Written by Paul Black
Governor McCrory signed House Bill 817, the Strategic Mobility Investments (STI) into law on June 26th, 2013 to replace the “Equity Formula” used to divide available funding among different areas of the state and different types of projects. It is the most significant transportation legislation passed in North Carolina since the creation of the Highway Trust Fund in 1989, and passed both house and Senate with overwhelming support.
A quick overview of how it works: There are 3 major “tiers” for investment. These tiers are based on their function in the overall transportation system. Projects on the interstates and a few other other high-order corridors are part of the statewide investment tier; projects on other US or NC designated routes are part of the regional investment tier, and everything else on the state system is part of the division tier.
The statewide tier projects are selected purely on a data-driven basis. As part of the SPOT3 workgroup responsible for advising NDCOT as part of the rulemaking process, I can attest to the thought and vetting that went into the project scoring. There are still imperfect data sources, but given the available information, the process did a good job meeting the charge given to the workgroup: put investment in places with the most congestion. The draft statewide project list ended up looking a lot like the counterpart to the old Equity Formula, the “Urban Loop” program, and is available for review at https://connect.ncdot.gov/projects/planning/STIData/Draft_Statewide_Program.pdf.
The regional and division tiers are in the final phases of development. These tiers also receive input from local NCDOT engineers and regional transportation planning organizations. Regional projects are evaluated against each other in a two-division geography; there are 7 funding “regions” around the state. Divisional projects only compete against other projects in their geographic division; there are 14 of them around the state (PDF available here). Regional transportation planning organization boundaries generally do not coincide with the funding boundaries, and they many have projects in multiple regions and divisions.
Projects were allowed to cascade down funding tiers, so a statewide project might be funded out of regional or division money, but not vice-versa. This led to an abundance of statewide and regional projects in the lower down tiers. It remains to be seen what this does to the advancement of smaller projects. Large, expensive projects in the lower-order tiers also created issues, because funding one big project could preclude numerous smaller projects in the lower-order tiers.
All of the regional transportation planning organizations and NCDOT engineers were required to develop a method to assign points to projects they wanted to advance. Their methods were vetted and approval given by a small cadre of NCDOT staff. Many of the regional planning organizations were uncomfortable with the small, un-inclusive nature of this group, but everyone’s methods were ultimately approved. For the regional funding, the regional planning organization and the NCDOT Division Engineer were allocated 15% each of the overall points a project could receive. It was 25% each for the division tier. The same data-driven criteria accounted for the rest of the project scores.
The Rural Planning Organizations (RPOs) and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) have extensive public involvement processes. Most parts of the state have more detailed, long-range plans than the state’s overall vision plan. It remains to be seen how well the new process advances goals and projects identified in those plans. The Division Engineers historically have not had as intensive of a public process, but are members, along with their NC Board of Transportation member, of the regional planning organizations’ respective boards and advisory committees.
The STI ranking process also makes an attempt to score different projects types against one another, with the goal of funding the best projects. The advisory workgroup felt that the data were not ready to compare unlike projects, and a workaround solution was agreed upon for the current round of project prioritization. This method looked at past funding levels for all highway and non-highway projects, and applied a floor of 2% of funds to be used for non-highway projects. These included aviation, ferry, bike, pedestrian, rail, and transit projects.
The STI forbade state funds to be used for bike and ped projects, so any funding used there will be 80% federal and 20% local government. Transit and aviation funds are often part of a federal allocation formula, and will come regardless of prioritization. These issues continue to make comparing highway and non-highway projects a challenge.
The workgroup begins working on the next iteration of prioritization in late September. As we learn which projects advanced or lagged, and see how they were distributed around the state the workgroup will try and make the methodology better. If you have an interest, be sure to communicate with your local NCDOT Division Engineer and your regional planning organizations (http://www.ncampo.org for metropolitan and http://www.ncarpo.org/ for rural planning organizations.