A giant spreadsheet posted online last week by the state Department of Transportation provides the first public glimpse into a new “data-driven” system for deciding which projects are most worthy of state and federal transportation dollars.
If the new Strategic Mobility Formula works as advertised, it will mark a sea change from a time – not many years ago – when DOT projects could be created or killed, accelerated or stalled at the whim of government officials responding to powerful political interests.
“I hope you can see this is a DOT that is willing to show how projects are prioritized by exposing all the data that goes into these scores, and to show they’re as open and transparent as they can be,” Don Voelker, who leads DOT’s Prioritization Office, said Tuesday. “There’s nothing hidden behind the curtain here.”
The legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory established the Strategic Mobility Formula last year to promote transportation projects that can be shown to improve mobility and safety, reduce congestion and travel times and support economic growth.
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Starting with new spending decisions in July 2015, DOT is supposed to rely solely on these objective ratings to set priorities for projects of statewide importance, a category that will command 40 percent of DOT’s project funds. For projects at the regional level and within DOT’s 14 local divisions – which splits the remaining 60 percent – local elected leaders and local DOT administrators will combine their preferences with the objective ratings to determine the final project rankings.
Voelker published detailed ratings of 1,300 highway projects based on a long list of criteria including how much benefit they provide compared with the cost and how the projects help rural commuters get to work in urban job centers. Over the next two months, he’ll add another 500 highway projects and about 1,300 projects for transit, rail, aviation, ferry, bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
Then local officials and DOT division engineers will have three months to add their input, which will determine 50 percent of the score for regional projects and 70 percent for projects at the DOT division level.
In five eastern counties represented by the Down East Rural Planning Organization, based in New Bern, local leaders will pay close attention to the ratings for DOT projects affecting U.S. 17, U.S. 70 and several military bases.
“We’ll be looking at the individual project scores on congestion, safety and other measures to see how our formula works,” said Patrick Flanagan, who coordinates transportation planning in Down East’s Carteret, Craven, Jones, Onslow and Pamlico counties. “We’ll see how these calculations are affecting the projects.”
In the old days, government appointees often used their own secret criteria to decide which roads would be widened. It was not by coincidence that the Board of Transportation frequently was stacked with leading campaign fundraisers.
The changes began after a series of scandals involving supporters of former Democratic governors Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue.
The state board no longer votes on individual transportation projects. Most of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s appointees to the board supported his campaign for governor, but only one of them, Mike Smith of Raleigh, was a major McCrory campaign fundraiser.
The new system doesn’t necessarily give top priority to the biggest projects. DOT expects to spend just $10.3 million on two Interstate 40 interchange projects in Wake County, at Airport Boulevard and Aviation Parkway, that received some of the top scores across the state.
Between these two projects, an improved ramp at the Aviation Parkway exit scored higher on supporting economic competitiveness. But an entirely rebuilt interchange at Airport Boulevard rated better on improving safety.
Among other highly-rated Triangle improvements are projects to widen N.C. 54 near Chapel Hill between Barbee Chapel Road and I-40 and a new interchange in West Raleigh to replace the traffic signal at Brier Creek Parkway and Glenwood Avenue.
But these are just early ratings. When DOT adds another 1,800 projects to the database later this spring and local officials add their votes over the summer, any of these projects could end up ranking below other priorities.
“The intent here is to be as transparent as possible with the data that was used to calculate those project scores,” Voelker said. “We want people to see this is the data we use. Take a look at it. If you think there is something that needs to be different, you can get ahold of us.”