Virginia to conduct in-depth review of SMART SCALE process

Commonwealth has appropriated nearly $7 billion for transportation projects through program

By: - March 23, 2023 12:02 am

The Virginia Department of Transportation headquarters in Richmond. (Parker Michels-Boyce/The Virginia Mercury)

Virginia is taking a deeper dive into the award-winning SMART SCALE transportation funding process used by multiple jurisdictions, seven years after the program went into effect. 

SMART SCALE began distributing awards in 2017 and 2018 as part of a process to determine “the right” transportation projects to prioritize, based on which projects benefit taxpayers the most. 

Reviews of the operation have occurred after each of the last four rounds of funding. This year’s process is being conducted by a working group made up of Virginia’s Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, which advises transportation leadership on decisions, and several consultants at the direction of Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller III.

Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and leader of its Land and Community Program, said he has been following the process since it was established and looks forward to the recommendations, which are expected in October.

“I think the idea of a review in and of itself is a good one,” said Pollard. “Hopefully, it will lead to some recommendations that will actually lead to the selection of projects that promote a cleaner, more equitable system and not take us a step back.”

Pollard and others from various jurisdictions told the Mercury they support the review as they continue to look for ways to meet the growing demands for a healthy environment from pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and advocates.

Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for Gov. Glenn Youngkin, said the working group will consider concerns raised by stakeholders about the performance of the funding prioritization process and reassess the factors used to select and fund projects. 

Stakeholders participating in the SMART SCALE review survey will also include members of the Virginia Association of Counties, Virginia Municipal League and Virginia Transit Association, according to Porter.

SMART SCALE spending. (Virginia Department of Transportation)

The process since 2014

Nearly $7 billion has been appropriated to transportation projects since SMART SCALE was created in 2016; the initiative is in its fifth round of funding. SMART SCALE, which stands for System for the Management and Allocation of Resources for Transportation, became a biennial process after 2018.

The success of the program, which was put in motion by a 2014 law, is based on the use of data to calculate a project’s expected benefits relative to the state’s cost to fund it, according to a November 2021 study conducted by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. Whether a project is recommended for funding depends on how it scores on such factors as congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety and environmental quality.

Virginia’s intermodal planning and investment office analyzes the program after each round of funding and makes recommendations for improvement. For example, the commonwealth significantly changed the SMART SCALE safety scores to remove accidents attributable to driving under the influence because those accidents were not likely due to unsafe infrastructure.

While many jurisdictions have praised the process and its development over the years, some have criticized the projects ultimately selected for funding.

Abigail Hillerich, a spokeswoman with the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, said in an email that the authority is “disappointed” that the commonwealth’s most populated district would receive the second lowest package of funds in the current round of funding recommendations

She also pointed out that the Northern Virginia region is not receiving any High-Priority Program funds, which are earmarked for projects that address a transportation need in a corridor of statewide significance or regional network.

“We are optimistic that the commonwealth’s review of the SMART SCALE process will result in the future allocation of transportation funding to the region that better addresses our transportation needs and priorities,” Hillerich said.

Review factors

Organizations around Virginia urged the working group to continue awarding funds based on benefits relative to costs, data-based evaluation and transparency, according to a March 10 letter signed by 19 organizations, including the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Virginia Transit Association and the Piedmont Environmental Council.

“As has been done in the past, it is appropriate to review the results of the fifth round of SMART SCALE funding — as well as earlier rounds — to determine whether the measures and overall process is working as intended,” the letter reads. “However, we urge you to be cautious in making significant changes to the SMART SCALE process unless serious flaws are identified by a data-driven analysis of the results from the most recent round of funding.”

The groups urged the working group to consider greenhouse gas emissions and equity as factors in funding determinations and to increase the weight of the environmental quality score. They also requested the state consider modifications to its process to “better encompass” all modes of transportation.

Goochland County Supervisor Neil Spoonhower, who sits on the Central Virginia Transportation Authority, said applying for funding is competitive, considering the number of needs across the commonwealth.

Spoonhower said due to transportation demands and the process of acquiring funding from all sources including SMART SCALE, Goochland hired a transportation manager. County leaders have also consulted the Virginia Department of Transportation to understand why projects failed in order to submit stronger applications.

Spoonhower said he hopes the team reviewing the process will consider the weight of economic development. 

“When we have major intersections that are prone for economic development, we need those funded,” Spoonhower continued. “Everybody likes a great walking path or biking path, I get it, but [when] we’re looking to bring thousands of jobs into the region, we need to look at potential economic development as a key indicator, which I don’t know how heavily that’s weighed at this time.”

The New River Valley Regional Commission, composed of 13 local governments in Southwest Virginia, including the town of Christiansburg, has seen both success and failure in its SMART SCALE applications.

Randy Wingfield, town manager for Christiansburg, said the state recommended funding upgrades to one of the town’s intersections during the first round in 2017. The project edged out a Bedford County proposal in the final stage of the process.

Wingfield said the town received funding for the project the following year, but he is uncertain years later why Bedford was selected over Christiansburg.

“I don’t think it’s a perfect process, but I think it is better than the process that they had,” Wingfield said. “We definitely appreciate the fact that it enables us to do projects that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do because of the massive size for some of these projects.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nathaniel Cline
Nathaniel Cline

Nathaniel is an award-winning journalist who's been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports, and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs. A graduate of Bowie State University, Nathaniel grew up in Hawaii and the United Kingdom as a military brat. Five things he must have before leaving home: his cellphone, Black Panther water bottle, hand sanitizer, wedding ring and Philadelphia Eagles keychain.