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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - July/August 2016

Date:
July/August 2016
Issue No:
Vol. 80 No. 1
Publication Number:
FHWA-HRT-16-005
Table of Contents

The Best of The Best

by Craig Casper and Rae Keasler

Here's how a metropolitan planning organization in Colorado didn't settle for “good enough” when developing its award-winning transportation plan.

 

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Juniper Way Loop, shown here, is a high-volume road in Colorado Springs, CO, that passes through high-value habitat and also serves high volumes of nonmotorized travel into Pike National Forest.

 

How do transportation agencies ensure that their decisions are environmentally sensitive, while taking into account many complex factors such as the public, land use, development, safety, and security? The answer is planning.

Transportation planners comprehensively analyze and evaluate the potential impact of transportation plans and programs while addressing the aspirations and concerns of the society they serve. Sometimes they even go above and beyond to create a collaborative, balanced, and financially feasible transportation plan.

That was the case for the Moving Forward Update: 2035 Regional Transportation Plan, developed by the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments in Colorado Springs, CO, and adopted in early 2012. The Pikes Peak Area Council sought input from a wide range of stakeholders and collaborated with them to create a long-range transportation plan with the best-fit solutions. In recognition of its achievement, the project subsequently won the 2015 Transportation Planning Excellence Awards Best of the Best award.

The Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration developed the awards program, and the American Planning Association is a cosponsor. The awards recognize outstanding initiatives across the country that develop, plan, and implement innovative transportation planning practices. The 2015 awards recognized eight winners and applauded eight other projects with honorable mentions. These projects represent a small cross section of the exemplary work being undertaken across the country and can provide signposts to guide the next generation of innovative projects.

“Building a world-class transportation system doesn’t happen overnight, and never by accident,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “These important awards recognize the critical role planning plays in meeting America’s future transportation challenges.”

The nomination cycle for the 2017 awards was June 1–July 1, 2016. Winners will be announced in January 2017 (tentative). To learn more about the program, visit www.planning.dot.gov/tpea/default.asp.

“Good projects are the result of good planning,” said Federal Highway Administrator Gregory Nadeau. “The more we can engage affected communities about their transportation needs and choices, the sooner construction can begin and regional economies can strengthen.”

Creating a Better Plan

For 40 years, the Pikes Peak Area Council has worked to ensure that the 16 cities, counties, and towns in its region have a forum to discuss issues that cross their political boundaries, identify shared opportunities and challenges, and develop collaborative strategies for action. The council prepares the regional transportation plan and the transportation improvement program that determine the investment priorities for the Colorado Springs area.

In 2008, the council’s board of directors adopted the Moving Forward 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. Although it was a solid technical plan, its adoption did not generate any buzz or momentum. In fact, a debriefing of participating agencies and other stakeholders confirmed they had many ideas on how to improve the plan. The most common suggestion was to get more agencies involved in making decisions that affect transportation policies or projects. The second most common suggestion was to make the vocabulary easier to understand. The third was to improve the evaluation criteria to capture all of the benefits.

Later in 2008, transportation staff at the Pikes Peak Area Council collected and presented a list of proposed enhancements to the board of directors, and after a thorough discussion, guaranteed that the 2035 Moving Forward Update would be better. Shortly after, the Pikes Peak Area Council received word that the excellence awards program had selected the 2008 plan for an honorable mention. However, the challenge still remained, and with a mindset that every plan should be better than the one before, the council’s transportation planning team continued to guarantee that the updated plan would be an improvement.

Panic Sets In

The requirements coming from the council’s various stakeholder groups were many and complex. The community advisory committee wanted a comprehensive cross-disciplinary collaboration to improve the lives and economy of the region’s residents now and in the future. The technical advisory committee wanted a process that provided more detail and better information on the tradeoffs among projects. The board of directors emphasized its key priorities: regular communication with the paying customers (the public); improved coordination with agencies whose decisions impact, or are impacted by, transportation decisions; and a more detailed analysis of specific projects that the board might invest in, given increasingly scarce time and resources. The board members also specified that they wanted the regional transportation investments to support “everyone and everything” that affect or are affected by transportation infrastructure and operations.

