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CPCS creatively delivers freight system plan for WSDOT

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CPCS used a decentralized, grassroots approach to inform the creation of the Washington State Department of Transportation’s 2022 Freight System Plan, a critical piece of the state’s master transportation plan.

Why it matters: Getting a freight system plan right matters when billions of dollars are at play. And to move a such ambitious plan, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) needs a whole freight ecosystem of agencies, businesses and organizations behind it.

In brief:

  • CPCS created a grassroots approach to identify and evaluate local freight system projects
  • CPCS wrote a freight system plan that’s accessible to all readers
  • The plan is a colourful, engaging guide of WSDOT’s freight system

CPCS delivers decentralized freight system plan

CPCS, a global management consultancy specializing in freight planning, policy and transportation infrastructure, spearheaded the 15-month project on Washington’s multimodal freight system.

Unlike other freight system plans CPCS has worked on, “we used a bottom up, grassroots process to develop it,” says Donald Ludlow, CPCS Vice President, US, and the plan’s project director. Doing so isn’t common practice. It’s typically a top-down approach.

Why all this work for a statewide freight system plan? Because since 2021, under the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, all 50 states must produce a freight plan every four years and deliver it to the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) for review.

Once a plan is approved, the state receives funding from the National Highways Freight Program (NFHP). Then, it’s up to the state to decide how that money will be awarded for local projects to improve the freight system.

Deciding how to award money can be a challenge because:

  1. There are many freight transportation infrastructure needs and issues, far more than there is funding for.
  2. When you do a state-level plan, with limited budget, time, and data, you have limited insight into highly-localized freight needs and issues (or needs and issues that occur off of the state-owned transport network, and therefore may not show up in the data).
  3. These needs and issues can be incredibly important to local communities and local economies, even if they are dwarfed by high-profile issues (like port congestion in Seattle).
  4. WSDOT wanted to make sure that needs and issues across the state and across a range of communities received attention, and received funding from the NHFP.

Therefore, we needed to create a process to collect this local information, and provide a process to score and rank a diverse set of project ideas from a diverse range of communities and governments.

“Often, with freight plans, state departments of transportation collect information from metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) across the state, and the state prioritizes the projects,” says Donald, a CPCS senior transportation advisor.

“Instead, we solicited freight projects from local communities, counties, tribes, and port authorities to pin down the right freight projects to all of the MPOs and regional transportation planning organizations (RTPOs) that represent more rural and semi-rural areas.”

“This shows CPCS’s trusted ability to be politically sensitive, technologically savvy, and to use the right metrics without overwhelming anyone with data requests.”

“What’s most rewarding was achieving consensus on the process from all the MPOs and RTPOs.” he says. They said they were on board and submitted projects.

Decisions shifted from WSDOT to local organizations

The freight plan team consulted with local and regional freight partners, including cities, counties, ports and Native American tribes.

To ensure that the plan incorporated feedback from a diverse range of groups, WSDOT actively sought feedback from individuals and organizations representing diverse geographies, income levels, race and ethnicities.

Instead of the state deciding where the money goes for local projects, WSDOT convened a project selection committee made up of representatives from cities, planning organizations, counties, and ports to review and select projects for funding.

Guiding project decisions 

The 2022 Washington State freight plan builds on the 2017 plan and includes new information the committee needed to help guide its project decisions. This includes insight into:

  • How the freight transportation system serves Washington’s economy and communities
  • The impact of the freight system on community health and the environment
  • The transportation assets that make up the freight system
  • The performance of these freight transportation assets
  • Potential solutions and improvements to address freight transportation needs and issues

US-based principal consultant Eric Oberhart says that CPCS wrote the plan as a story that anyone can understand, moving technical information the federal government requires for approval into a set of detailed appendices.

“WSDOT has a mandate from its leadership and from the state legislature for strong public engagement and this trickles down to their freight office. So, there was guidance early on for a plan that needed to be truly accessible to all Washington State residents. Something that people would find easy to understand,” he says.

Plan written as a story anyone can read

The result is a plan that’s readable, useful and accessible to non-freight staff of WSDOT and its partners. There are also links to extensive appendices that provide greater detail on topics discussed throughout the plan.

Donald says CPCS also pioneered an interactive storymap that shows how Washington’s supply chain works.

“The industry is moving in this direction. Making information accessible benefits everyone. In a sense, our work in transportation equity influences how we tackle projects.”

The colourful, engaging storymap provides the economic context of the state freight system and illustrates how different supply chains of key freight industries work in Washington State, including agriculture, food manufacturing, forestry and aerospace manufacturing.

Eric says the storymap is an educational tool requested by WSDOT that they can take out to public meetings and other events to educate the public on the importance of the freight system and make it relevant for the average resident.

For freight system partners, there’s an online interactive freight dashboard that allows users to browse additional information on topics such as freight system assets, performance, and future trends in freight tonnage.

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