Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why does COMPASS have so many different plans?

In July, the COMPASS Board adopted Communities in Motion 2040, the regional long-range transportation plan for Ada and Canyon Counties. Now COMPASS is asking for your comments on proposed changes to the Transportation Service Coordination Plan for Ada and Canyon Counties. This has raised a lot of questions. Are they the same thing? If not, how are the two plans different? How do they relate to each other? Why does COMPASS have so many different plans in the first place?

Let me answer these in order.

1. Are the two plans the same thing? No. While they are both transportation plans for Ada and Canyon Counties, Communities in Motion 2040 and the Transportation Service Coordination Plan for Ada and Canyon Counties are not the same thing.

2. How do the two plans differ? Basically, Communities in Motion 2040 is a long-range plan that discusses all transportation modes for all individuals and the Transportation Service Coordination Plan is a shorter-range plan specifically to address the public transportation needs of older adults and individuals with disabilities. Additional differences and similarities are shown in the side-by-side comparison below:

Communities in Motion
Transportation Service
Coordination Plan
Area covered
Ada and Canyon Counties
Ada and Canyon Counties
Time frame
Long term; plans to the year 2040
Short term; plans for the immediate future
All modes of transportation for all populations
Public transportation for older adults and individuals with disabilities
To plan a transportation system to meet future needs based on projected growth in population and jobs within projected financial constraints
To improve current transportation services for older adults and individuals with disabilities; specifically to coordinate transportation access, minimize duplication of services, and facilitate the most appropriate cost-effective transportation possible
By the US Department of Transportation for any area with a population over 50,000 to received federal transportation funds
By the Federal Transit Administration (part of the US Department of Transportation) to receive federal transportation funds specifically for older adults and individuals with disabilities.

3. How do the two plans relate to each other? Communities in Motion 2040 sets the stage and establishes a vision, goals, and performance metrics that are then reflected in the Transportation Service Coordination Plan. For example, the Transportation Service Coordination Plan prioritizes near-term public transportation projects for older adults and individual with disabilities that align with the goals and vision of Communities in Motion 2040. In addition, performance metrics established for the Transportation Service Coordination Plan mirror those developed for Communities in Motion 2040.

4. Why does COMPASS have so many plans? While multiple plans may seem duplicative, they do serve different needs and plan at different levels of detail and for different time periods. Developing strategies to meet immediate needs for public transportation services for specific populations, such as in the Transportation Service Coordination Plan, is very different than planning for all populations across all modes of transportation to meet needs 26 years into the future, as Communities in Motion does.

To put this in a personal perspective, just as you may be separately, but simultaneously, planning for your retirement and your next vacation – different goals with unique needs and different time frames – different transportation plans, even plans developed at the same, fulfill distinct, yet equally important, roles.

I encourage you to take a few moments to review and comment on the Transportation Service Coordination Plan particularly if you are a public transportation provider or have a tie to the plan’s target populations of individuals with disabilities and older adults. Comments will be accepted through Tuesday, September 9, 2014.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Who are the real heroes? Take time to nominate a local hero for a Leadership in Motion award.

I am a sports fan. I am also a father.

I am duly impressed by the athleticism and talent of our nation’s professional athletes. Many of these – for good or for bad – serve as role models, even “heroes,” to our children. While these individuals are impressive athletes, and many are also impressive human beings, they provide an unrealistic ideal for our children to strive for, and a perception that a person must be rich, famous, and “the best” at something to make an impact.

What about all of the quiet, local, unsung heroes? Those that make a positive difference in our daily lives, and the lives of generations to come, by volunteering in the community, going the “extra mile” at work, or choosing to run for office? What about those who through hard work and perseverance turn what seemed like an unachievable goal into reality? Do our children look up to them as heroes or role models? Do we?

We should.

While these people may not be rich or famous, or don’t have a line of shoes that bears their name, they are the leaders that impact our lives, and the lives of future generations. They are the ones who must make the tough – and sometimes unpopular – decisions for the greater good; not just the “good” of their agency, boss, or those that voted for him or her. That takes true courage – the makings of a hero.

The COMPASS Leadership in Motion awards program is designed to recognize and honor those who are our true local “heroes” – volunteers, professionals, and elected officials who are making a difference. In addition to the “people” awards, Leadership in Motion also recognizes businesses/nonprofits and government-sponsored projects that move us toward the future, and toward the goals established in Communities in Motion 2040, the regional long-range transportation plan for Ada and Canyon Counties.

