than maintain what already exists.  We need to go beyond “fix it first” to making strategic investments that will transform our transportation system.   This will require difficult trade-offs but it might, for example, be necessary to put less money into road upgrading and more into the expansion of state-wide public transportation., or leave some heavily congested roads alone in order to make the streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

MassDOT acknowledges that this first iteration of the CIP focuses on the highway projects described in the State Transportation Investment Plan (STIP).   But in the absence of a discussion of overall transportation system goals the current Plan is unable to discuss or even meaningfully acknowledge the new patterns of investment – where money will go and not go – that will be required in coming years.

 

MOTORS versus NON-MOTORIZED

The current CIP contains a special section on the state’s slowly expanding network of “Shared Use Paths” described in the 2008 Massachusetts Bicycle Transportation Plan.  It describes the goal of creating a 740-mile of on- and off-road paths called the Bay State Greenway.  But, unfortunately, this is just about all the CIP says about improving facilities, mobility, safety, or numbers of pedestrians and cyclists.  There is no listing in the table of contents for either topic.  Worse: when the text mentions the need to “document the needs of other modes of the overall transportation network” it then defines those modes as “including transit, aviation, and rail.”  It is painfully clear that when the Highway Division talks about roads everything except cars are an afterthought.

A transportation plan based on the vision and goals of the 2009 Act would include non-motorized travel as one of its core concerns.  It would describe ways that strategic investments could be used to help implement the Act’s Healthy Transportation Compact that envision a less polluting, more physically active mix of travel modes.  It would specify investments needed to make state, city, and town roads, sidewalks and intersections more pedestrian-friendly; to include bike lanes and cycle tracks on every appropriate street, and more.  It would set specific, numeric goals for pedestrian and cycling mode share in the short- and long-term according to location and other factors, not just accommodating the percentages out there today.  In addition, the plan could also set forth ways to spend capital dollars to promote alternatives to driving, through new infrastructure or through promotional programs (e.g. Safe Routes to Schools), providing support for establishing municipal pedestrian and bike advisory committees, etc.

In some ways, this is simply another fall-out of the CIP’s failure to start by describing goals and gaps.  But it is also symptomatic of the deep tendency within the traffic engineering profession to think “cars” when they say “roads” – not to mention when they say “highway” which is the term MassDOT uses to describe the focus of this Plan.

If we are to reduce congestion, improve sustainability, strengthen public health, help make town centers and urban neighborhoods more livable and prosperous, we have to reject the car-centric assumptions of the past.  MassDOT’s investment plan needs to go beyond traditional traffic engineering concerns about improving car’s level of service.  This plan does not even really start.

Perhaps MassDOT needs a Pedestrian and Bicycling Division alongside the Highway Division.  Baring that, there needs to be a dramatic revamping and strengthening of the Bike/Ped advisory committee (MaBPAB) to clarify its role, better connect it to district activity, and give it the staff and authority it needs to be effective but currently lacks.

Also, while not the main focus of these comments, the Plan should also have a major section which deals with freight movement as equally important as passenger travel.

 

STRATEGIC PLANNING versus SERVICING THE CURRENT MODES

In the Capital Investment Plan, MassDOT states that it is now ready to begin developing a “Statewide Strategic Transportation Plan.”  Perhaps the creation of such a plan will provide the high-level guidance needed for future versions of the CIP.  However, approaching future investment plans from goal-oriented direction will not automatically happen.   The MassDOT Board as well as its appointed leadership will have to require it and then help staff work through what it will take to think and plan in such a needed but innovative manner.

In addition, we believe that this strategic approach to long-range, goal-oriented planning will require a readjustment of the current relationship between the Department’s central Office of Transportation Planning and each of the modal departments, particular the Highway Division, as well as an elevation in importance of the currently very quiet Office of Performance Management and Innovation.  Currently, despite implications to the contrary in the restructuring act, the central planning groups primarily serve as supports to the modal departments.  While this role is useful, the primary role of these two central groups should be to lead – to help the Secretary and the Board set overall long-range visions and goals which the modal departments are then required to implement.

Finally, accomplishing this “culture change” in the way transportation is planned will require changing the capital investment decision-making process.  In particular, the membership of the MPOs, which set funding priorities, should be changed to include representatives of state and local public health agencies, sustainable-growth development groups, as well as bicycle and pedestrian advocates.

We are glad to that MassDOT is taking its long-range responsibilities seriously.  We know that it takes a while to get it right.  And we hope that these suggestions help continue moving everything in that direction.

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