Planning with purpose
By Herb Thomson, MaineDOT Diretor of Planning
At a time of increasingly scarce financial resources, we need to assure the public, our customers, that we are directing those resources appropriately to meet current and future needs. This is the basic purpose of transportation planning. Yet transportation planning – let’s just call it “planning” – has multiple dimensions. For us at MaineDOT, sound planning is critical if we hope to fulfill our mission:
To responsibly provide our customers the safest and most reliable transportation system possible, given available resources.
For one thing, good planning is essential because of the enormous and growing cost of building and maintaining transportation systems. Poorly planned transportation systems and actions can lead to lost productivity, lower property values and degradation in quality of life. By contrast, good planning can lead to jobs and economic prosperity, greater safety and cleaner, stronger communities. Planning involves an array of activities, the most important of which are:
- determining the genuine transportation needs or problems we are trying to solve;
- collecting, organizing and maintaining data on the transportation system so that it can be used to prioritize effectively;
- prioritizing, so transportation agencies can decide how and where to allocate limited resources;
- complying with state and federal regulations;
- communicating with municipalities and other customers about transportation projects and programs;
- providing the public with information about the transportation system;
- providing the public opportunities to share their views and knowledge; and
- protecting the value of taxpayer investment in the transportation system.
Arguably, planning has not always maximized the public interest. A long, drawn-out planning “process” sometimes has resulted in loss of direction, frustration and public apathy for the public. It can be a drain on resources that could otherwise be used on infrastructure. At the same time, process can be worthwhile if it leads to the right decision, efficiently. For example, a “no-build” study recommendation is preferable to a $100 million expenditure for which costs are greater than benefits.
With the current administration and Transportation Commissioner, Dave Bernhardt, and with increasing federal interest in streamlining processes, we have an opportunity to look at planning with a fresh eye. Transportation planning is trending from what people would like the system to be in an ideal world toward a more practical view. Policy-makers are facing monumental financial challenges at all levels of government, and we no longer expect federal “earmarks” to materialize and fund everyone’s dreams for the transportation system. Planners are therefore placing fiscal constraint up front in the process, so ideas that are not financially viable can be ruled out early, saving valuable time and money.
More than ever, planning must be a purposeful activity that ends with recommendations we can accomplish and afford. Planners know that we can’t build or maintain all of the things that citizens might want, so we are better informing them about what they can reasonably expect. We hope to avoid the classic case of a costly, completed transportation study that “sits on the shelf” because its planning process didn’t include a financial plan or a realistic prospect of funding. This can waste study participants’ time and needlessly upset property owners who might be on a discussed, but unfeasible, alignment.
This doesn’t mean we can’t use our imagination and think outside the box. To the contrary, we expect complex, new challenges to arise in the coming years, so we must innovate. For example, as boomers get older and become less mobile, many will be less able to drive. We will need to develop ways to transport people to where they need or want to go. But as we plan for that eventuality, we still will be obliged to constrain our planning according to the resources we expect to have available. Our federal partners at the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration are moving on a parallel track and working to reduce process, to require viable financial plans and to focus on the purposes of the transportation problems we are trying to solve.
The formula for meaningful transportation planning, then, is relatively simple: define the purpose for the transportation need we are trying to address, and devise a feasible plan to address that need within the resources available. “Planning with purpose” is studying what we think we can build, and not studying what we can’t.