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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 71 · No. 2 > Accountability At a Glance

Sept/Oct 2007
Vol. 71 · No. 2

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-07-006

Accountability At a Glance

by Richard G. Chavez, Allan Kosup, Bart Desai, and Donna Huey

California is harnessing the power of the Internet to provide transparency of management on a $3 billion program of transportation improvements.

This worker is putting the finishing touches on an access ramp for the four-lane 'freeway within a freeway' Interstate 15 in San Diego, CA. The project is part of the TransNet Early Action Program.
This worker is putting the finishing touches on an access ramp for the four-lane "freeway within a freeway" Interstate 15 in San Diego, CA. The project is part of the TransNet Early Action Program.

As with most urban areas in the United States, transportation facilities in San Diego, CA, have struggled to keep pace with ever-growing demand. Traffic congestion continues to worsen in the San Diego metropolitan area as increases in motorized travel exceed the available capacity. This trend is expected to intensify over time.

In 1990, the San Diego region's daily travel demand was 9 million trips involving some form of motorized travel. By 2003, demand had reached 13.5 million daily trips, and by 2030 it is expected to increase to 16 million. These figures are from Mobility 2030, a transportation plan developed by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). The region's planning and transportation agency, SANDAG is responsible for major highway, transit, and other infrastructure projects for 19 local governments.

Recognizing the need to maintain local funding for transportation projects, San Diego voters acted in 2004 to extend TransNet, an existing local sales tax. The tax is used to finance highway, transit, and local road projects that are aimed at reducing traffic congestion in San Diego County.

SANDAG and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), as the trustees of the public's money, have initiated an aggressive effort to design and build several critical highway and transit projects quickly. To update the public regarding these key projects, the agencies developed the TransNet Dashboard, an Internet communications tool that provides real-time online information on such crucial items as project budgets, cost estimates, and schedules.

The Dashboard does more than enable the public to keep tabs on tax dollars. By providing a single platform that SANDAG, Caltrans, and their partners can use to share data, the Dashboard also functions as a sophisticated program management tool.

The TransNet and Early Action Programs

In 1987, voters in San Diego County approved the TransNet Program, a local half-cent sales tax used to fund a variety of transportation projects throughout the county. One of the largest transportation improvement programs in California, TransNet is expected to generate $3.3 billion by 2008 (nominal dollars not adjusted for inflation) and $14 billion (in 2002 dollars) by 2048.

To expedite critical transportation improvements in the county, SANDAG approved in 2005 a $3 billion TransNet-funded Early Action Program. The new program includes 21 highly anticipated highway and transit projects along six major corridors: Interstates 5, 15, and 805; State Routes (S.R.) 52 and 76; and the Midcoast Light Rail Project. All of the projects are scheduled to be completed by 2015.

Key participants in the TransNet Program and Early Action Program include Caltrans, which is a full partner with SANDAG in developing new roadways, widening existing facilities, and providing new transportation infrastructure such as managed high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) toll lanes, reversible lanes, and entry-exit points for bus rapid transit systems. Two providers of transit service in the San Diego area — the Metropolitan Transit System and North County Transit District — also participate in implementing TransNet projects.

Another key organization that is kept apprised of the Early Action Program's status is the Independent Taxpayer Oversight Committee. Mandated by the ordinance extending TransNet, the committee was created to oversee the program's expenditures and ensure that voter mandates are fulfilled. The committee also may make recommendations to improve the program's financial integrity and performance.

Management and Communications

Faced with the scale and scope of the Early Action Program, SANDAG needed an innovative management approach that would enable it to oversee the program's many components while also providing a reliable and efficient method for conveying progress to its many partners and the public. To succeed, SANDAG and its partners needed a system that would provide accountability and promote transparency.

SANDAG "realized the need and the value of program transparency and accountability to all stakeholders," says Jack Boda, SANDAG mobility director. SANDAG accomplished both objectives, he says, "through an innovative, interactive, online reporting tool." The tool, the Dashboard, combines financial information and other project data, and it "allows the public access to transportation progress specifically along routes that they are interested in," Boda notes.

"Asking the public to tax themselves for a specific purpose brings up the obvious question of 'What am I getting for my money?'" says Christine Valle, manager of the Caltrans TransNet Program office. "The Dashboard gives us a method of answering that question on an ongoing basis," Valle says. "In real time the taxpayer and road user can learn the status and cost of the improvements that impact their daily commutes."

Joel Haven, a Caltrans corridor director for the S.R. 52 and I-805 corridors, adds, "The Dashboard was needed to provide open communication about our projects to the Independent Taxpayer Oversight Committee and to the public about what is happening on our corridors." By providing a central location for disseminating this information, the Dashboard provides a "consistent, current message about our corridors," Haven notes.

