Bay Area needs to focus on a performance-based approach to transportation investments

As the Bay Area’s regional agencies gets rolling on its first-ever Sustainable Communities Strategy, there was incredible enthusiasm for their ten adopted targets.  Sure, SB 375 required two of the targets (a 15% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 and planning for enough homes, at all income levels) to accommodate the growth in workers.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, with significant public involvement, added eight more targets including specific aims to reduce the cost of transportation and housing for low-income communities, increase physical activity, reduce exposure to particulates, and reduce injuries of fatalities from collisions.

But these lofty goals are worthless if they sit in chapter 1 of the SCS, untethered in any way to the final investment package.  A true performance-based approach to planning needs to link these targets to investments.  

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has a plan to create a link between performance and investment in three ways.  And while huge obstacles remain, the precedent is incredibly important and may lead to smarter decision-making.  The timing couldn’t be better as we face tremendous funding shortfalls and will need to be more strategic than ever in our investing.

On Tuesday, May 2nd, MTC staff will present this SCS’s Performance Assessment plan at the Regional Advisory Working Group (RAWG) meeting.  Here’s what they are planning:

MTC will conduct a “Project Performance Assessment” designed to identify projects and programs that advance regional goals, support the Sustainable Communities Strategy land uses, and are cost-effective.  This will contain two different types of assessment.

1)    A “goals” assessment that is largely qualitative.  This will apply mostly to project “types” such as Safe Routes to Schools, or freeway-to-freeway connectors. It will capture qualitatively those goals that cannot be assessed based on regional model results.

2)    A “benefit-cost” assessment that is quantitative.  This would be reserved for projects with larger regional impacts likely, defined as those costing greater than $50 million, and/or those that haven area-wide impacts, for example, transit priority measures or express lanes.  All regional programs such as the bike network, Clipper, climate program, local streets and roads maintenance, will also be evaluated beyond their current contract periods.  

Projects that are 100% locally funded, or that have passed environmental review and have a full funding plan, will be “committed” in the plan and will not be assessed.

It is important to be clear, however, that the Project Performance Analysis results are not determinative. Since there is a some amount of subjectivity and significant room for error, the assessment will be best used to look for “outliers” – projects that do incredibly well and should therefore clearly be included or projects that do so poorly that the sponsor will have to “justify” them.  These may include projects that:

1.     have a low benefit cost ratio, probably below one, or meet very few goals

2.     increase CO2 emissions

3.     do not support anticipated land uses.

Ultimately, the results of the performance assessment will be presented to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for its review and the Commission may consider these results, along with other policy factors, when deciding on transportation projects to be included in different scenarios and, finally, in the financially constrained plan.

This is a tremendous opportunity to capture the value, or “monetize”, the values of improved health, fewer injuries, personal transportation savings (both time and money).  In other words, to try and relate the investments to the targets.

How is MTC doing so far?  Much better than last time.

In the last Regional Transportation Plan, a similar assessment was done quickly, without much stakeholder input into methodology and, frankly, ended up with results that were sometimes very misleading.  For example, the climate protection program was given benefit for reducing CO2 since MTC estimated that a certain number of trips would be reduced.  But they said they didn’t exactly know where those trips would start or end, so they gave the program zero benefit for congestion relief. Since the methodology valued reductions in travel delay so much more than anything else, the climate program, along with the regional bicycle program, scored abysmally.  

While anomalies like this were discussed with the commissioners, and ultimately those projects were included in the RTP, the famous “bubble charts” that displayed the information kept popping up over the last few years, in County meetings and elsewhere. But they would show up without all of the disclaimers. 

 That is why it is so important to try and get it right. So far MTC is on a great path.

First, they have set up a project performance assessment technical group that includes wide variety of stakeholders, including some damn smart people like John Holtzclaw from the Sierra Club, Egon Terplan of SPUR, and David Burch from the Air Quality Management District.

Second, they are leaving much more time to explore ways to capture different costs and benefits. This is both complicated and often can seem arbitrary, so open dialogue has truly enriched the process. This has been incredibly important as we debate how to include potential positive impact on land uses, such as from improved transit investment, as well as if there is any way to indicate when an investment may adversely impact our goals.

Third, they are developing a range of ways to make the information much more transparent to those reading it, for example not just aggregating the results into one large benefit cost ratio, but showing graphically how much value was given for each factor.

Finally, they will be subjecting many more projects to analysis. Even with the Commission vote on April 27th for the more conservative of the two options, MTC will be analyzing many projects that in past RTPs would have been considered "committed" and thus immune to analysis and the Commission's discretion.

Now Commission staff will move forward towards starting to use this assessment methodology starting in late May.  And there are still huge thorny issues that remain, such as how to value land use benefits, or benefits to “priority development areas.”

To see the latest materials included in the May 2 RAWG packet, click here.  Make sure you make it to the summary page at the end.

For better or worse, analysis will not be the end of the debate. As each project, and especially each program (e.g., Lifeline Transportation or Regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Program) is assessed, there will be judgment calls. The Performance Analysis data is just one component of this political process.  Staff will frame the results; Commissioners will ingest the staff positions; the public will comment and lobby …  and a vote will be cast.

But at least this time around, the results of MTC’s Performance Analysis have a much greater likelihood of connecting great targets for a healthy, affordable, equitable, climate-friendly future with the investments that actually have a chance of getting us there.

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