So many projects, so few resources... new process for project initiation and programming

IMG_0825Working at the Iowa Department of Transportation, we all know there are more needs on our transportation system than funds available to complete them. In the past few months we’ve blogged about Iowa in Motion, the long-range transportation plan that is a “big picture” look at what changes will be needed in the decades to come. So now we have an overall picture of where we want to go, but there’s a second challenge for employees. How do we move from planning long-term transportation changes to something more immediate, say in the next five years? That’s where our Iowa Transportation Improvement Program, known simply as the Five-Year Program, comes into play.

Recently, a team of employees has been working to put a specific, data-driven system into place that would provide tools to more effectively manage our transportation system assets, focusing first on our roads and bridges, but also considering the way our system operates. The team has been tasked with developing a system that uses data to identify and prioritize transportation improvement projects for the Five-Year Program. Matt Haubrich, with the Performance and Technology Bureau, said, “Our purpose is to pull all the threads together. We need an objective way to evaluate all the needs identified on our transportation system. Everything from what might be just a glimmer in the eye of someone who recognized a need all the way through to completion for a chosen project.”

This team includes Iowa DOT staff Scott Marler, Tammy Nicholson, Garrett Pedersen, Charlie Purcell, Deanna Maifield, Jon Ranney, Don Tebben, Matt Haubrich, and Peggi Knight. Lisa McDaniel from the Federal Highway Administration also participates as an ex officio member/observer.

Although the actual tools to be used in the process are still in development, a revised process using the principles laid out in this system for determining what will be included in the Five-Year Program is being piloted.

Initiating a project

Problem statement

Currently, for a project to be considered for the Five-Year Program, the project is proposed when a problem or need is recognized, but there isn’t a specific, data-driven process in place to help make the best decision on which projects are included. So the team is building a process to use data and analysis to determine the best use of resources. Knight said, “With fewer staff, we need a process that more effectively uses the data and tools we have and is focused on management of our assets across the entire system.”

Problems or needs can come from any number of sources, including federal mandates, state mandates, plans, tools, management systems, studies, discretionary grants, or other stakeholders. Issues could be related to mobility, safety, infrastructure condition, the ability to withstand or bounce back from severe weather events or other adverse conditions, or many other factors. The first step in the process is to identify the problem or need by writing a problem statement, clearly stating and documenting the original problem. This process is intended to reflect the scope/scale of the problem from small, which may require very basic documentation, to more complex, which might require more comprehensive documentation and data collection.


Once a problem has been identified and documented with a problem statement, the next step is to determine the scope of the problem and begin identifying possible solutions. At this point, the initial project scope would be checked for consistency with the long-range transportation plan. At present there is no single tool to support this process; however, one is currently being developed in the Office of Location and Environment. This tool will be used with all projects managed within the Project Scheduling System although, as with the problem statement, the number of steps will vary depending on the scope/scale of the proposed solution and its details. This scoping process will be managed by OLE and smaller-scale problems will be managed by the appropriate entity. The final stage of the scoping process will result in a project charter containing relevant information necessary to develop a project.

Project charter selection

Once a project has been chartered, it is a candidate for further development. Many routine, small-scale projects will automatically pass this step; however, this is built-in as a “pause point” to consider the problem statement, the proposed solution, and have a determination made about the assignment of resources to develop the project. If the proposed project is selected for prioritization and possible development, the final project location (both literal and geospatial) will be set, and a project number assigned.

Project Initiation 2016-11-28


Program development

At this point, the process shifts from examining a specific problem/project to examining the best mix of projects/solutions to achieve objectives for the transportation system. For larger projects or corridor improvements, planning and development may begin before the project is even ready to put into the Five-Year Program.

Program Development 2016-11-28
Chartered projects will flow into a process envisioned to be managed by the new Project Management Office in the Project Delivery Bureau. The prioritization process will compare the benefits and costs of each proposed solution and allow for comparisons and ranking of projects against system-level targets and objectives. Also in this step, available resources will be balanced with system objectives, resulting in a portfolio of projects/solutions.

In the next step, the Office of Program Management will manage the development of the draft Five-Year Program, incorporating information from the portfolio optimization process. Time and funding constraints will be evaluated and used for recommendations to executive management for inclusion in the proposed Five-Year Program presented to the Iowa Transportation Commission.

Projects not recommended for inclusion in the Five-Year Program will be placed back into the mix of projects for prioritization or sent back to the originator of the project for modification. The project originator may resubmit the project in the future with updated documentation based on comments gathered throughout the process.

Haubrich said, “The team that has been working on revamping our processes for development of the Five-Year Program has really come together and worked well. We have focused on the goal of developing a transparent and data-driven process while recognizing that some judgement and non-quantifiable factors will always be included in the programming process. I’m confident that the streamlined end product will provide data-driven solutions to our transportation challenges.”

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