Perspectives



A New Beginning for Surface Transportation Performance Measures

MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act) represents one of the landmark enactments in the history of surface transportation programs that date back to the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. It is in the tradition of ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991), which shifted the emphasis from a highway program to a surface transportation program. MAP-21 is most notable not so much for funding—just two short years at current levels—but rather for major changes to policy.

In this issue of EFR, our colleague Mort Downey focuses on some of those major policies with an emphasis on the funding issues (Back to the Future: Transportation Funding Revisited). This article is meant to complement his discussion and focuses on a key change that will have major implications for transportation decisions well beyond the life of MAP-21.

The legislation requires the creation of rigorous performance measures that will serve to closely align decisions on projects and programs with prioritized needs. The key to the success or lack of success for this policy will be the collaboration necessary among the federal government, the states that deliver these programs, and the local agencies that are key partners in this endeavor.

What is Required by MAP-21?

Highway Performance Criteria and Requirements

The legislation establishes national goals and performance criteria that will be used to determine whether these goals are achieved. These goals include the development of a National Highway Performance Program; a requirement for a performance-driven plan; a metropolitan transportation planning process; a performance-based approach; a statewide transportation planning process; and the implementation of safety program goals.

To ensure action is taken to implement performance requirements, within 18 months of enactment, the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with states, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and other stakeholders, is directed to publish a rulemaking establishing:

  • minimum standards for states to use in developing and operating bridge and pavement management systems;

  • performance measures for Interstate and National Highway System (NHS) pavement condition, NHS bridge condition, and Interstate and NHS operations;

  • minimum conditions for Interstate pavements, which may vary geographically; and

  • data elements necessary to collect the required information to judge outcomes.


To ensure action, states are required to establish targets for these measures within one year of the final rule on national performance measures. States will report to the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) on progress in achieving targets within four years of enactment and then every two years, and MPOs will report to USDOT on progress in their metropolitan transportation plans (four- or five-year frequency). If a state does not meet or make significant progress toward targets for two consecutive reporting periods, the state must document in its next report the actions it will take to achieve the targets. This clearly establishes a long-term process extending well beyond the life of MAP-21.

Until a state has an approved asset management plan and has established performance targets, but no later than 18 months after the Secretary of Transportation has promulgated the performance measures rulemaking, the Secretary will approve obligations of funds in that state for the National Highway Performance Program (NHPP) that otherwise meet the NHPP eligibility criteria. This transition period may be extended if the Secretary determines that the state has made a good faith effort to establish an asset management plan and performance targets.

For purposes of carrying out the National Highway Performance Program, the USDOT, in consultation with the states, will establish measures for use in assessing1 pavement conditions, bridge conditions, and performance of the Interstate and the NHS systems. In addition, USDOT shall establish measures for states to use to assess the number of serious injuries and fatalities (both raw numbers and on a per-vehicle-miles-traveled basis) and the measures used to assess safety on all public roads.

Transit Performance Measures and Criteria

For transit agencies that receive federal funding, USDOT will establish state-of-good-repair (SGR) standards for measuring the condition of its capital assets, including equipment, rolling stock, infrastructure, and facilities. USDOT is required to establish measures based on SGR standards within one year by a rulemaking (regulatory) process.

What one can see in MAP-21 is that a significant set of goals for physical infrastructure, as well as safety and transit programs, have been incorporated into the federal Surface Transportation Program. This will require major work to produce and track performance measures in order to meet the criteria required by law. What are the steps necessary to not only meet the requirements of the law but also to meet the test of ensuring performance measures that will best address the nation’s needs?

In order to address the promise of MAP-21, it will be necessary for a successful collaboration among all levels of government to produce a meaningful and performance-driven result. The federal government is charged with establishing the measures that will be used to judge the success or failure of these requirements. However, the federal government is primarily a funder and regulator of national standards, not an implementer of the activities being evaluated against those standards. That clearly is the role of state and local agencies who must deliver the products and account for the results. Success will require partnership and collaboration among all the parties, not just a top-down approach. How that is done will dictate the success or failure of this important effort.

There are several essential steps to achieve success in this effort. The first step is collaboration. All partners must be part of the standards-development process, including the specifics of how data collection is to be accomplished, how determinations will be made on compliance with the measurement criteria, and what actions will be taken to correct the course as implementation advances.

The step within steps is the recognition that strict criteria that fail to take into account the varying levels of resources and readiness at the implementation levels (e.g. state, local government, and transit agencies) will likely lead to disputes and to the questioning of the standards and the competence of the process.

In order to succeed, all parties that are part of the development process must believe that proper consideration has been given to the specifics of their individual conditions which may affect the outcomes. At the end of the day there must be a system for program evaluation that is judged to be effective and creditable in matching the outcomes with the goals.

The path forward to reach successful outcomes includes the recognition that a set of considerations must be met to achieve a successful long-term collaboration. States and transit agencies have long been in the business of measuring performance, so the process needs to recognize their experience as well as taking into account the varying physical and institutional conditions of the agencies. In other words, the development of performance plans and measurements must be a bottom-up process, not a top-down imposed plan.

To achieve that end, USDOT and its partners must engage in open dialogue and with a healthy dose of reality as to what is feasible to achieve over the next several years. If that process is undertaken, then performance measures will have real meaning and, most importantly, enhance creditability with the Congress and the public.

Freight Programs

One of the key additives in MAP-21 is the requirement for states and the USDOT to develop national and state freight plans. The requirements include the creation of a national freight strategic plan; the formation of reports for infrastructure investment needs and freight and non-freight conditions and performance; and the development of projects of national and regional significance.

A key change in MAP-21 is the development of requirements for national freight plans and programs. It requires USDOT to establish a national freight network to assist states in strategically directing resources toward improved movement of freight on highways. The national freight network will consist of three components:

  • a primary freight network (PFN), as designated by the Secretary of Transportation;

  • any portion of the Interstate system not designated as part of the PFN; and

  • critical rural freight corridors.

Within three years MAP-21’s enactment, USDOT must develop a national freight strategic plan in consultation with states and other stakeholders, and update the plan every five years. The plan must assess the condition and performance of the national freight network; identify highway bottlenecks that cause significant freight congestion; forecast freight volumes; identify major trade gateways and national freight corridors; assess barriers to improved freight transportation performance; identify routes providing access to energy areas; identify best practices for improving the performance of the national freight network and for mitigating the impacts of freight movement on communities; and provide a process for addressing multistate projects and strategies to improve freight intermodal connectivity.

USDOT is also required to prepare a biennial freight conditions and performance report describing the condition and performance of the national freight network. While the freight program virtually starts from scratch, it represents the first comprehensive effort to compile freight data and to develop plans, and ultimately performance standards, for the freight network.

Conclusion

MAP-21 is a far-reaching policy act, and the manner in which the performance requirements are implemented will have major implications for the application of priorities in the surface transportation programs. If implemented effectively, the increased focus on measuring performance could be a vehicle to make the case for the increased financial resources that have been so clearly identified by so many creditable sources.

 

Notes:

  1. The MAP-21 law provides specifically for funding in the NHPP to be set aside to address Interstate pavement conditions and extends that requirement to funds transferred to the NHPP from other categories (e.g. the Surface Transportation Program to address pavement conditions). Thus, the NHS program excludes the Interstate system pavement since it is covered in the Interstate system pavement requirements.

 

Image Header Source: Don Hankins (Creative Commons)