New methods eyed for ranking transportation projects in Kent

CAMDEN — A group tasked with helping prioritize transportation projects in Kent County is changing its methods.

The Technical Advisory Committee, a subset of the Dover/Kent County Metropolitan Planning Organization, helps the group set its list of priorities.

At the bimonthly meeting Wednesday, members discussed gaining greater input from local municipalities and how they should weigh qualitative versus quantitative methods in judging ventures.

The MPO will be developing the fiscal year 2017 to 2020 plan, which is submitted to the Department of Transportation. DelDOT weighs the county’s concerns in formulating its statewide program for fiscal year 2017 and beyond.

The highest-scoring highway project for the next fiscal year is the Del. 1 Little Heaven grade-separated interchange, which is set to begin construction then.

More than two dozen currently unfunded items are on the list of future undertakings, most of which are not scheduled to begin construction for years — and some for decades.

Jim Galvin, the MPO’s principal planner, previously had suggested the council revamp the process by putting more emphasis on concerns of towns and cities throughout central Delaware.

“Could we talk about what we want to accomplish in Kent County in the next six years from a transportation perspective?” said vice-chairman David Edgell, a member of the Office of State Planning.

“Let’s have that discussion, and let’s see what project supports that decision and then let’s look at them.”

Michael Kirkpatrick, DelDOT’s representative on the TAC, said the group had a responsibility to use a “mathematically valid” practice to order the construction projects.

Although members agreed a balance between analytics and gut feel was needed, some raised concerns about the overall point in ranking items at all since DelDOT has final say.

“Part of me wonders, what’s the value in it when whatever we send up the chain, whatever we prioritize, DelDOT does whatever the heck they want?” said Ann Marie Townshend, who works for the city of Dover.

She was not the only one expressing confusion over the process. Mr. Edgell said members naturally would favor projects in their area, noting that as a statewide agent he could not single out any specific venture.

Mr. Kirkpatrick pointed out members could contact their state legislators to try to persuade DelDOT of the importance of local works.

Some questions also were raised and criticism cast about a software program used by DelDOT to set the ordering. Decision Lens, as it’s known, was rejected by Mr. Galvin because he wants a more organic method, a stance echoed by others.

If the MPO’s top project is bumped down the list when it’s run through Decision Lens, members can appeal to DelDOT if they have a good explanation for why that item deserves more consideration, Mr. Edgell said.

Ms. Townshend cited a sidewalk on Del. 8 that she said was placed high on the list because top state officials, including Gov. Jack Markell, requested it.

After a back-and-forth, TAC members agreed to sort the projects and pass them on to the various municipalities in Kent.

A working group composed of some individuals on the TAC will convene next month to discuss the local priorities.

Weighing those local concerns, a project ranking will then be formed, and from there, items eventually will be placed into the DelDOT queue.

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