Project Selection Criteria: Public Hearing Testimony

July 29, 2014

The following was submitted to the state Project Selection Advisory Council at their 7/29/14 public hearing in Boston.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this incredibly important topic. And thank you for all the work that you have already done on this incredibly complicated issue. My name is Steven E. Miller; I’m a senior staff at the Harvard School of Public Health and a member of the state’s Healthy Transportation Compact Advisory Committee. I’m also a founding Board member of LivableStreets Alliance which, as I’m sure you know, is a member of the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition.   My testimony reflects all those identities.

My testimony will address three issues. First, the framing within which we need to address the entire topic of Project Selection Criteria. Second, the specific issue of Regional Equity, which I know has been a vexing theme in your deliberations, along with a quick comment about what projects should be subject to the evaluation process you are beginning to shape. And finally, some thoughts about how to make the criteria categories you are currently using more effective and powerful.

FRAMING

So first, despite all the work you’ve already done, I ask you to step back for a moment. Because what we are ultimately dealing with here is not transportation, not roads and rails and paths, not cars and trains and bikes. Ultimately, the issue is the kinds of communities we want our state to foster, the kinds of neighborhoods we want to live in, the kinds of lives we want (and we want our children) to live.

I stay in touch with a lot of large-scale, participatory, community visioning processes and no matter what part of the country they happen in, no matter what particular methodology they use, they universally end up very similar to what Somerville ended up proclaiming through its terrific SomerVision effort: they want to be “An Exceptional Place to Live, Work, Play, and Raise a Family.”   And when they translate this high-minded phrase into transportation terms, they say they want more transit, more walkability, and more bikeability. In almost no Community Values and Vision process that I know of do people end up saying they want more highways and cars – even if they live in a place that is totally car dependent!

These values, repeatedly expressed in grass-roots efforts, are (despite our national cynicism about government), also deeply embedded within our state’s legislatively and administratively adopted public policies.   So my first point is that project selection criteria in transportation should be based how much a project moves us towards or away from key state policy goals. Which goals? That’s a political issue, but I would suggest that the key ones are:

Environmental Improvement and Protection

– Prioritizing projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water & air pollution, and noise.

Health Assurance and Promotion

— Prioritizing projects that facilitate everyday physical activity (walking and bicycling) and social interaction (the likelihood of meeting and connecting with others)

Travel Safety For Vulnerable Groups

— Prioritizing projects that increase the likelihood that the most vulnerable — seniors, students, walkers, cyclists—can move around safely; with the understanding that these are all people who are less likely to be using a car.

Facilitating Desired Land Use

— Prioritizing projects that promote land uses described in the State’s “Common Vision for Growth” – meaning Transit Oriented Development, Smart Growth, Open Space Conservation, etc. – as well as (particularly in urban areas) improves neighborhood connectivity and livability.

Supporting Economic Development

— Prioritizing projects that provide long-term job growth and housing, particularly in areas and for populations currently suffering from the lack of both.

Increasing Equity

— Prioritizing projects in urban and rural areas lacking in, or conversely over-burdened by transportation infrastructure.

EQUITY

Second point. I know that the Council has struggled with the issue of Regional Equity.   It’s complicated and important, especially given our geographically-based political system; although I would point out that income-based transportation equity is probably even more important for our state’s long-term prosperity and well-being.

Still, as some of you heard me mentioned at the T4Mass event last week, I think that it’s impossible to come up with a one-size fits all regions formula.   Yes, I think you need to start with a set of basic values and policy goals – specifically the ones I previously mentioned. But then I think you need to divide the state into at least 4 area types, maybe more. The minimal four would include urban, suburban, residential exurban, and rural. A formula for dividing the available state and federal funds among those areas would include several weighting factors: most powerfully by population, then by the area type’s average home-to-workplace travel distance, and then by some measure of infrastructure condition, and finally any other factors that an open discussion among stakeholders might develop. Finally, within each area type, it may be helpful to discuss the types of project elements that are both appropriate to the area and most likely to move us towards our policy goals. For example, increasing walkability will require different approaches in a rural area than in an urban one.

