How Washington State will be picking the right transportation investments for economic vitality

photos from a workshop on economic vitality (Image: WSDOT)

Washington is taking groundbreaking steps few other states have taken to match its transportation investments with statewide policy goals. We helped the state work with stakeholders to answer three key questions: what does economic vitality look like for the state, how does transportation impact the economy, and how do we measure that to guide decisions?

Most states have defined a set of policy goals that their transportation system should help achieve—everything from moving people and goods safely, to supporting the economy, to minimizing harmful environmental impacts. That’s well and good.

But few states take the next logical step and use those goals to help design projects and choose which transportation investments to fund. It’s like setting a goal to eat healthier and then ignoring that goal when it comes time to buy groceries for the week—undoubtedly you’d end up with a cart full of cookies and chips.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) wanted to change that and enlisted Smart Growth America to help the department use its goals to better direct its investments.

Aligning spending with statewide goals

WSDOT has undertaken a groundbreaking effort to create a comprehensive “Practical Solutions Performance Framework”—a wonky name for a guide that will essentially bring the state’s transportation policy goals directly into its decision making at every level, from statewide planning down to roadway design. The new framework will help WSDOT make the right investments, in the right place, at the right time, by determining which transportation problems are most crucial and which potential investments will move the state toward its vision for the future.

“WSDOT is working to make the best use of our limited resources by investing in the priorities residents and businesses really care about,” said Marshall Elizer, Assistant Secretary for Multimodal Development and Delivery. “That takes more than just stating a commitment. It takes work with our stakeholders to understand their priorities and bring those priorities into everything we do in a transparent and consistent way. We are excited to be a leader in tackling that statewide.”

WSDOT is regularly on the forefront of innovative state transportation practices—for example, we recently announced that WSDOT is launching the first ever state department of transportation artist-in-residence program. WSDOT has also long been a national leader in tracking the performance (like state of repair) of the roads, bridges, and transit systems they’re responsible for and sharing that information with the public. This is a common-sense practice that too few other transportation agencies have taken on.

However, as WSDOT knows, simply tracking the performance of what you have built isn’t enough. You need to also ensure you are considering the outcomes you want as a way to influence what is built in the first place.

With the new performance framework, WSDOT will be able to proactively assess how well potential projects are likely to advance the state’s six policy goals: preservation, safety, mobility, environment, stewardship and economic vitality.

Prioritizing the best transportation investments for the economy

Smart Growth America’s work with WSDOT helped develop a way of assessing one of the department’s goals in particular: economic vitality. The result is a report with recommendations for WSDOT’s Economic Vitality Performance Framework, which WSDOT will develop further and begin to use over the coming months.

“Economic vitality” is a challenging concept to define succinctly because it can mean vastly different things from region to region and industry to industry. Even more challenging is measuring and isolating all the ways the state’s transportation network contributes to economic vitality.

Currently, many transportation agencies default to measuring congestion reduction as a proxy for economic impact, which is a heavily flawed approach. In reality, communities must have a significant level of congestion before reducing it can provide any economic benefit. Economically vibrant places also frequently have significant congestion, while many of the least congested places have stagnant economies. And while there are transportation models designed to assess other economic impacts of transportation projects, states can’t feasibly apply them on a system-wide basis across all types of projects and geographies. Washington State’s work in this area is new territory.

To develop a comprehensive way to measure economic vitality, WSDOT and Smart Growth America asked stakeholders in different regions to define what economic vitality meant to them in the first place and what role the transportation system should play in supporting state and local economies. There were three main outcomes that stakeholders associated with economic vitality:

  1. Mobility (simply being able to get from A to B safely and efficiently)
  2. Business growth and diversity
  3. Quality of life

“In all of the regions, we heard about the importance of creating high quality places through transportation in order to stay competitive,” said Roger Millar, Secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation. “Our stakeholders told us that economic vitality isn’t just about supporting business growth and providing reliable freight access to get goods to market; it’s also about creating a high quality of life and improving community health.”

Importantly, stakeholders also emphasized the importance of making sure the state’s transportation investments help the economy grow equitably. They argued that transportation investments should help preserve community affordability and give areas facing disinvestment a boost that will actually benefit the existing residence, not leave them behind.

Simply measuring congestion captures none of those economic impacts.

Our report recommends better ways to measure how well WSDOT’s investments will contribute to the three economic outcomes identified in their outreach: like measuring how readily people can access jobs and services, how well investments will encourage biking and walking in areas with health disparities, whether investments support growth in existing community centers, and whether residents can afford the costs of housing and transportation in their area.

As WSDOT brings these considerations into their investment decisions with their new Practical Solutions Performance Framework, other states should look to Washington as a model for how to actually invest in projects that will help you achieve your goals.

Download recommendations for WSDOT’s Economic Vitality Performance Framework.

Transportation Uncategorized