Statewide Transportation Planning:

Opportunities Exist to Transition to Performance-Based Planning and Federal Oversight

GAO-11-77: Published: Dec 15, 2010. Publicly Released: Dec 15, 2010.

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Through the statewide transportation planning process, states decide how to spend federal transportation funds--almost $46 billion in fiscal year 2009. Draft legislation to reauthorize federal surface transportation legislation would, among other things, revise planning requirements to recognize states' use of rural planning organizations (RPO) and require performance measurement. As requested, GAO examined (1) states' planning activities and RPOs' satisfaction that rural needs are considered, (2) states' planning challenges, (3) the U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) approach to overseeing statewide planning, and (4) states' use of performance measurement and opportunities to make statewide planning more performance based. GAO analyzed planning documents; surveyed departments of transportation in 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., and 569 RPOs; interviewed officials in 6 states; and held an expert panel on performance-based planning.

States conduct a variety of long- and short-range planning activities, and the majority of RPOs surveyed reported being generally satisfied that rural needs are considered. To develop required long-range statewide transportation plans (long-range plans), states conduct research activities, such as inventorying assets and modeling traffic. While the resulting plans generally include some performance elements, such as goals, many plans do not include performance targets. Such targets are not required, but prior GAO work shows that targets are useful tools to indicate progress toward achieving goals. To develop required short-range plans--state transportation improvement programs (STIP)--states assess needs and determine funding allocations. However, in selecting projects, states assigned greater importance to factors such as political and public support than to economic analysis of project benefits and costs. While the majority of surveyed RPOs reported being satisfied that their rural needs were considered, some RPOs reported less satisfaction with their role in allocating funds for rural areas. States commonly cited insufficient or uncertain funding to implement transportation projects among the primary challenges to long- and short-range planning. States also reported that involving the public and addressing transportation data limitations were significant long-range planning challenges. Short-range planning challenges included meeting federal requirements to demonstrate the availability of sufficient project funding and to update the STIP to reflect changes. USDOT has a limited role in the oversight of long-range plans, and pursuant to federal law, its STIP oversight focuses on states' compliance with procedures. Furthermore, USDOT is not required to review long-range plans, states are not required to update them on a schedule, and some states reported infrequent updates. For example, 10 states reported not updating plans since the most recent surface transportation authorization in 2005. Limited USDOT oversight and infrequent updates present risks, including the ineffective use of federal planning funds. For the STIP, USDOT's oversight focuses, as required, on states' compliance with federal planning procedures. Information on whether states achieve outcomes such as reducing congestion is limited. While states are not required to set performance outcomes in planning, most states reported using performance measurement in the areas of safety and asset condition. Several challenges limit broader use of performance measures, including identifying indicators for qualitative measures such as livability and collecting data across transportation modes. Through our expert panel and interviews, we identified several elements that could improve states' use of performance measures, including national goals, federal and state collaboration on developing performance measures, appropriate targets, and revised federal oversight focusing on monitoring states' progress in meeting outcomes. To make statewide planning more performance based, Congress should consider requiring states to update their long-range plans on a prescribed schedule, identifying outcomes for statewide planning and directing USDOT to assess states' progress in achieving them, and requiring USDOT and states to collaboratively develop performance measures. USDOT provided technical comments which we incorporated into the report as appropriate.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider transitioning statewide transportation planning and oversight toward a more performance-based approach. An action to accomplish this transition could include identifying specific transportation outcomes for states to address in statewide transportation planning and charging USDOT with assessing states' progress in achieving these outcomes through its STIP review and approval process.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2010 GAO reported that the transportation planning framework required of states does not provide the federal government with sufficient information to ensure that states' planning activities are contributing to improved transportation outcomes. As a result, the federal government had limited ability to measure the results of its investments in transportation planning. Therefore, GAO recommended that Congress transition statewide transportation planning and oversight toward a more performance-based approach through activities such as identifying specific transportation outcomes for states to address in statewide transportation planning and charging the Department of Transportation with assessing states' progress in achieving these outcomes through its review and approval of state transportation improvement programs. On July 6, 2012, President Obama signed into law P.L. 112-141, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. The Act made the statewide transportation planning framework more performance-based by: (a) establishing national performance goals for federal highway programs in several areas, including the safety and condition of the nation's highways; (b) requiring the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with states and others, to establish performance measures linked to national goals, including measures for injuries and fatalities on public roads and the condition of pavement and bridges on the national highway system; and, (c) requiring states to establish performance targets for those measures and report their progress in achieving performance targets through statewide transportation plans. Finally, the Act required that the Department of Transportation establish criteria to evaluate and report on the effectiveness of each states' planning process in achieving its performance outcomes. GAO's work encouraged the Congress to create a performance-based statewide planning process and hold states more accountable for achieving results through their transportation planning activities. As a result, the federal government will have the information it needs to measure the results of its investment in statewide planning to ensure that states' planning activities are contributing to the achievement of national goals and improved transportation outcomes.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider transitioning statewide transportation planning and oversight toward a more performance-based approach. An action to accomplish this transition could include requiring states to update their long-range statewide transportation plans on a prescribed schedule to ensure the effective use of federal planning funds and to address statewide planning outcomes.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: On July 6, 2012, President Obama signed MAP-21 (P.L. 112-141) into law. Although the Act made significant, performance-based revisions to the statewide transportation planning requirements, it did not require that states update their long-range statewide transportation plans on a prescribed schedule.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider transitioning statewide transportation planning and oversight toward a more performance-based approach. An action to accomplish this transition could include requiring USDOT and states to collaboratively develop appropriate performance measures to track progress in achieving planned transportation outcomes.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2010 GAO reported that the transportation planning framework required of states does not provide the federal government with sufficient information to ensure that states' planning activities are contributing to improved transportation outcomes. As a result, the federal government had limited ability to measure the results of its investments in transportation planning. Therefore, GAO recommended that Congress transition statewide transportation planning and oversight toward a more performance-based approach through activities such as requiring the Department of Transportation and states to collaboratively develop appropriate performance measures to track progress in achieving planned transportation outcomes. On July 6, 2012, President Obama signed into law P.L. 112-141, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. The Act made the statewide transportation planning framework more performance-based by: (a) establishing national performance goals for federal highway programs in several areas, including goals for the safety, condition, and level of congestion of the nation's highways; and by, (b) requiring the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with states and others, to establish performance measures linked to national goals, including measures for injuries and fatalities on public roads, the condition of pavement and bridges on the national highway system, and traffic congestion, among others. Finally, the Act required states to establish performance targets for those measures and report their progress in achieving planned outcomes through the statewide transportation plans. GAO's work encouraged the Congress to create a performance-based statewide planning process and hold states more accountable for achieving results through their transportation planning activities. As a result, the federal government, states, and local planners will have a common set of performance measures to evaluate and improve upon transportation planning programs so they may result in better transportation investments and outcomes.

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