City structures for prioritizing transportation projects generally fall into three main categories that we named “Opportunity Driven,” “Plan Driven,” and “Policy Driven,” as diagrammed on the following page. The cities interviewed for this project use creative and evolving methods to prioritize transportation projects. While most cities use parts of all three structures, grouping the approaches into these three categories helped us to best describe the loudest and often most influential forces driving project prioritization.
Interviews with project prioritization teams in other cities also made it clear that project prioritization is both a science and an art and no one model guarantees success. A quantitative system (ranking, scoring, weighting) using existing data sources is valuable for culling down a long list of projects. But getting to a true shortlist requires qualitative review by city staff who consider everything from local politics to neighborhood context to community support when finalizing their department’s project requests.
NACTO found that a strong vision from the top was at the core of every process that successfully supported a city’s efforts to build priority projects. In most cities, this vision is demonstrated through strategic documents that communicate to the public, agency staff, and other city agencies the priorities for the transportation agency. Decisions about projects are most easily made when agency leadership can prioritize broad visions into clear, measurable outputs – e.g., “reduce fatalities to zero,” “increase percent of residents within ¼ mile of transit,” etc. Explicit support and goal-setting from City Council or the Mayor can set a direction for the agency that it can lean on over the course of several years of budget requests.
In Pittsburgh, scheduled and structured conversations between DOMI leadership and the budget office improved transparency about the budget office’s constraints and DOMI’s priorities. Conversations like these, which this year have occurred prior to the budget cycle, and have happened on an ongoing basis, are critical for developing buy-in on the project prioritization process. A structured discussion between both agencies helped to reveal that the budget office supports DOMI’s priorities, but relies on DOMI to provide concrete justification for their requests and accurate budget estimates. In the same vein, both agencies agreed about the value of and need for developing planning documents—something that had previously seemed unlikely.