And, while I know that this is even more controversial, I would suggest that every project that has not yet had its construction contracts signed be subject to review according to the new project selection criteria. However, to soften the impact, I would suggest that while old projects may need to be redesigned to meet today’s needs and priorities, there be some “bonus” or “compensatory” points given to those that have been in the queue for a long time.

Finally, as we all learned at the T4Mass event, the vast majority of our transportation money goes not into new investments or expansion but into operation and maintenance of our existing infrastructure and equipment. This prompts a couple of thoughts. (A) While new money is relatively small, it is the tail that wags the dog. What we do for the future will affect how we deal with the past. (B) Until we get over our current short-sighted refusal to fully fund our transportation needs we probably won’t have enough to fully maintain our existing infrastructure; therefore, with the understanding that your legislative mandate is about new investment, you should still include a recommendation that the same set of policy-goal-oriented priorities should be used to prioritize and shape maintenance and repair work. (C) The most expensive part of both our new investment and O&M budgets go to roads and rail; we need to remember that we can get a lot more bang for our buck investing in new pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure than in any repair or new road and rail work.

GETTING SPECIFIC

Finally, if the Council decides to continue using its current categories it would be good to at least suggest some specific examples of what should be included.

For example, under Safety and Security it might be useful to go beyond a simple requirement that all roads follow “complete streets” guidelines, which can be interpreted to mean the minimum possible accommodations for non-car movement:

  • What percentage of residential and commercial roads in the project will have their design speed reduced to 20 mph, in order to reduce the likelihood and severity of car accidents?
  • What percentage of roads within the project area will end up with bicycle accommodations that provide “low traffic stress” for cyclists?
  • What percentage of intersections in the project area will be optimized for pedestrian crossing via street markings, signal timing, and a regular series of follow-up adjustments?

The Mobility and Access category might go beyond a simple reduction in travel time to include:

  • How much will the project increase the number of home-to-job connections for those who live and/or work in the project area traveling by bicycle, transit, and foot?
  • How much will the project increase non-car access to medical, educational, social service, recreational, and cultural provider locations?
  • How much will the project add to the area’s mileage of non-interrupted low-traffic-stress network?

Under Economic Development, the criteria might ask:

  • To what extent will the project increase the number of current and expected future home-to-job connections?
  • Given estimated future growth of “people trips” into, out of, and within the area containing the project, to what extent will the project prioritize movement other than by Single Occupancy Vehicles?
  • To what extent does the project facilitate Transit-Oriented-Development, including bike share and bike routes as part of the TOD mix?
  • To what extent does the project increase the opportunity for the state to tap into additional sources of economic development or other types of funding?

Quality of Life/Environmental Justice can be left vague, or can be focused with criteria such as:

  • To what extent does the project reconnect neighborhoods previously cut apart by past transportation projects?
  • To what extent does the project improve access to education, training, and jobs for residents in low-income areas?
  • To what extent does the project slow or reduce the amount of traffic, particularly truck traffic, as well as noise and air pollution, in low-income areas, especially those with a relatively high number of children?
  • What will be the impact of a project on the neighborhood fabric and social interactions, on possible changes in surrounding property values and uses and demographics, as well as on the aesthetic shape of the built environment

The Health/Environment category picks up some of the same themes, but applies them more broadly to the entire population:

  • To what extent does the project reduce noise, air, and water pollution?
  • To what extent does the project increase opportunities for active transportation – walking, cycling, and taking transit?
  • To what extent does the project preserve or increase the amount of and access to open space and recreational facilities?

Regional Equity comes not from having the same number of projects in each area or spending the same amount of money in each area, and definitely not from doing the same number of miles of road work in each area. Equity is about people, not geography:

  • Is transportation spending spread proportionately according to the population in the Greater Boston, state-wide Urban, and rural areas?

Finally, System Preservation needs to include pedestrian and bicycle facilities as well as roads.

  • How many miles of complete bicycle and pedestrian network will the project directly construct or indirectly create by filling in “missing links” in existing potential networks?

Thank you again for the opportunity to address you.

 
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