This map of the San Diego region of California shows the following nine TransNet early action highway and transit projects: (1) S.R. 76 - Widening, (2) S.R. 52 - New Freeway, (3) Mid-Coast and Super Loop Transit, (4) I-15 Managed Lanes and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), (5) S.R. 52 - HOV/Managed Lanes and Widening, (6) I-5 North Coast Corridor - Environmental Effort and HOV Lanes, (7) I-805 Corridor - Environmental Effort & BRT, (8) SPRINTER - Oceanside to Escondido, and (9) Trolley - Vehicle and Station Upgrades (Blue and Orange Lines).
TransNet Early Action Projects

1 S.R. 76 - Widening
2 S.R. 52 - New Freeway
3 Mid-Coast and Super Loop Transit
4 I-15 Managed Lanes and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)
5 S.R. 52 - HOV/Managed Lanes and Widening
6 I-5 North Coast Corridor - Environmental Effort and HOV Lanes
7 I-805 Corridor - Environmental Effort & BRT
8 SPRINTER - Oceanside to Escondido
9 Trolley - Vehicle and Station Upgrades (Blue and Orange Lines)

Communication Complications

With all transportation projects, communication among participants and stakeholders is paramount to ensuring success. However, SANDAG and Caltrans each have their own independent processes, tools, and legacy systems that were designed for internal use. For example, both agencies employ different systems for accounting and project scheduling. Caltrans uses a Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL)-based accounting system that is 30 years old, while SANDAG employs more current accounting software.

Complicating matters further, expenditures related to individual corridors are reported by many agencies and consultants operating under multiple contracts. These expenditures include such items as highway work, bus purchases, and transit station construction. For a corridor director to manage a single corridor's budget, these expenditures must be "married" across agencies.

Before the Dashboard's development, integrating electronic data was especially difficult. The differences complicated attempts by the agencies to share information related to changes in budget and scope throughout a project's duration. As a result, staff sometimes had difficulty explaining why costs or schedules changed significantly from original estimates.

Such difficulties can generate additional complications. For example, the absence of standardized approaches for tracking revenues and expenditures required staff at both agencies to conduct many manual computations as they prepared reports, resulting in inconsistencies. Without a central repository for project information, SANDAG and Caltrans personnel often had to collect, combine, and verify information independently from disparate sources. Meanwhile, the incompatibility of systems used to schedule projects precluded regular, consistent updates of budgets and schedules, occasionally resulting in compromised data quality.

What the Public Sees

To overcome these deficiencies, SANDAG, Caltrans, and the engineering consulting firm PBS&J developed the TransNet Dashboard. As part of this effort, the consultant assessed the TransNet Program, reviewed the current business practices of the two organizations, summarized relevant industry best practices, and made recommendations for improving areas critical to TransNet's success.

The upshot of this process was development of the TransNet Dashboard. Located on the Internet at www.transnettrip.com, the Dashboard offers up-to-date information regarding TransNet corridor projects, project timelines, milestones, budgets, and expenditures.

Divided into three main viewing sections, the Dashboard presents data regarding the overall program, individual corridors, or project segments within each corridor. Within each of these views, users can see a snapshot of a particular project, along with information about its schedule, budget, and cost estimates. For example, the current plan for each project is compared to the baseline plan, and charts and graphs depict such items as the sources of funding and actual cashflows versus budgeted cashflows per project. Additional information may be included regarding any trends, risks, or other issues that TransNet participants wish to note.

Designed to remind users of a car's dashboard and other traffic-related images, the program denotes the status of a project's budget and schedule using gauges and stoplights. The number beside a stoplight indicates the quantity of corridors, segments, or phases whose status is good (green), cautious (yellow), or at risk (red). In this way, users can check the status of the overall Early Action Program, the six major corridors, and the 21 segments that compose the corridors.

Furthermore, each segment is divided into four phases related to project implementation: environmental planning, design engineering, right-of-way acquisition, and construction. Users can learn the status of each phase within a segment. Through the same color-coded approach used with the stoplights, the Dashboard's gauges fluctuate in color depending on the number of corridors, segments, or phases that currently are at each status.

Using an internal site not accessible to the public, transportation managers have access to additional information, including data on cost management that enable staff to evaluate budgets according to projects, segments, project estimates, and alternatives. Complete schedules, cost data, and system inputs also are available. A custom query option enables project managers and others to search for such information as item unit prices and the bids received for a given project. These queries can be conducted according to such variables as bid date, bidder, and quantity.

As one of the TransNet Early Action Program's six major corridors, a segment of I-5 (seen in this aerial photograph) in San Diego is to be augmented with HOV lanes.
As one of the TransNet Early Action Program's six major corridors, a segment of I-5 (seen in this aerial photograph) in San Diego is to be augmented with HOV lanes.

