WSDOT has long been a proponent of research and analysis. From its first pavement conditions survey in 1969 to a Federal earmark in 1983 to build and maintain its own pavement management system (PMS), the agency has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to data collection. By the late 1980s numerous data collection efforts were underway, but there was little correlation between analysis and programming.
The transformation to a unified approach began in 1990, when the Washington State Legislature directed WSDOT to perform a Programming and Prioritization Study (PAPS) to evaluate the agency's programming process from both a technical and a policy perspective. WSDOT worked with two consultants to complete the study. In their January 1992 summary of findings and recommendations, the firms identified six steps for WSDOT to incorporate into its programming process:
And more changes were imminent. The legislature had passed the State's Growth Management Act in 1990, linking State and local transportation policies with land use and environmental quality. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) was enacted in 1991, restructuring the Federal-aid Highway Program and promoting a multi-modal approach. Then, in 1994, the State legislature passed Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 47.05.
This groundbreaking highway legislation, says the December 1995 "Programming Brief Book," replaced "the earlier, highly structured, formulaic process with one that allows more flexibility in the prioritization, justification and selection of projects, while still preserving accountability for decisions on project ranking and selection. Considerable emphasis is placed not only on better information on both project costs and benefits, but also on the need for explicit analyses of tradeoffs in allocating the available funds between the Preservation and the Improvement programs, and between the highway construction and the highway maintenance programs overall."
RCW 47.05 had a profound impact on WSDOT's programming process. Under the legislation, WSDOT had 16 months to inventory its systems for the 1995-97 program. Life-cycle costing - determining the point at which a pavement/corridor has the lowest life-cycle cost - became a vital part of the process, as did performance outcomes and the ability to move dollars around to meet the most pressing needs. "We were a base-level budget prior to 1995," says System Analysis Manager Pat Morin. "Allocations were seen as an entitlement. It was hard to move the dollars around."
Even as the department became more adept at maximizing system performance, a rapidly increasing population, mounting system needs, funding shortages and WSDOT's lack of regular communication with State leaders and residents was leading to additional change. First came the appointment of a 47-member Blue Ribbon Committee on Transportation (BRCT) in 1998. Within 18 months the committee identified a $50 billion project backlog and possible funding scenarios, along with eleven system benchmarks it considered key to the effective management of transportation assets. The situation climaxed two years later, when the legislature requested that WSDOT demonstrate how it was achieving lowest life-cycle costs on transportation infrastructure in order to consider additional funding.
WSDOT had spent years refining its programming and life-cycle costing processes but wasn't communicating this information to the State's leaders and residents. Now the department needed to convey these performance results and demonstrate that it was managing the State's transportation assets judiciously because the department's reputation -and the allocation of State revenue - was at stake. A change in agency leadership in 2001 provided further momentum to enhance performance measurement, transparency and accountability.