2015 Transportation Planning
Excellence Award Winners
  • Moving Forward Update 2035 Regional Transportation Plan (Best of the Best)
    • Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, Colorado Springs, CO
  • 4th Street/Prater Way Bus RAPID Transit Project
    • Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County, Reno, NV
  • Bus Stop Accessibility Study
    • Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission, Roanoke, VA
  • Chattanooga-Hamilton County/North Georgia Transportation Planning
  • Organization Community-Sensitive Performance-Based Planning
    • Chattanooga, TN
  • Humanizing Infrastructure: Design for the Replacement of I–95
    • Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, King of Prussia, PA
  • Minnesota’s 20-Year State Highway Investment Plan
    • Minnesota Department of Transportation, St. Paul, MN
  • Mt. Hood Multimodal Transportation Plan
    • Oregon Department of Transportation, Portland, OR
  • Project Connect North Corridor: Taking Transit Where No Transit Has Gone Before!
    • Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Austin, TX

For more information on the winning projects and a list of the honorable mentions,
visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/planning/tpea/2015.

 

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This map shows the region of Colorado covered by the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments.

 

After struggling for months, the transportation planning team members realized they needed help, both in approach and technical capability, to meet all of these expectations and requirements.

SHRP2 to the Rescue

Serendipitously, at the same time, the Transportation Research Board was offering money through the second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP2) to metropolitan planning organizations and departments of transportation to test frameworks “designed to provide agencies and practitioners with guidance on reaching collaborative decisions as they work through the traditional transportation planning, programming, and permitting processes.”

With the deadline for SHRP2 grants rapidly approaching, the team devoted much of its resources to the application for funding. In the end, the team’s work paid off. The Pikes Peak Area Council received a generous grant to apply the Transportation for Communities--Advancing Projects through Partnerships (now called PlanWorks: Better Planning. Better Projects.) principles during the development of the 2035 Moving Forward Update. PlanWorks supports the successful acceleration of plan development to address the NationalEnvironmental Policy Act (NEPA) and integrates social, economic, and ecological factors into an analysis that is useful to decisionmakers.

A key aspect of the team’s approach was to harmonize the suggestions for improving the process from stakeholders with the desires of FHWA in connecting long-range planning to NEPA. The purpose behind this approach, known as Eco-Logical, is to streamline environmental review processes by encouraging broad partnerships and integrating planning among local, State, and Federal agencies.

Successfully accelerating the development of projects in a connected process that addresses the requirements of NEPA means integrating social, economic, and ecological factors into the long-range plan analysis in a way that provides useful information to decisionmakers. To make sure the information was useful for NEPA, the team had to employ and document a performance-based planning framework that considered all of these factors and involved State and Federal resource and regulatory agencies throughout the process. This planning, in turn, required developing approaches and tools to analyze transportation investments and improve coordination and communication among experts from multiple disciplines, such as transportation, conservation, and land-use planning. This was all necessary at a level of detail appropriate to long-range planning, not project-specific NEPA. It was process nirvana.

Public Outreach

The Pikes Peak Area Council’s transportation planning team is committed to ensuring that the public has a meaningful voice in shaping the transportation system. A foundational principle of the council’s approach to outreach is to prevent those who talk loudest, most often, or most articulately from having a disproportionate influence.

The planning team’s approach to public involvement for the updated plan was comprehensive. Using focus groups, statistically valid surveys employing random digit dialing, open houses, and Web questionnaires, the council encouraged citizens to become involved at every stage of the development process.

“From a purely transportation point of view, the team succeeded in soliciting input from the public as evidenced by the sheer number of comments,” says Robert MacDonald, executive director of the Pikes Peak Area Council. “In fact, several of our transportation planners thought the plan put too much emphasis on nontransportation issues because of the overwhelming feedback received from the public.”

 

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Kris Hoellen (in the striped dress), senior vice president for sustainable programs with the Conservation Fund, answers some questions during a workshop to develop a framework for regional green infrastructure.

 

Reaching Further

In addition to outreach, the council crafted formal requests for participation from agencies that had not traditionally participated in the transportation planning process. In the end, the enhanced technical advisory committee included active participation from local agencies, plus representation from the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, Colorado Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado Springs Housing Authority, Colorado’s State historic preservation office, Council of Neighbors and Organizations, the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corporation (now the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance), El Paso County Community Services Department, El Paso County Economic Development Division and El Paso County Public Health, Trails and Open Space Coalition. Federal representatives included the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service.

The technical advisory committee participated throughout the process, from the development of goals and performance measures to the development and analysis of individual projects and a portfolio of projects that qualified within the council’s fiscal constraints. The key to continuous participation from these agencies was an interactive process that engaged them in a way that respected their time and budgets, and was consistent with each participant’s preferred communication style. This approach often meant video conferencing or driving to their offices.

