Proposed Transportation Evaluation Criteria Released

November 19, 2003

Boston – A report released today makes recommendations for improving the process the State uses to prioritize transportation capital spending.  By setting out a framework that relates policy objectives to investment decisions, the report, Transportation Capital Programming in Massachusetts, provides a starting point towards the development of a more transparent statewide and regional planning processes.

The report recommends an improved approach to project prioritization, incorporating the following practices: spending limited resources on the most cost-effective projects; selecting projects that help promote a consistent set of state policies, goals and objectives; maintaining an appropriate balance among system preservation, enhancement, and expansion projects, across modes and across geographic areas of the state; using objective criteria for review by the public, policy makers and the legislature; and utilizing the transparency of this process to generate trust and support for critical investments.

The report was released at an Understanding Boston event today at the Boston Foundation, with remarks by Douglas L. Foy, Secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office for Commonwealth Development, followed by a panel discussion led by Daniel A. Grabauskas, Secretary of Transportation of the Commonwealth.  Panelists included Timothy W. Brennan, Executive Director, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission; Richard Dimino, President & CEO, Artery Business Committee; and Marc Draisen, Executive Director, Metropolitan Area Planning Council.  The report will be the focus of regional meetings held across the state during the months ahead to discuss the proposed transportation evaluation criteria.

“The Governor and I are committed to seeing that state transportation decision-making is intelligent, clear and realistic,” said Secretary Foy.  “The Boston Foundation work provides a valuable basis for the criteria we will use in our on-going work with the transportation community.”

The policy changes recommended in this report are seen to be especially crucial now, when the Central Artery/Tunnel project is nearing completion.  “During the Central Artery/Tunnel era, the approach to setting other priorities for transportation investment in Massachusetts has been fragmented and reactive, with each key agency developing priorities somewhat in isolation,” said Marc Cutler, Senior Vice President of Cambridge Systematics, the national management and planning consulting company that prepared the report.  “This study is intended to be a starting point to provide guidance to the State in moving toward a more systematic project selection process.”

The need for developing an explicit, policy-driven, performance-based framework and criteria for guiding transportation decisions was the basis for the Boston Foundation’s support for the study.  “During times of economic constraint, informed decision-making is crucial.  We commissioned this study to provide the basis for dialogue among transportation advocates and state, regional, and city leaders as they work together to make crucial investment decisions,” said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of The Boston Foundation.  The report was prepared for the Boston Foundation by Cambridge Systematics, Inc., in coordination with the Office for Commonwealth Development and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation and Construction.

“We will ensure that our valuable transportation dollars are spent in the most efficient and effective manner possible,” said Secretary of Transportation Grabauskas.   “I look forward to frank and constructive conversations as we develop our priorities.”  The study focused on the two agencies that account for the majority of transportation spending in the State – the Massachusetts Highway Department (MassHighway) and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

The report suggests that, because fiscal constraints leave little margin for error, the decisions made today are likely to set the State’s transportation agenda for the next decade.

While acknowledging that politics can – and should – play a role in such processes, since it is, after all, the taxpayers’ money, the report suggests that objective processes and criteria can help inform the political process and establish priorities for the use of scarce resources.  To this end, in the last two years state and regional agencies have already started to make significant progress.  The MBTA has developed and applied objective criteria for selecting projects to go into its long-range Program for Mass Transportation, in the process reducing the project pipeline by some 75 percent.  The MassHighway is currently working on a similar set of criteria to apply to highway projects.  The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) – the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Boston region – has developed similar criteria.  This study is attempting to move these processes forward with its recommendations.

The major recommendations of the study are as follows:

  • Policy objectives should drive prioritization processes and criteria.  The Administration has defined its transportation priorities as follows.  Many of these criteria relate to the Administration’s focus on using transportation to promote environmentally sustainable economic development strategies:
    • Preserving, modernizing and optimizing the existing system;
    • Making efficient and effective system enhancement and expansion choices;
    • Concentrating development in infrastructure-rich, walkable areas;
    • Expanding housing opportunities where infrastructure and development opportunity coincide;
    • Improving mobility through modal choice and good safety and service; and
    • Minimizing adverse environmental impacts on the transportation system.   
  • Program structure should reflect three basic categories of projects across agencies and modes:
    • Preservation;
    • Enhancements (i.e., “improvements”) to the existing system; and
    • System expansion.
  • Prioritization criteria should:
    • Reflect the most important transportation objectives;
    • Minimize additional data requirements where possible;
    • Consider threshold transportation criteria with supplemental criteria addressing non-transportation policy objectives;
    • Distinguish prioritization criteria (few, very focused) from categories of impacts (can be many);
    • Apply criteria to all project phases, including design; and
    • Apply criteria to all stages of program development.
  • The project nomination process should reflect the following:
    • Process should be formal, documented and transparent;
    • Project scope, cost and impacts should be documented at project nomination (while complete information will not be available at this stage, project proponents should be able to develop realistic order-or-magnitude estimates before a project advances further);
    • Needed mitigation should be included within project scope and cost;
    • Opportunities to leverage good community design and planning should be built into the criteria selection process;
    • Projects should be vetted earlier by an initial set of reviewers (for example, at the MassHighway, this could be done by District engineers adhering to agency-wide criteria), beginning at nomination;
    • Fiscal constraints should be introduced early in the process;
    • Candidate projects need to be managed throughout the entire length of the pipeline; and
    • Explicit organizational responsibility should be defined, along with procedural guidelines and decision criteria to approve changes to project scope and budget.

The study, which is intended to be a starting point to provide guidance to the State in moving toward a more systematic project selection process, also encourages the following steps:

  • Obtain stakeholder input to the criteria and process for putting them into use;
  • Apply the criteria to specific projects – this can involve complex and lengthy analytical procedures;
  • Expand the process and criteria to possibly permit cross-modal (i.e., highway v. transit, etc.) comparisons; and to consider which modes provide the most public benefit per dollars spent; and
  • Work with other agencies to develop their own criteria setting process to meet state and regional goals.  This includes agencies not under direct state control, such as Regional Planning Agencies, RTAs, the MTA and Massport, as well as Metropolitan Planning Organizations.  While the Administration cannot compel these entities to adopt identical criteria, they can ensure that state officials apply the criteria in a consistent manner in their interactions with other agencies, and encourage other agencies to work with the State in the development of a common approach.

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The Boston Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations, has an endowment of more than $570 million, made grants of  $48 million to nonprofit organizations, and received gifts of $38 million last year. The Boston Foundation is made up of 750 separate charitable funds, which have been established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. The Boston Foundation also serves as a civic leader, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to build community. For more information about the Boston Foundation and its grant making, visit, or call 617-338-1700.

Cambridge Systematics provides management and planning consulting services and information systems to a broad mix of clients including local, state, national, and international agencies, and transportation, logistics and manufacturing companies. Founded in 1972 by four Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors and a transportation consultant, the firm now has offices in Oakland, California, Washington D.C., Chicago, Illinois, and Tallahassee, Florida, as well as in Cambridge.  Cambridge Systematics applies its analytic skills in five specific areas: transportation planning and management,; intelligent transportation systems; commercial vehicle operations; asset management; and travel demand forecasting and market research.