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SAFETEA-LU 1808: CMAQ Evaluation and Assessment Phase II Final Report

5. Conclusions

Report cover image: a parking lot of trucks, a BIKE sign, a towtruck behind a broken down car, and children getting on a school bus

FHWA-HEP-09-026


Phase II of the CMAQ Evaluation and Assessment Study was conducted in response to SAFETEA-LU requirements. It examined MPO and State DOT practices in seven locations Nationwide to gain a better understanding of the range of approaches that diverse agencies take in planning, programming, and evaluating CMAQ funds. It also sought to find, document, and share effective CMAQ implementation practices used by States and MPOs with other agencies around the country. Specific examples of effective practices were identified and the benefits and challenges of CMAQ implementation at the State and local level were explored. Section 4 highlights individual projects that the interviewed agencies felt were particularly successful at meeting their regions' transportation and CMAQ goals. Section 6 provides a brief overview of each of the seven day-long interviews conducted by the Federal CMAQ Team to prepare this report. Appendix A lists points of contact for each of the site visits to allow readers to contact case study representatives and obtain additional information.

While the CMAQ program is Federally funded, no National standard or set of regulations exists for how a CMAQ program should be structured and operated at the State or MPO level. It is intentionally left to the State or MPO to develop and operate a program that best responds to local and regional needs. Reflecting this, the Federal CMAQ Team found differences in structure and operations at each of the sites visited.

The seven case study locations visited in Phase II were selected based on the results of the Phase I CMAQ Evaluation and Assessment Report. Although they represent a very small sample of the total number of CMAQ programs being implemented across the country, the information gathered during the day-long interviews allowed the Federal CMAQ Team to draw several conclusions about potential effective practices as well as benefits, challenges, and opportunities presented by the CMAQ program nationwide.

Making project solicitation, prioritization, and selection processes more transparent plays an important role in engaging citizens and increasing stakeholder involvement.

An effective and transparent process helps to ensure that the CMAQ program's goals, policies, and procedures are clear and understandable to both the public and to potential project sponsors. In today's Web-based world, many MPOs find it effective and efficient to post the program description and project application online to allow wide and easy access to important program information.

An open and accessible CMAQ process provides citizen groups with a good introduction to the transportation planning process because many CMAQ projects deal with quality-of-life issues that these groups work on. As such, it provides a first step for school districts, community organizations, and private firms to learn about and participate in the metropolitan transportation planning process.

Standardizing processes to evaluate and rank multiple project types can be challenging, especially due to CMAQ's emphasis on nontraditional projects, but it is important for increasing transparency and gaining public confidence.

Proposed projects must estimate air quality benefits to be eligible for Federal CMAQ funding. Measures used to evaluate and rank projects are both quantitative and qualitative in nature.

Quantitative measures, which include a calculation of benefits, costs, and cost-effectiveness, are powerful because they help MPOs to better explain to the public how projects are ranked and funded, reinforcing the transparency of the selection process. In addition, quantitative measures allow MPOs to make decisions that are less subject to political whims and are easier for policy boards to justify. However, the way these measures are calculated and used to inform the project selection process may limit the effectiveness of the overall CMAQ program. Because FHWA guidance requires estimates only of short-term benefits (i.e., in the first year of project implementation), it is not clear that the best projects rise to the top. Estimating the impacts of projects over the long term requires forecast projections about travel activity, participation or usage rates, and other important factors farther into the future. While longer-term estimates may require more effort, they can improve the accuracy of emissions reductions estimates over time. This is an issue that several of the MPOs interviewed struggled with. Some MPOs are moving toward calculating a project's life-cycle costs and benefits in addition to the FHWA-required calculation of estimated benefits in the first year of project implementation. While the calculation of life-cycle benefits requires additional staff work, these MPOs feel it may provide a better overall estimation of a project's future cost-effectiveness. In addition, because of the technical nature of this work, many of the MPOs relied on outside support from either the State DOT or an outside air quality consultant for the development and refinement of the assumptions, equations, and calculations used in determining a project's eligibility and cost-effectiveness.

Qualitative measures normally supplement quantitative measures and allow a State or MPO to give priority to the types of projects that complement the agency's other goals and policies in addition to those pertaining to air quality and congestion. Examples of types of programs given priority include those within an urban development boundary, diesel retrofits, TDM, and bicycle and pedestrian programs.

When projects are subjected to both quantitative and qualitative screening based on clearly defined criteria and using models and assumptions understood by project sponsors, MPOs are better able to produce project rankings that are documented and understood by those interested in the process, thereby increasing public confidence in the transportation planning process overall.

