Why DOT’s Priority Lists Are Mostly Meaningless

GAS TAX HIKE SUPPORTERS CLAIM THE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATON ALREADY USES OBJECTIVE CRITERIA IN CHOOSING ROAD PROJECTS. THEY’RE WRONG.

One of the most frequently repeated arguments against reforming the Department of Transportation – and thus one of the most frequently repeated arguments in favor of raising the gas tax – is that the DOT was already reformed in 2007 by Act 114.

As a result of Act 114, the argument goes, state law requires DOT to maintain priority lists in which state roads are ranked according to need. Any project included in the State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP, the master plan of statewide road projects) must be ranked on one of these lists.

These lists are supposed to prove that DOT’s prioritizations are efficient, non-political, objective. Are they, though?

Priority lists themselves determined by commissioners

There is no single list. There are at least nine lists, each ranking projects into separate categories. For example, there is a ranking of all safety projects, interstate capacity projects, and federal aid bridge replacement projects. Projects that fall into different categories of work cannot be ranked against each other since federal funding stipulations require different criteria weightings for different kinds of projects.*

These project categories are funded through different sections of the DOT budget. So each project category is only eligible for funding from its section of the DOT budget, and higher ranked projects get the first funds from the appropriate budget section. Once the matching DOT budget section is depleted, no more projects that fall under that category will be funded that year. And since the size of each section of DOT’s budget is recommended by DOT staff and approved by the DOT commission, agency priorities rest with government officials who have no accountability to taxpayers.

Criteria subject to whims of bureaucrats

Act 114 only requires the DOT to consider its ranking criteria. Just how much weight, if any, each of the criteria is given is recommended by DOT staff and ultimately decided by the legislatively controlled DOT Commission. In truth, not every Act 114 criteria can be considered for each type of project included in the STIP, thanks to federal funding requirements.*

DOT Commission Chairman Mike Wooten, furthermore, recently demonstrated just how much power the commission has over the “weighting,” or importance, given to each criterion. The commission, he said, had decided to take weighting points away from the environmental criteria and put them towards the economic development criteria. Why? Because he has a personal distaste for certain environmental groups.

Priorities ranked, but not really

The top ranked projects on each priority lists don’t necessarily receive funding before lower ranked projects. A project high up on a priority list may be passed over in favor of lower ranked projects because the funds allocated to the appropriate DOT budget section are insufficient to complete work on the higher ranked project. Consider, for example, the Carolina Crossroads project, commonly known as “malfunction junction” (where I-26, I-20, and I-126 intersect outside Columbia). Work on this project has received the number one ranking on one priority list for ten years, but significant work has yet to be done on it, since the cost of the project has exceeded the funds available in the matching section of the DOT budget.

Bottom line

Act 114’s mandated criteria and project priority lists could be meaningful restraints if they were applied to an accountable body. But they’re not. DOT commissioners owe their positions to the few legislative leaders who control the Joint Transportation Review Committee (JTRC), and there is no way for the general electorate to hold the commission accountable. Absent accountability, legal restrictions put on the actions of DOT are for show only.

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*The source for this and other points about specific DOT projects costs is testimony by DOT Secretary Christy Hall and Deputy Secretary Ron Patten to the Senate Finance Committee, February 16, 2016.

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