While our children likely won’t suddenly be clamoring to replace the poster of their sports hero with a poster of a mayor, planner, or engineer, or want to buy the coolest loafers because a commissioner was seen wearing them, maybe we can make a dent in how we view our heroes – our leaders – by taking the time to nominate someone, or a business/nonprofit or project, that has had a genuine impact on our valley.  

Nominations for COMPASS Leadership in Motion awards can be submitted here and will be accepted through 3:00 pm, Tuesday, September 30, 2014. Awards will be presented at the COMPASS/Valley Regional Transit holiday luncheon on Monday, December 15, 2014.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The TIP takes a turn toward maintenance

As part of the process of updating Communities in Motion, the regional long-range transportation plan for Ada and Canyon Counties, the COMPASS Board of Directors chose to focus federal funding allocated through the Communities in Motion 2040 plan on maintaining the current transportation system.

The FY2015-2019 Regional Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), open for public comment through September 9, 2014, is the first TIP developed under this new direction from the COMPASS Board. This focus on maintenance affects the projects you will see – or not see – in this draft TIP. Understanding what this means, how the funding process works, and why the COMPASS Board made this decision will help you as you review and comment on the draft TIP.

First, it’s important to understand what types of projects are in the TIP, how they are funded, and which types of funding the “focus on maintenance” applies to. There are many, many types of funding…I’ve greatly over-simplified and lumped them into three categories:

1.  Federal Surface Transportation Funding (STP). This is the largest, and most flexible, “pot” of federal funding the area receives. By “flexible,” I mean it can be used for the widest variety of projects. It is this STP funding that the “focus on maintenance” applies to; the funds are split between roadway/bridge (82%), public/alternative transportation (15%), and planning/special projects (3%). Some STP funds are also taken “off the top” for specific purposes.

2.  Other federal funds. These include a myriad of federal funds, many of which are dedicated to specific types of projects, including Federal Transit Administration funds for public transportation projects, funding for safety projects, and funding for bicycle, pedestrian, and other alternative transportation projects. While the STP funds are very flexible, these funds are generally not, and are not included under the “focus on maintenance” direction. However, because STP funds are flexible, the same types of projects funded with these “other” funds can often also be funded with STP funds. So, for example, in the TIP you will see some public transportation projects funded with STP funds (therefore, they are maintenance projects) and other public transportation projects funded with Federal Transit Administration funds (they may or may not maintenance projects).

3.  Local/state funding. Very broadly, these are all funds that are not federal funds. They come from state fuel tax, local property tax, registration fees, and more. Some, but not all, of these projects are listed in the TIP, based on a variety of criteria including type, size, and location of the project.

Next, it’s important to understand how “maintenance” is defined in this context. “Maintenance” goes far beyond filling potholes. Simply put, in this context, a “maintenance” project is any project that does not expand the existing transportation system. The funds can be used to improve safety, rebuild bridges, replace or maintain buses, resurface roads, and, yes, fill potholes. In addition, certain projects that are “opportunistic” can be done within the focus on maintenance. For example, completing a missing portion of a bike lane or sidewalk could be included in a road maintenance project, even though these projects are technically adding something “new.” It is just simply the practical thing to do to be the most efficient with the funding we have.

Finally, it’s important to note that this doesn’t apply to any projects that were already in the TIP. The TIP is a five-year budget, so projects often first appear in the TIP several years before they are scheduled to begin. For example, a project scheduled for this year (2014) may have first appeared in the FY2010-2014 TIP, which was adopted by the COMPASS Board in November 2010. The focus on maintenance only applies to new projects in FY2015-2019 TIP (and future TIPs), so the shift is gradual. While most new projects in the FY2015-2019 TIP are maintenance, many projects that were already scheduled/budgeted are not. More maintenance projects will be added each year as existing capital (e.g., construction) projects are completed.
Over 90% of the new projects in the draft FY2015-2019 TIP are maintenance projects, funded with STP funds, as described above. The remaining 10% are paid for with other federal and local funding sources.

Now that we’ve discussed what this means and how it is applied, we have the bigger question of “why” – with our rapidly growing population, why did the COMPASS Board choose to focus federal funding on maintenance? Why not focus on new projects? While I do not want to attempt to speak for each Board member, three main reasons were the center of the discussion:

1.  We need to maintain what we have before building something new. Just as a person likely wouldn’t spend money to repaint his car if he couldn’t afford to change the oil, the Board felt it was important to first make sure we are keeping what we have in good working order.

2.  Preventive maintenance costs less than fixing something that is “broken.” Using the same car example, it is much less expensive to pay to change the oil on a regular basis than to forgo maintenance and have to replace a ruined engine. Spending money on preventive maintenance now costs less than having to completely rebuild or replace a section of roadway or bridge later. 

3.  “New” things must also be maintained. Just as happened with some highly publicized “free” car giveaways, winners of those free cars were not able to keep them because they couldn’t afford the costs of owning and maintaining the car. The same is true with public infrastructure. Costs don’t end when something is built or acquired…ongoing costs are just beginning. 

I hope this will help you as you review the draft TIP, and notice a decrease in construction and other capital projects and an increase in maintenance. Please take a few minutes to review and comment on the projects in the TIP – maintenance and otherwise – and tell us if you agree with the proposed projects. Click here to review and comment; comments are due no later than Tuesday, September 9, 2014.

Monday, August 11, 2014

COMPASS is asking for your comments…yes, again!

I’ve been asked why COMPASS seems to “always” be asking for public comment on something…“these” goals, “those” projects, and “this,” “that,” and “the other” plan. Why does COMPASS reach out to the public so often…and, why are we doing it again now?

The short answer is “it’s required.” Federal law requires that metropolitan planning organizations such as COMPASS solicit and consider public feedback when developing a long-range transportation plan (ours is called Communities in Motion) and a Regional Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). COMPASS also solicits public input into other projects and plans as well.

However, there is much more to it than filling a requirement. Most transportation projects are big – they cost large sums of money (your tax dollars), they are often disruptive when under construction, and they have the potential to impact the landscape of an area and the quality of life of the residents who live there for many, many years. Decisions about these large, impactful projects should never be taken lightly or without input from those who will be affected.

People are often surprised when they suddenly see orange stakes driven in the side of the road, bulldozers starting to move dirt, or a new bus route they didn’t know about. It is COMPASS’ goal to keep that surprise to a minimum by keeping people informed of what is coming, and to answer questions and consider input about projects, before they start.

We ask for public input in a variety of different stages in the planning process. For example, earlier this spring we asked for input on the draft Communities in Motion 2040 plan. That plan sets long-term goals and transportation priorities for the region. In addition to asking for input into the draft plan itself, we also asked for feedback on key decisions before they were made. Those key decisions were the “meat” of the plan; by asking for input on those throughout the planning process we were able to develop a plan with the public input, instead of developing a plan then asking “what do you think?” once it was done.

In the title of this post, I tell you we are asking for comment again. This round of comments is not on Communities in Motion; it is on projects in the TIP and related documents and on the Transportation Service Coordination Plan. While Communities in Motion is a long-range planning document, the items we’re looking for input on now focus on more discrete projects and decisions.

In the draft TIP, we’re asking for your feedback on federally funded and “regionally significant” projects scheduled for the next five years. These are based on priorities set in Communities in Motion, but move from broad priorities to actual, on-the-ground, projects. For example, when developing Communities in Motion 2040, the COMPASS Board established a priority to focus federal funding allocated through Communities in Motion on maintaining the current transportation system. You can see that reflected in the draft TIP, as nearly 90% of new projects added this year (primarily scheduled for 2019 and beyond) are maintenance projects. The remainder are safety and planning projects, as well as some transit and pedestrian projects that are funded through specific transit and bicycle/pedestrian programs. (The “focus on maintenance” direction from the COMPASS Board does not affect projects that were budgeted/scheduled in the TIP prior to this year.) 

We are also asking for your feedback on the air quality conformity demonstration for Northern Ada County for the projects in the draft TIP. The process tell us that the projects in the draft TIP “conform” to air quality plans – that is, they will not worsen air quality. The draft TIP also contains the FY2015 federal program of projects proposed for funding by Valley Regional Transit.

In addition to the draft TIP and related documents, we are also asking for your input into proposed changes to the Ada and Canyon County Transportation ServiceCoordination Plan – a document that provides guidance on how to allocate federal funds designated for public transportation to serve seniors and individuals with disabilities. Again, this moves from broad goals to improve transportation services in Communities in Motion to the specifics of “how” to do that for specific populations.

While I can certainly understand if you are feeling “comment fatigue,” I encourage you to take a few moments to review the materials provided and share your feedback. Taking a few minutes now to be aware of what’s coming and have your say certainly beats an unexpected surprise later.

Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho

COMPASS is the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization responsible for transportation planning in Ada and Canyon Counties. The COMPASS Board comprises 39 members representing the cities, counties, highway districts, educational institutions, state agencies, and other entities within the two counties. COMPASS plays an important role in making decisions about future long-range transportation needs in the Treasure Valley, taking into consideration environmental and economic factors that affect the quality of life.