Effective processes for evaluating program impact and ability to adapt in response to evaluations and/or changing conditions are important for continual program improvement.

An effective process for evaluating the CMAQ program's impact includes examining the overall CMAQ program as well as specific projects. MPOs that have the most effective CMAQ programs have adapted and modified their approach to programming CMAQ funds over the past 2 decades. Several of the MPOs discussed the importance of periodically evaluating the program overall to ensure its continued effectiveness in light of shifting regional conditions and evolving policy goals.

Competition for limited CMAQ funds has increased the need to conduct evaluations of specific projects. Several MPOs noted that post-project evaluation of CMAQ projects is being driven by CMAQ project sponsors.

While it is clear that post-project evaluation can help States and MPOs to better understand the costs and benefits of a project, the costs associated with the activity are sometimes perceived to outweigh the benefits. However, the most successful CMAQ programs are those willing to reevaluate their operations and programming and to use that information to restructure and refocus the program moving forward.

State DOTs play an important role in shaping CMAQ program development at the MPO level.

The relationship between the State DOT and each of the MPOs eligible for CMAQ funding within that State is a critical factor in shaping how regional CMAQ programs function. State DOTs influence the process in the following ways:

Some States play an important advisory role on technical capacity issues for MPOs that are struggling to develop effective methods for estimating emissions reductions across nontraditional transportation project proposals. States taking a more hands-on approach in CMAQ by reserving some funding for statewide initiatives have been successful in leveraging CMAQ funds on significant programs across regional boundaries. A number of examples in Section 3 indicate how State involvement can positively impact CMAQ implementation.

CMAQ engages air quality agencies as valuable partners in the transportation planning process.

The CMAQ program requires that State DOTs and MPOs work with State and local air quality agencies to develop and program CMAQ projects that have a positive impact on air quality. Because there is no single National model or standard, the approach and structure of these relationships is determined locally, producing a variety of models for interaction. At the seven site locations in this study, air quality agencies consult with State DOTs and MPOs during the CMAQ process in two major ways:

Section 3 provides insight into the range of positive impacts that CMAQ has had on engaging air quality agencies. Interviewees from the site visits noted that the CMAQ program has played an important role by providing an opportunity for air quality and other environmental agencies to build stronger working relationships with MPOs and State DOTs. Serving on CMAQ committees and/or proposing CMAQ projects has enabled air quality and environmental agencies to engage in the transportation planning process as partners and participants.

CMAQ's data and analysis requirements present both significant challenges and opportunities.

The CMAQ program requires documentation of a project's air quality benefits for funding eligibility. Overall, a number of agencies felt that CMAQ's additional requirements can be seen as positive at a broad level since an analysis should lead to the selection of higher-quality projects. There was a general recognition that meeting the minimum emissions analysis required by FHWA guidance may not produce an accurate estimate of the benefits of projects. However, the agencies noted that it was a challenge to allocate the increased level of staff time required for administering CMAQ to a funding source that represents such a small portion of their overall transportation budgets. Some staff noted that if increased planning funding were included to cover additional administrative, reporting, and evaluation costs, the additional CMAQ evaluation requirements could serve as an excellent model for how all Federal funding categories could be more effectively run. Under this scenario, the best projects will rise to the top due to more rigorous analysis and a clearer delineation of expected benefits.

CMAQ legislation and guidance are translated and applied to meet local transportation and air quality requirements and concerns, resulting in a range of innovative projects.

The projects highlighted in Section 4 of the report bring to life the variety of approaches used to select, program, implement, and evaluate CMAQ projects. The application of Federal CMAQ guidance responds to local conditions and transportation planning processes. As a result, the projects selected and implemented are finely attuned to an area's needs. The elements of effective CMAQ implementation outlined in Section 2, and the benefits, challenges, and opportunities documented in Section 3, are illustrated within the seven project summaries.

Positive impacts go beyond stated program goals.

An important finding of the Phase II study was that there are ancillary benefits derived from the CMAQ program in addition to the air quality and congestion benefit goals of the program. Nationwide, CMAQ funding represented 4.3 percent of FHWA's total authorizations between FYs 2005 and 200921 and at the seven MPOs visited, CMAQ accounted for just 2 to 4 percent of total Federal funds. Yet for a program representing such a small percentage of Federal transportation funding, site interviews suggested that CMAQ has a relatively large impact on broader transportation planning processes in MPO regions. The case studies indicated that CMAQ funds helped agencies to link more effectively to the bigger picture of regional transportation planning by:

Updated: 02/24/2012
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