Realizing that the transportation planning team had a wide variety of viewpoints and missions to accommodate, the members sought training in collaboration from the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution. This agency, under Federal law, helps Federal agencies and other stakeholders address disputes, conflicts, and challenges. The institute provided the Pikes Peak Area Council and its participating agencies 1.5 days of targeted training designed to facilitate collaboration, build a shared understanding of issues, and then find ways to address those issues. The council also contracted with a neutral third-party facilitator to manage all meetings focused on goals, tradeoffs, and outcomes.

 

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This reconstruction project at the junction of I–25 and U.S. 24 in Colorado Springs, CO, was made possible by the collaboration encouraged by the Pikes Peak Area Council's planning process. The project is the second most expensive in the region's history.

 

“We also took care to make sure each stakeholder saw how their input influenced the planning process and to inform them when there were constraints that prevented the selection of what was, from their point of view, the ‘best’ option,” says Jason Wilkinson, policy and communications manager with the Pikes Peak Area Council, during development of this plan. “We did not experience much discontent because stakeholders understood and agreed that the region should select the scenario that yielded the best overall outcome. This process gave most participants a sense of buy in and satisfaction with the final outcomes.”

This is not to say that the process was without issues and challenges. For example, changes in staff and key contacts at other agencies during the 3-year project were not unusual. This proved especially problematic for the council because it needed to maintain organizational buy in for new staff members to continue to participate in something that lay outside their normal job duties. The council also needed to bring the newcomers up to speed on how to collaborate with the least amount of burden on them. The team found that the more robust evaluation of locally desired transportation projects resulted in some local participants dropping out because they did not want those analyses to affect implementation of their projects.

 

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These members of the public receive information about the council's planning process at a farmers market.

 

The principal outcome of incorporating the missions of the participating agencies was the addition of eight nontransportation goals to the nine transportation-related goals in the plan. The new goals and their performance measures addressed topics such as water quality, historic preservation, and habitat protection. During the process of integrating these nontransportation considerations, the transportation planning team found that agencies shared more comprehensive data than typically would be available and suggested new tools to use to aid in the analyses. As a result, the team conducted much more rigorous analyses than anticipated.

Scenario Planning

“Our team consistently emphasizes that the only thing we know for sure about our growth forecast is that it is wrong,” says Ken Prather, senior planner with the Pikes Peak Area Council. “We don’t know how wrong it is, or even in which direction. But to reduce uncertainty and help the decisionmakers, we use some innovative planning software and tools to generate and evaluate urban growth scenarios, transportation projects, and socioeconomic futures based on different land-use concepts.”

 

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Doug Walker (at the podium), president of Placeways, facilitates collaboration at a scenario development workshop of the council's extended technical advisory committee.

 

The transportation planning team set out to develop four base scenarios, but ended up with three. The three scenarios that the council used to score every transportation investment included (1) its formal air quality conformity scenario, developed using FHWA’s Transportation Economic and Land Use Model (TELUM), (2) an infill/cluster scenario that added density to downtown and along transit corridors and changed low-density rural subdivisions into clusters with higher density and mixed use, and (3) a least-damaging environmental scenario that avoided development in areas of high ecological value based on data from resource agencies. The third scenario caused leapfrog development that stakeholders agreed mimicked the sprawl scenario they had envisioned as the fourth scenario.

By providing stakeholders with interactive scenarios, the transportation planning team could test the outcomes of different philosophies. Stakeholders could see who benefitted from each philosophy and at whose expense. This process was helpful in developing the final preferred scenario, following approval of the fiscally constrained project list.

The team developed the final preferred scenario by combining the best parts of the three scenarios to maximize regional benefits. They adjusted land uses to fit the selected transportation projects and maximize community protection, economic growth, environmental protection, congestion reduction, infrastructure condition, and public transportation and bicycle/pedestrian trips. When the team had completed the preferred scenario, most stakeholders felt comfortable with the decision because they understood the tradeoffs among a multitude of suboptimal options.

Performance-Based Planning

The Pikes Peak Area Council completed the 2035 Moving Forward Update before passage of the Federal Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) and its requirement of performance-based planning. However, convincing the council’s decisionmakers and stakeholders to use performance-based planning was not difficult because they understood that transportation investments serve many purposes and have many types of impacts. They wanted to use goals that, while not directly related to transportation, were still valid because they improve the region (for example, protecting wildlife habitats).

During the visioning phase of the plan’s update, the council developed and approved 17 performance-based goals. All goals adhered to the council’s SMART (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-constrained) format.

