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EDITORIAL: Tweaking Smart Scale's metrics

EDITORIAL: Tweaking Smart Scale's metrics

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IN AN effort to understand why the Northbound Rappahannock River Crossing project did not score high enough to qualify for Smart Scale funding, the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Fredericksburg Regional Alliance asked researchers at the University of Mary Washington to analyze data from 404 Smart Scale Round 2 projects to see if they came up with similar results.

Christopher Garcia and Mukesh Srivastava at the university’s Center for Business Research ran the numbers and independently verified that “there was no discrepancy between the calculated scores and scores assigned by the state, indicating that the Smart Scale methodology was consistently applied across all projects.”

It’s good to know that Smart Scale, which was designed to take politics out of transportation funding decisions, is treating all proposed projects alike. However, that still doesn’t explain why the $132 million Northbound River Crossing project failed to make the cut. One of the main criticisms of Smart Scale at the time was that the Virginia Department of Transportation’s traffic count on the northbound span was only done on weekdays, not on weekends when traffic is also severely congested.

In one of his last official acts as governor, Terry McAuliffe brokered a deal with Transurban as a get-around to pay for the clearly needed northbound project using tolls collected on the extended Express Lanes. But there’s still a flaw in the system that needs to be corrected.

For the second part of their study, Garcia and Srivastava tried to determine if accessibility (one of the six metrics used by Smart Scale to score projects) was also a factor in the project’s low score.

Smart Scale breaks accessibility down further into whether the project promotes access to jobs within 45 minutes (60 percent); including access to jobs for disadvantaged populations (20 percent); and promotes access to multimodal forms of transportation (20 percent).

However, the majority of workers in the Fredericksburg region commute an hour or more each way to jobs in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Maryland. “A more appropriate measure for Fredericksburg would thus be to use a 75-minute reach or greater,” the study recommended.

Researchers found “small increases in the percentile rankings of some Fredericksburg project scores under one of the alternative scenarios when compared with the current scoring methodology. This suggests that the full impact of some Fredericksburg- based projects may be underestimated under the current Smart Scale methodology and, depending on the cut score, these projects may be edged out of funding accordingly,” they concluded.

Del. Bob Thomas, R–Stafford, introduced two bills in the General Assembly to correct the traffic count and accessibility problems. He told The Free Lance–Star that the study has led to “some really good conversations” on Smart Scale with VDOT and Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine.

Thomas said the secretary agreed that these critiques may have some merit and agreed to look into them. He also asked Valentine to do an analysis on the effect Northern Virginia’s and Hampton Roads’ transportation authorities have on their Smart Scale scores, since these two heavily populated areas of the commonwealth have enough local revenue to “buy down” the cost of their projects, while other parts of the state cannot.

“We’re lumped in with Northern Virginia,” Thomas explained, “but maybe we are more like Richmond or some new category that’s not invented yet.”

The Fredericksburg region has submitted nine projects for the upcoming Round 3 of Smart Scale, five of which are directly related to Interstate 95, including lane widening from mile post 128.7 to Exist 126 in both directions. But the pot of money available is smaller than before, which means that local officials have had to maximize the chances of each project on the list.

Before he re-introduces legislation to change Smart Scale, Thomas says he first wants to know whether the changes will help the Fredericksburg region’s chances. But it’s hard to see how tweaking Smart Scale to more accurately reflect real-life facts on the ground could hurt.

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