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Highway Construction Program - Project Prioritization

The need for a prioritization process

It’s well known that transportation funding in Washington has not kept pace with needed highway improvements and repairs. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), with input from its local partners, has identified an estimated $57 billion in needs for our state’s highway system for 2003 through 2022.

What’s important to know is that the Department of Transportation has a process for prioritizing projects to ensure that taxpayers get the most value for the dollars spent.

Steps to project prioritization

By setting a direction for what we want to accomplish, and evaluating projects for how well they fit those goals – and at what cost – the Department can make comparisons in order to identify those projects that best meet our transportation goals. This prioritization process is spelled out in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 47.05). A simplified explanation of this process includes the following steps:

  1. Identify a problem or deficiency.
  2. Explore possible solutions.
  3. Develop a scope for the project, which takes into consideration possible environmental impacts, roadway design issues, and stakeholder concerns.
  4. Based on the project scope, develop a cost estimate or estimated range.
  5. Determine the benefit the project will provide.
  6. Compare the costs and benefits of this project with other projects of its type to determine its order of rank and priority.

The Department’s largest projects, also called “mega projects,” are likewise evaluated to determine the costs and benefits that can be expected for each. A new Cost Estimating Validation Process (CEVP) is used to determine the cost range of major transportation projects. This new tool considers probabilities and risk events in estimating costs and time required for large public projects. A scaled-back version of the CEVP process will be used on all projects estimated at over $100 million total cost.

Project types

Washington’s highway system is made up of more than 7,000 centerline miles of state and interstate highways. These highways connect with a network of over 73,000 centerline miles of city, county and federal roadways. Add to the mix 10 year-round mountain passes, 43 rest areas, over 3,000 bridges, 34 tunnels, and you begin to get a sense of the complicated puzzle WSDOT must face when deciding which projects get done first.

To better manage the highway construction program, the budget is divided into separate programs and specific project types. Each of the funding programs receives a budget allocation from the legislature, and based on that amount, the Department of Transportation determines which projects can be constructed within that budget.

In order to make “apples to apples” comparisons of potential projects, each funding program and project type has specific criteria that is used to evaluate and rank the projects. The programs and project types are:

  • Stand-alone Safety (most WSDOT projects address some safety issues)
    • Accident reduction
    • Accident risk prevention
  • Preservation
    • Pavement
    • Bridge
  • Mobility (Capacity improvement)
    • Urban
    • Rural (cities with population under 50,000)
    • Bicycle (re-establishing existing bike routes severed by highways)
    • High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV)
  • Economic
    • All-weather roads (addresses roads that are subject to freeze-thaw cycles)
    • Restricted bridges (low clearance and/or weight restricted)
    • Rest areas (new construction)
    • Four-lane trunk system
  • Environmental Retrofit
    • Water quality/quantity (stormwater retrofit)
    • Fish barrier
    • Noise reduction
  • Other facilities
    • Safety rest areas (preservation)
    • Weigh stations
    • Unstable slopes (slide areas)
    • Major drainage and electrical rehabilitation

Plan objectives

Each potential project that is considered for funding must address one or more of the transportation objectives that were developed in cooperation with our community partners. All transportation objectives include performance measures, which provide the Department with a yardstick to measure how far the proposed project will move toward meeting the desired result, per dollars spent. These objectives are contained in the state’s Highway Systems Plan and include:

  • Maintain the effective and predictable operations of the transportation system to meet customer’s expectations.
  • Increase the efficiency of operating the existing systems and facilities.
  • Increase traveler information to tourists’ destinations.
  • Reduce and prevent death and the frequency and severity of disabling injuries, and societal costs of accidents.
  • Reduce barriers that delay the effective and reliable movement of freight.
  • Preserve transportation infrastructure to achieve the lowest life cycle cost and prevent failure.
  • Reduce person and freight delay on Washington Transportation Plan corridors.
  • Improve existing travel options.
  • Create links and remove barriers between transportation facilities and services.
  • Support statewide economic development through targeted transportation investments.
  • Improve the quality of tourists’ related travel experiences in Washington.

Frequently asked questions

Q: I thought the Department of Transportation always fixed the worst problem areas first. Is that true?

A: Not necessarily. If the project is expensive, it may not rank high enough on the list to get funded. For example, if the solution to reduce accidents at an intersection is to build an interchange, but property costs are high, the project would rank lower than other projects that reduce a similar number of accidents and do so at a lower cost.


Q: But doesn’t it make more sense to fix the big problems?

A: Our goal is to provide the biggest benefit for the most drivers at the least cost. For instance, lets say you have a project that benefits 50,000 motorists a day, at a cost of $10 million dollars. Lets say you could build 10 other projects at $1 million each that benefits a total of 175,000 motorists a day. A greater value is achieved by funding the smaller, less expensive projects that reach more users.


Q: If cost is one of the determining factors of a project’s ranking, do contributions from other sources make a difference?

A: Local participation in a project’s cost will reduce amount the state needs to fund, while the benefit to motorists remains the same, and may therefore increase a project’s rank. A recent example of this is the new interchange bridge on Interstate 5 at State Route 510 in Lacey. This partnership project improved traffic flow at the intersection for motorists, while at the same time the City of Lacey was able to make infrastructure improvements needed for continued economic development. The end result was that the project provided a benefit for both the state’s and the city’s constituents at a reduced cost to the state.

Q: As long as you’re working in the area anyway, why can’t you add turn lanes and a signal at my intersection?

A: This makes sense and WSDOT tries combine work when possible. There are some legal limitations, however, as to how we can go about this. For example, funds from one type of funding program cannot be used to build projects from another. For instance, funds for a paving project (preservation) cannot be used to widen the road for a new turn lane (mobility). Projects from separate funding programs can be combined, however, so that the overall construction costs may be reduced and disruptions to traffic are kept at a minimum.

As an example, if a paving project goes through an intersection where a new signal is on the priority list to be added in the near future, those work activities may be combined into a single contract. That may result in the signal being added sooner than originally scheduled, and prevents the newly paved road surface from being dug up for signal installation later on. If however, the signal at this intersection was far down on the list, we couldn’t justify taking the money away from another intersection that has a greater need and higher priority.


Q: Do all the top priority projects get constructed in the order of their ranking?

A: Not always. There is flexibility built into the process that allows the Department to respond to community interest and need. For example, if the budget approved by the legislature reaches down to fund only the top 10 ranked projects, but project number 11 is very important to the community, the Department can advance that project in exchange for delaying another one. The legislature also has the ability to designate funds for a specific project, regardless of where it is in the Department’s ranking.


Q: Once projects are ranked, do they stay in that priority order? How do you account for growth, new developments and other changing conditions?

A: Projects are prioritized based on a series of assumptions, including future growth and developments. We know that assumptions used to determine travel delay may change and accident rates can increase, therefore these are reviewed every two years. Projects that indicate a change in rank following this review, are taken before the Washington State Transportation Commission, which has the authority to implement a revision in rank.


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