The transportation planning team also used a formal multicriteria analysis, which allowed for both qualitative and quantitative goals and performance metrics. A key advantage of multicriteria analysis is that it simultaneously documents both individual goal scores for comparison among projects and the combined results of the analyses. This approach is especially useful when the decisionmaking process involves more than a handful of potentially conflicting goals. A subanalysis can highlight conflicts or synergies among projects.

The team used a formal weighting process to establish the relative importance of each goal compared to the others. This weighting process alleviated some concerns among advisory committee members and decisionmakers.

New Tools and Data

Cross-disciplinary collaboration provided the team with new data and tools with which to evaluate the efficacy of potential projects. Data acquisition from a wide variety of participating sources brought both compatibility and security challenges the team had not previously encountered. But working through the data issues resulted in a camaraderie with stakeholders that continued past completion of the plan. Although the team might not have had access to all primary data for security reasons, it developed a level of trust with partners that will lead to constructive collaboration on future projects.

The Pikes Peak Area Council’s team also acquired several no-cost or low-cost tools to add to its regional modeling system. The staff applied most of these tools, but some help from consultant team members was necessary for more difficult software applications. These tools have enabled the team to provide some data-driven outputs to inform discussions and to facilitate more rapid generation of compromise alternatives. The tools themselves might not answer any questions, but they have served and continue to serve as a facilitator of conversation.

The tools include some from Federal agencies, such as the Highway Economic Requirements System--State Version for pavement conditions, the Transportation Economic and Land Use Model for a modeled land-use future, the Nonpoint-Source Pollution and Erosion Comparison Tool for water quality impacts, the Traffic Noise Model for noise impacts, the Motor Vehicle Emission Simulator for air quality analysis, and Hazus-Multi Hazard for flood preparation. The team also used non-Federal tools, such as the no-cost NatureServe Vista® and Marxan software for ecological impact and mitigation needs analysis, respectively. In addition to a travel demand model, the team used some other low-cost tools, including CommunityViz for scenario development and the TREDIS Suite for economic analysis.

“Our team understands how challenging it can be to develop and apply a regional cross-disciplinary modeling system,” says Maureen Paz de Araujo, a senior transportation planner with Wilson & Company, Inc., Engineers & Architects working on the Pikes Peak Area Council transportation team. “Learning even a single new model can be difficult, but we have found that learning a model that another agency uses can bring some goodwill and is worth the effort. I equate it with going to a foreign country and trying to speak to residents in their language. The nontraditional participants appreciate the effort and will make accommodations when providing the expert knowledge needed to establish the parameters within the tool.”

Technical Analyses

Many people probably assume that transportation decisions are based on complete and accurate information. However, the many complex factors involved--the land development process, travel decision dynamics, rapidly changing technologies, a shifting population structure, changing lifestyles between generations, and swiftly changing costs for fuel for motor vehicles--mean that even with a perfect set of forecasting models, uncertainty exists.

Example of a SMART Goal

Goal: Improve, protect, and mitigate impacts on critical habitat and connecting corridors suitable for threatened, endangered, and imperiled species.

Rationale:
Nonurban adapted wildlife species depend on critical habitat and connecting corridors for their survival. Transportation corridors can sever essential linkages between critical habitat areas for threatened, endangered, and imperiled species. Planning for new transportation infrastructure should recognize these habitat linkages and avoid impacting them. Where possible, habitat linkages should be reestablished as part of planned transportation improvements.

Objectives:
  • By 2015:
    --- Establish baseline for comparison.
    --- Maintain habitat and habitat linkages at 2010 levels.
  • By 2025: Maintain habitat and habitat linkages at 2010 levels.
  • By 2035: Maintain habitat and habitat linkages at 2010 levels.
Performance Measure:
  • Acres of connected habitat for threatened, endangered, and imperiled species.

 

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Alison Michael (standing on left), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service liaison to the Colorado Department of Transportation, discusses the work of local entity planners on the green infrastructure process while Pikes Peak Area Council's Chuck Donley looks for another overlay sheet of information.

 

What is important to remember is that decisionmaking during long-range planning differs from decisionmaking during NEPA analysis. Long-range planning describes the projects that are needed to meet the goals of the State or region and analyzes the positive and negative impacts of these projects. NEPA is the legally required analysis of the specific impacts to the area from projects that will be constructed. To make decisions, the Peaks Peak Area Council board of directors needs useful information about the relative impact of one project compared to another. Knowing the exact impacts of each proposed project in long-range planning, even if that were achievable, would not necessarily lead to different or better decisions. However, documenting the information and rationale used during long-range planning enables this effort to be carried into NEPA analysis and speeds up the analytical process.

