Transportation overhaul: New scoring system for project funding nearly set

The Commonwealth Transportation Board is slated to vote Wednesday on the key details of a new scoring system that will be used to decide what new road projects get funding around the state.

The board is expected to weight various scoring categories in the formula, which will be used to judge all future projects. Projects expected to reduce congestion will score high in Hampton Roads, particularly if a change that the Virginia Department of Transportation has suggested wins board approval.

When the scoring criteria were rolled out in March, the plan was to figure 35 percent of a project’s score in Hampton Roads based on congestion mitigation. The new recommendation is 45 percent.

Board members said they’re not sure whether the change has the votes to pass Wednesday, and two said they’d prefer a compromise of 40 percent. That, they said, would allow increases to at least one other category that they believe has a longer-term effect on congestion relief than the congestion mitigation category itself.

The basics of the new scoring system were laid out last year in House Bill 2, which called for an overhaul of the state’s road-funding process. Supporters on both sides of the aisle, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, said they wanted to replace an often political process with something more objective and transparent.

Projects will be scored, those scores will be posted online, and if the Commonwealth Transportation Board deviates from those scores when it picks projects, people will notice, supporters said.

There are six scoring categories: Congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety, environmental quality and land use. VDOT was tasked with deciding how much to weight each category.

Weightings will differ around the state. In rural areas, safety improvement projects will score better. In Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, congestion mitigation will reign supreme.

But environmental and smart growth advocates said Tuesday that just because a project scores well on mitigation, as opposed to accessibility and land use, doesn’t mean it will have the biggest long-term effect on traffic. Adding lanes addresses issues in the short term, but can discourage people from car pooling, taking mass transit and scheduling travel at off-peak times, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Accessibility scores, on the other hand, judge how much a project helps people get to and from work, and it includes a transit component. Land use is based on how transportation projects support efficient development.

Accessibility shrunk in importance by 15 percentage points to increase congestion mitigation’s effect in Hampton Roads, and to up land use’s by 5 points. Marty Williams, a former Newport News city councilman and Peninsula state senator who sits now on the state transportation board, said he’d like to see accessibility bumped back up about 5 points before the formula is finalized.

Both Williams and John Malbon, who represents Hampton Roads on the CTB, said they’d be comfortable with congestion mitigation at 40 percent. They noted that the old system – the one in place before House Bill 2 – probably put congestion mitigation at about 80 percent, though projects weren’t formally scored that way.

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said Tuesday that there was some push, from legislators and others, to crank congestion mitigation up as high as 70 percent. Local officials were more likely to prefer the 35 percent VDOT originally suggested, he said.

“I don’t think anybody is really happy with it (at 45 percent),” Layne said. “Which probably means we pushed it about as far as we could.”

Camelia Ravanbakht, who, as interim executive director of the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, is heavily involved in suggesting projects for funding, said she was surprised Tuesday to hear about the increase proposal. Her group didn’t request the change, and she said it’s too early to know how it would affect specific projects planned in the region.

“I wish I did (know),” she said. “It’s very project-specific. You cannot really generalize it.”

Nick Donohue, the deputy transportation secretary who spearheaded the lengthy process that led to these weighting formula recommendations, told board members Tuesday that there will be some trial and error in the coming years. The state will probably want to tweak the formula “at least every few rounds.”

Local officials will submit projects for funding, but the project-by-project scoring will be done by the state. Donohue said that process hasn’t been set, but will be in the coming months. It’s possible that multiple teams will score projects so that at least some of the projects scored in each round are reviewed by separate teams, he said.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

Read the original article here.