How the Dashboard Works

The Dashboard's core function is to incorporate data from various sources regarding budgets and expenditures, scheduling, and information related to project scope, risk, and cost estimates. SANDAG, Caltrans, and consultants employed by either agency provide the financial data and other information. Because these organizations use accounting systems that differ significantly, all financial data are channeled through and integrated in a "middleware" tool that compiles the data into a single, usable format to populate the Dashboard with meaningful information.

Primavera 5.0, another project management software program, is used for scheduling information in four main categories: logic-based schedules, resource-loaded schedules, earning rules, and earned percent complete.

Individual project teams develop a project's logic-based schedule by determining the activities that the project will require, the duration of those activities, and the ways in which they are interdependent. The resulting baseline schedule forms the basis for tracking and reporting as the project proceeds.

Resources are assigned to various activities in a project's work plan based on the project's budget. A work plan is a tool to identify key activities, allocate resources, and track project performance. Generally provided in hours or dollars, the resources are "earned" as a project progresses. A project's resources then are summarized and attributed to the larger corridor and the total program level.

Earning rules define how budget units can be earned based on progress. For example, such a rule could specify for a design project that a certain percentage of budget units may be earned only when a deliverable is submitted. The rules are designed to ensure that earned values remain objective and consistent throughout multiple projects.

Construction of the I-15 bridge shown in this  Aerial photograph is one project under San Diego's TransNet Early Action Program.
Construction of the I-15 bridge shown in this aerial photograph is one project under San Diego's TransNet Early Action Program.

Finally, earned percent complete comprises the amount of budget units earned based on the work completed to date divided by the total budget units. This figure typically is calculated at the project level each month and then summarized and attributed to the corridor and program levels for reporting purposes.

The Dashboard offers up-to-date information about TransNet corridor projects, project timelines, milestones, budgets, and expenditures, either at the level of the overall program, as shown in this screen shot, or for individual corridors, or project segments within each corridor.
The Dashboard offers up-to-date information about TransNet corridor projects, project timelines, milestones, budgets, and expenditures, either at the level of the overall program, as shown in this screen shot, or for individual corridors, or project segments within each corridor.

Information related to project scope, risk, and cost estimates is derived from various sources and integrated by means of a cost management system before inclusion in the Dashboard. Project managers and corridor directors provide information regarding trends, risks, progress, and other issues. Project cost estimates and changes are entered into the cost management system.

Using the pertinent budgetary and scheduling information, the Dashboard determines the status of the overall Early Action Program, the six corridors, their segments, and the phases of each segment, and assigns each element the appropriate color. Status is accorded based on the two basic elements of budget and schedule.

Essentially, the Dashboard determines a project's budgetary status by evaluating the percentage of the budget that has been expended at a given time versus the percentage of work conducted to that point. If the percentage of the budget expended is less than or within 10 percent of the percentage of work completed, the project's budgetary status is considered good, or green. If the percentage of the budget expended exceeds the percentage of work completed by 10 percent to 20 percent, the project's budgetary status is deemed cautious, or yellow. Finally, a project's budget is considered at risk, or red, if the percentage of the budget expended exceeds the percentage of work completed by more than 20 percent.

The Dashboard conducts a similar process to evaluate a project in terms of schedule. It compares a project's progress at a certain point to the baseline schedule that was developed at the outset and then denotes the current schedule status by employing the same percentages used to determine budget status.

One-Stop Shopping For Information

The Dashboard made its online debut in August 2006. That month, the Web site experienced 20,816 "hits," or pages viewed. In its first 7 months, the site had approximately 127,000 hits, for an average of 18,142 per month.

By providing regular updates on a project's budget and schedule, the Dashboard enables the public, elected officials, other representatives of SANDAG member governments, and the Independent Taxpayer Oversight Committee to track the progress of the overall Early Action Program and its various components. Until now, such information generally was unavailable in a readily accessible fashion. The intended beneficiaries of the transportation improvements — the public — could not easily access information on the status of the projects it is financing. However, the Dashboard enables taxpayers to remain informed about the TransNet Program. "We feel that we are giving the public more confidence in what we are doing," Haven says. "This creates a better, more trusting atmosphere."

Members of the public can use the Dashboard to check the status of such details as the TransNet Early Action Program's budget and cashflows, summarized in graphs in this screen shot.
Members of the public can use the Dashboard to check the status of such details as the TransNet Early Action Program's budget and cashflows, summarized in graphs in this screen shot.