The same consideration holds true when comparing quantitative analysis to qualitative analysis. Many issues in planning, especially in cross-disciplinary planning, cannot be evaluated quantitatively. Employing qualitative analysis based on human expertise and experience is not a weakness in an evaluation procedure because neither evaluation method prevents intentional or unintentional incorrect results.

Decisionmakers benefit from understanding what the uncertainties are, the likely impacts of the decisions, and the tradeoffs between decisions. To reduce major points of uncertainty in its impact estimation, the council used the scenarios discussed earlier to bookend possible futures.

Analyzing the sensitivity of scoring, if done early in the planning process, can help the public and decisionmakers understand what the scores really mean. For example, the transportation planning team acknowledged that the travel demand model forecasts daily volumes to plus or minus 10 percent. Actual peak hour traffic counts, which are used for many transportation purposes, can vary more than this amount from one day or week to another.

In many situations, effectively communicating and documenting the project scoring process is as important as the decisions themselves. Providing documented linkages between regional transportation decisionmaking is also required to streamline the NEPA process.

The council’s transportation planning team scored each of the 228 projects requested by local entities against 17 criteria three separate times (once for each scenario). Although it was a large undertaking, the team believed that the effort was worth it in the end because the scoring process also helped to inform the public and participants of the performance of projects against each goal. The process revealed that 75 percent of highest scoring projects should be included in the fiscally constrained plan regardless of how and where development occurs in the future. The absolute scores and the order of the projects changed, but the vast majority that came in “above the line” remained the same because future growth exacerbated an existing problem. It did not create many new problems.

Mitigation and Adoption

Arriving at a preferred list of projects was a complex process of collaboration and negotiation informed by the application of the scoring process. After selecting a fiscally constrained list of projects, the region still had gaps in goal achievement. When the transportation planners tried to mitigate one type of impact, they ended up playing a “whack-a-mole” style game with other impacts.

However, this was the time that collaboration with other agencies proved most valuable. For example, during development of a framework for green infrastructure, conservation agencies collaborated with economic development, land development, transportation, and community organizations. The framework supports a green infrastructure approach to conservation that allows natural processes to perform needed activities and also connects among and between habitats and landscapes. The plan serves as a platform for environmental mitigation activities. Although no agency was 100-percent satisfied with the results, most agreed that the selected transportation and mitigation policies and projects were overall the least objectionable set of suboptimal possibilities.

An Ever-Evolving Plan

The board of directors adopted the 2035 Moving Forward Update in early 2012, and the plan subsequently won the Best of the Best award in 2015. But, almost immediately after the plan’s adoption, the organization began thinking about how to improve it.

 

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Dave Menter, transportation planning manager with Mountain Metropolitan Transit, explains transit ridership forecasting to representatives from other participating agencies.

 

A debriefing of participants once again found that they had many ideas on what and how to improve the next long-range transportation plan. The advisory committees thought the plan had too many goals and pointed out some instances of overlap, which has led the team to reduce the goals to 13 for the 2040 plan. The board of directors approved the 2040 plan in November 2015.

The advisory committees also expressed a preference for selecting the best overall portfolio of projects based on performance against the goals (instead of the traditional route of selecting a set of the best individual performing projects as judged against the adopted goals and metrics). Although rigorously analyzing total portfolio performance is common in other fields, it is not common in transportation portfolios. Current practices do not account for synergies or contradictory investments among projects or instances when two or more projects address a single need and all score well, but only one project is needed. Applying more rigorous methods such as the Logic Scoring of Preference and the Technique for Order Preference by Similarity to Ideal Solution may provide increased functionality and better information to decisionmakers on the performance of an entire set of fiscally constrained projects.

The Pikes Peak Area Council developed a transportation plan that reinforces the land-use development plan and created a preferred land-use plan that enhances the feasibility of transit and nonmotorized travel while also reducing congestion.The input of nontraditional agency partners improved the decisionmaking process and helped lead to more confident decisions about where and how to invest the area’s time and resources. And the plan will continue to evolve because council officials acknowledge that there is always room for improvement.


Craig T. Casper AICP CTP, is the regional transportation director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, a position he has held for the past 12 years. He has been an active member of the Transportation Research Board for 22 years. Casper has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and history from Ripon College and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Iowa.

Rae Keasler, AICP, is a transportation specialist with FHWA’s Office of Planning. She has been with FHWA for 6 years. Keasler has a bachelor of arts degree in geography and master of science degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

For more information, contact Craig Casper at 719–471–7080 or ccasper@ppacg.org, or Rae Keasler at 202–366–0329 or rae.keasler@dot.gov.