Project Development Process
The TPB’s regional policies and federal metropolitan planning requirements exert an influence on the types of projects that are developed and submitted by the states. However, project development typically occurs at the state and local levels.
The District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia each controls its own funding stream and each has its own system for moving projects forward. Within each state, projects may be pursued for a variety of reasons and may have multiple sponsors.
Project development can be an unpredictable process. Projects sometimes get put on a fast track when elected officials or a group of citizens take a special interest in them. Some projects move forward when they are selected as preferred alternatives in studies. But in other cases, projects are delayed or dropped because funding is unavailable, because other alternatives emerge, or because they are controversial. Sometimes transportation improvements are listed for years in local comprehensive plans or state plans before any action is taken to get them funded.
Here are some of the ways that projects are identified, planned and programmed:
New transportation projects can arise from simple citizen suggestions or from years of complicated technical analysis. A variety of plans, studies and other mechanisms are used to identify and prioritize project needs throughout the region.
Here are some basic ways in which needs and solutions are identified:
Local Government Plans
Transportation projects are often first identified through local planning, which is performed by county or municipal governments. Local comprehensive plans usually include a transportation element identifying specific projects that a local government has determined will be needed over the period of the comprehensive plan—usually 20-25 years.
Project Identification at the State Level
The state DOTs each have methods for identifying projects needed to maintain the integrity of the transportation system, enhance safety or improve mobility. The states usually give highest priority to maintenance needs and structural deficiencies. Project recommendations are often based upon the state’s regular technical analysis of pavements, bridges, congestion levels or safety issues. The states propose other projects that are system “enhancements” including trails or landscaping, or projects to serve air quality improvement goals, such as park-and-ride lots or ridesharing programs. In other cases, the states recommend “new capacity”—new or widened roads, or transit extensions. However, new projects have become less frequent as the region’s transportation system matures and funding tightens.
Transit Plans and Studies
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) regularly assesses the needs of the Metro system, and identifies new projects. Like the state DOTs, WMATA places a priority on system preservation, including replacement of rail cars and buses, escalator and elevator repair and track maintenance. WMATA also studies and identifies system enhancements, such as bus service improvements. The Maryland Transit Administration, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and local transit agencies also perform their own studies, in addition to working with WMATA.
WMATA’s needs typically are categorized into three programs: 1) the Infrastructure Renewal Program (IRP),which addresses maintenance and rehabilitation needs; 2) the System Access/Capacity Program (SAP), which includes funding to purchase trains and buses and make other improvements needed to handle new riders; and 3) the System Expansion Program (SEP), which includes new lines and services.
Corridor and Sub-Area Studies
Major projects go through studies that look at a variety of transportation alternatives for particular “transportation corridors” or specific areas of the region. State agencies generally perform these studies, in cooperation with the TPB and in accordance with federal procedures. Corridors recently under study include the I-66 Corridor in Virginia, the I-270 Corridor in Maryland and the Capital Beltway.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires all projects using federal dollars to have some level of environmental analysis. Some examples of the types of these analyses include Environmental Impact Statements (EIS), Environmental Assessments (EA), and Categorical Exclusions (CE). The scope of the analysis is determined at the beginning of the project.
For major projects, project sponsors are required to perform an EIS which evaluates all feasible alternatives. The study examines the costs and benefits of various alternatives, and how effectively the different options would “get the job done.” It also measures other social, economic or environmental impacts. Federal law requires adequate public involvement opportunities. Most states go above and beyond the federal requirements when working with the public. The EIS process ends with a Record of Decision (ROD), the federal approval for the selected alternative that will be carried forward to the next phases of project development.
Just because a preferred alternative is selected, however, does not mean it will be built. Project funding involves policy and budget decision making—usually at the state level.
Each state has a long-range planning process that brings together project recommendations from local governments, the state DOTs, WMATA and other sources. A project does not have to appear in a state long-range plan in order to receive funding. However, the priorities established in these state plans often determine which projects get built.
Virginia has a number of long-range planning efforts that serve as the basis for project development. A 20-year statewide transportation plan, called VTrans2025, provides policy guidance for all transportation modes. The VTrans2025 final report, which was approved in 2005, identified 21 policy recommendations in the areas of funding and investment, land use, connectivity, priority setting, and sustaining the VTrans2025 vision.
VDOT also developed a 2025 State Highway Plan that recommends specific road improvements for the next 20 years. VDOT has also launched a prioritization process for the Highway Plan that uses a quantitative methodology to rank projects and recommend priorities for short-term funding.
Finally, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) has its own long-range transportation plan. The most recent version of this plan, called TransAction 2030, was adopted in 2005. TransAction 2030 contains an ambitious multimodal list of projects, which are prioritized within eight transportation corridors. The plan identified more than $15 billion in unfunded needs.
The priorities in TransAction 2030, together with VTrans2025 and the State Highway Plan, serve as the basis for Virginia’s project submissions for the TPB’s Constrained Long-Range Plan.
The Maryland Transportation Plan (MTP) establishes policy goals for state transportation services and infrastructure over the next 20 years. The MTP is a starting point for the development of strategic plans, programs and projects by MDOT’s different agencies. The 2004 MTP laid out eight broad policy goals and specified some of MDOT’s key project priorities, such as the InterCounty Connector, an express toll road between Laurel and Gaithersburg.
Every year, MDOT submits the MTP to the General Assembly, along with the six-year Consolidated Transportation Program, as part of the governor’s transportation funding request. MDOT also submits the Annual Attainment Report, which tracks the achievement of the MTP’s goals and objectives.
District of Columbia
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is currently in the process of updating its Strategic Transportation Plan. The last plan was approved in 1997. The new plan, which has a horizon year of 2030, maintains the prior plan’s transit recommendations with an emphasis on surface transit, including light rail. In addition, it focuses on maximizing travel efficiency, safety, and public space quality in major transportation corridors.
The new D.C. Comprehensive Plan (the District’s land use plan), which is the responsibility of the Office of Planning, promotes policies to support an increase in the city’s population. Accommodating additional travel demands will be a key element of the new Strategic Transportation Plan.
WMATA’s 25-year Transit Service Expansion Plan, approved in 1999, proposed an ambitious long-term program of projects, including new rail lines and expanded bus service. Because WMATA does not have a funding source that it alone controls, the recommendations of the Expansion Plan were intended to guide the decisions made by WMATA’s funding partners—the states, local governments and the federal government.
In 2003, the WMATA Board adopted a 10-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP) intended to guide capital investments for rehabilitating the bus and rail systems, and addressing ridership and capacity needs. It also establishes the top expansion priorities for each jurisdiction.
Of course, the story does not end here. Completing a transportation project requires a number of phases, which can last a number of years.
Project-level planning is the phase in which almost all the major project decisions are made and input from the public helps defines the project. The sponsoring agency is responsible for project-level planning and analysis, and for obtaining citizen input. The role of the TPB during planning is to review the regional system as a whole and how all the components work together, not to make project-level decisions.
The project planning phase is completed with the official federal approval of a selected alternative. At this point, the project enters the design phase (also called the preliminary engineering phase), which includes development of construction plans, environmental re-evaluation (if appropriate) and permit applications. The next phase is the right-of-way acquisition phase, where project implementers purchase right-of-way. Finally, when the project is ready to be built or implemented, a project contract is awarded and it proceeds to the construction phase.
©2007 Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments