Lynn Peterson brings practical solutions to Portland State symposium

The Portland State University Urban Sustainability Accelerator’s “New Thinking for a New Era” symposium on transportation investment decision-making Sept. 21-22 equipped participants with new ideas, tools and approaches to making transportation investment decisions. The event, held on campus, aimed to show that the best solutions consider a spectrum of issues—ranging from environmental, social justice, and economic development—while also being cost-effective.

Lynn Peterson, senior transportation advisor for Smart Growth America and former head of the Washington State Department of Transportation (and a graduate of PSU’s Masters in Urban Planning program), presented one of these approaches in her breakout session, ‘Practical Solutions: Least-cost planning and performance based design.’ She described several ideas that are important to implement when planning or vetting transportation projects, in order to achieve the best outcomes.

At the onset of a project, she stressed the importance of knowing the problem and having a consensus. Community involvement is key in this step. As she put it:

“Problem solving can only be successful when we have collectively defined the problem based on the knowledge, expertise, and consensus of the whole community. Get this part right and the answer will solve the actual problem.”

She acknowledged that the aversion to engaging the public is often driven by fear of increased budget and time. Yet she argued that community engagement throughout a project is necessary in order to produce the best and most cost-effective outcomes.

Once the problem is defined and a consensus reached, she recommended the inclusion of several key elements in the project cycle.

Among these is least-cost planning, a tool that not only considers the costs and benefits of the project itself, but also the costs and benefits of alternatives. This creates a framework that permits comparison of different solutions to the same problem. In other words, it provides a way to choose the solution with the best value within the financial constraints of a project.

Yet identifying the right solution is not enough. It is equally important to establish performance metrics (How are we going to measure whether we achieved the planned outcomes?). And it is necessary to include everyone around the table as these metrics are developed, and to give ownership to engineers and project managers who can refine those performance metrics in a way that makes sense for a project.

Peterson also pointed out that for a project to be successfully implemented, it is necessary to make sure that the right skill sets are present for the job. Related to that is the importance of fostering collaboration and system wide, interdisciplinary thinking to ensure effective teamwork and decision-making. As a result, ‘Practical Solutions’ advocates for the incorporation of training, empowerment, and inclusiveness as key values to produce results.

Does this approach work? Outcomes from several projects suggest that this is indeed the case. Here is one example: WSDOT used ‘Practical Solutions’ as the framework to relieve traffic congestion on an interstate corridor in Yakima, Washington. The solution involved the construction of roundabouts, which relieved congestion while also increasing safety, economic growth, and better freight access to the interstate. It also provided $24 million in savings relative to the high-cost alternative. WSDOT has other examples.

While the cost savings were not always this dramatic, all her other examples provided compelling evidence that using this approach produced the best outcomes while offering costs savings to alternatives.

What should you consider if you decide to use this approach for your next transportation project or want to persuade an agency of its value? Peterson said it is critical for those in charge to be supportive at the table during stakeholder discussions. Questions to consider asking are: What do you want your city to look like? And, What are the values of the community? It is also important to stand behind and support everyone involved all the way through the project cycle. In other words, those in charge need to be committed to the process and to all the people involved.

-Eva-Maria Muecke

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