Transportation planning, explained

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We’ve talked about what the TPB is and what it does. But one question people ask is how projects develop. Transportation planning is everything that has to happen before the shovel hits the ground.

The TPB exerts an influence

Previously, we explained that one of the TPB’s roles is to provide a regional policy framework for transportation planning in the region. That policy framework helps to guide decision-making. While, the TPB’s regional policies and the federal requirements under which it operates exert an influence, projects usually start at the state and local levels.

Read the first part of the series: Get to know the TPB

The District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia each controls its own funding stream and each has its own system for moving projects forward. Within each state, projects may be pursued for a variety of reasons and may have several different sponsors.

Local jurisdictions and state agencies have comprehensive development plans that include transportation systems. Typically, local and state plans list projects for years before funding is identified to move them towards implementation. At times projects in these plans, or totally new projects are advanced to implementation as a result of emerging economic development opportunities or an initiative lead by the administration at state or local levels. At other times projects are advanced in response to specific issues with stakeholders taking a special interest in them.

The TPB is the forum where these projects, programs, and policies from one jurisdiction are shared with the other regional jurisdictions, discussed for their consistency and compatibility with the region’s transportation vision, goals, and priorities before being added to the region’s transportation plan and program.

How are projects identified?

Projects are usually identified either in local plans, state plans, or regional plans like WMATA’s. Typically, projects are first identified in local government plans. This type of planning is done by county or municipal governments. Local comprehensive plans usually include a transportation element that identifies specific projects that a local government has determined will be needed to accommodate the growth it anticipates over the period of the plan.

States also have ways they identify projects. Each state Department of Transportation (DOT) develops a statewide plan for projects that accomplish a set of goals. These may include projects that are needed to maintain the integrity of the system, enhance safety, or make it easier for people to get around.

There are also regional studies and plans developed by multiple jurisdictions working together. For instance, in northern the Virginia the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority develops a multimodal transportation improvement plan called TransAction. Transit agencies such as WMATA, the Virginia Railway Express, and MARC also develop capital plans and programs. All transportation agencies place a priority on preserving and maintaining the system, and emphasize safety.

Another way needed projects are identified is through corridor or sub-area studies, which look at a specific area or transportation “corridor.” State agencies usually conduct these studies. These sub-area studies are typically undertaken when there are opportunities to make changes to the development in the area or along the corridor or when specific travel related issues have been identified.

The TPB brings them all together

The TPB is the place where all the approved projects are tied together. For Visualize 2045 you can see them in the constrained element of the plan. All projects that receive federal funding must be included in the constrained element.

Learn more about the projects in the constrained element of Visualize 2045.

What about building or implementing projects?

To build or implement a project, its sponsors take numerous actions that can last multiple years. Most projects start with a planning study that first identifies the purpose and need for the project. These studies typically examine alternative options that could meet the purpose of and need for the project, identify the potential impacts that might occur, provide for public input and comment, and result in a documented decision concerning project implementation. If a major project gets past this stage it will move to final project planning phases, which include preliminary engineering, additional and more-detailed environmental analyses, and project design selection.

Preliminary engineering typically examines the numerous construction and operational aspects of the proposed project in relation to the anticipated travel demand. The TPB’s travel demand model provides the basis for all travel demand forecast for major projects. These factors are also considered in more detailed environmental review activities, which are typically carried out in conjunction with preliminary engineering.

Major projects often require larger-scale evaluation of environmental, economic, and social impacts. This type of evaluation includes much greater levels of stakeholder and community outreach and comment. Project sponsors prepare these environmental studies in accordance with state and federal laws, which govern how to prepare these studies.

Once a design in chosen, the projects enters design engineering, which includes developing construction plans, re-evaluating the environmental impacts, and applying for and obtaining any regulatory permits required before construction can move forward. These final activities also include acquiring any right-of-way that may be necessary to complete the project and awarding a construction and construction management contract. Construction can begin once the contract has been awarded and all regulatory approvals and permits have been obtained.

This article was the second in a series about transportation planning in the region.

Read more in the series: Get to know the TPB

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