Because of the Internet, the Dashboard likewise simplifies the process by which an interested citizen can learn about the work of SANDAG and Caltrans, Valle says. "This is one more example of how the average person can find out information from a public agency without having to pick up the phone during regular business hours," she says. "The Dashboard extends the 'people resources' at both Caltrans and SANDAG to a 24/7 operation, allowing access to the project and corridor information at the public's convenience."

The needs of the Independent Taxpayer Oversight Committee have been more than met by the Dashboard, according to Maryam Babaki, the committee's chairperson. The committee's responsibilities include reviewing TransNet projects quarterly to assess their performance in terms of cost control and adherence to schedules. Without the Dashboard, Babaki says, it would have been a "daunting task" for committee members — busy professionals themselves — to take the time to sit down with project staff and review the many projects. Instead, "the Dashboard has essentially put all this information at the committee's fingertips," Babaki says. "Members can logon at their own convenience and get easy-to-comprehend information with as much detail as needed, be it at the program or the project level."

As pictured in this screen shot of a bar graph, the Dashboard depicts the status of the overall Early Action Program and its various components by comparing current and baseline schedules.
As pictured in this screen shot of a bar graph, the Dashboard depicts the status of the overall Early Action Program and its various components by comparing current and baseline schedules.

Just as important, the Dashboard provides a centralized location for SANDAG and Caltrans staff and other project participants to access critical information that previously would have taken much longer to locate. People directly involved in the program through SANDAG or Caltrans can bore deeper into the data, viewing information on cashflow, schedules, market trends and related issues, and cost estimates at the level of the overall program, a corridor, or a segment. "The Dashboard has linked complex SANDAG and Caltrans construction, finance, and schedule data," Boda says.

By simplifying and streamlining the process for gathering and displaying information, the Dashboard assists staff at all levels of the participating agencies in tracking the progress of the Early Action Program. The agencies expect to derive other benefits from the Dashboard as well. Staff productivity, for example, is expected to increase as a result of savings in time, improved communication, and superior data used to track the program.

"The Dashboard serves as an early warning allowing management to be more proactive and fix the problem at the earliest possible stage," Boda says. The information available on the system "helps early identification of variances and allows for decisions and team actions to address and correct these variances," Boda says. In this way, he notes, the Dashboard "minimizes surprises."

Like any database, the Dashboard requires proper maintenance of data to ensure its effectiveness. Given the complexity of project funding, complications can arise. Therefore, SANDAG and Caltrans staff members realize the importance of keeping the database as straightforward as possible.

"Caltrans is looking at expanding the Dashboard statewide," Haven says. In particular, the Dashboard's communicative power likely would lend itself well to projects that the State conducts as part of the transportation bond measure passed by California voters in 2006, Haven notes.

This Dashboard screen shot shows a bar graph comparison of current and baseline cost estimates, indicating the percentage variance.
This Dashboard screen shot shows a bar graph comparison of current and baseline cost estimates, indicating the percentage variance.

A powerful tool for communication and program management, the Dashboard is expected to ensure continued public trust in the TransNet Program. "This type of transparent information shared among all stakeholders truly promotes the stewardship of this critical transportation program for the residents of San Diego," Boda says.

The system also may serve other public agencies seeking to convey critical information on transportation projects to the public, while improving communication among project participants and enhancing project oversight. "Public agencies and the elected officials who guide them often lose sight of the 'goal,'" Valle says. "A Dashboard keeps you focused on specific goals, measurements, and your 'customers.' Nothing shows up on the Dashboard that each one of us involved doesn't think, 'How will the public perceive that?' A Dashboard system keeps all connected to the goals, the customers, and the tools necessary to deliver a project."

View alternative text
A powerful communication tool that uses the Internet to provide real-time information on crucial items such as project budgets, cost estimates, and schedules, the TransNet Dashboard also functions as a sophisticated program management tool, as this data flowchart shows.

 

Dashboards in Other States

Some other States and localities also use Dashboards for public accountability and project management:


Richard G. Chavez, P.E., the principal transportation engineer for SANDAG, oversees the TransNet Early Action Program. He holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University.

Allan Kosup is the corridor director for improvements on S.R. 76 and I-5 for Caltrans. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of California, Irvine.

Bart Desai, P.E., is a vice president in HNTB's San Diego office and project manager for the firm's oncall contract with SANDAG for the TransNet Program. He holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from India's University of Bombay.

Donna Huey is a vice president in PBS&J's Orlando office and heads the firm's Information Solutions National Business Sector. She received a bachelor of science degree from the University of South Florida.

For more information, contact Richard G. Chavez at 619-699-6989 or rch@sandag.org, Allan Kosup at 619-688-3611 or allan_kosup @dot.ca.gov, Bart Desai at 619-515-1176 or badesai@hntb.com, or Donna Huey at 407-647-7275 or dmhuey@pbsj.com.

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