Semisequicentennial Transportation Conference Proceedings
May 1996, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa

The Major Investment Study: An Overview of the Process

Greg Royster

North Central Texas Council of Governments,
616 Six Flags Drive, Suite 200,
Centerpointe Two,
Arlington, Texas 76005-5888.

Many transportation experts have noted that a nation depends on its transportation system for the lifeline of its economy. Since roads, rails, canals, and airways carry responsibility for moving people and goods throughout the world, this system is predominantly influential in modern society's development. Nationally, $110 billion is spent annually repairing and constructing our transportation system. Given the fiscal realities of today and tomorrow with demands for budget reductions at all levels of national, state, and local government, decisions on where and how to spend this money must not be taken lightly. A detailed study within each transportation corridor must be undertaken to ensure the best transportation solution, one that meets the mobility, social, and environmental needs of the corridor. These studies, referred to here as major investment studies (MIS), are required by federal legislation in all metropolitan areas (i.e., both large and small) for transportation projects utilizing federal funds. The MIS is a valuable planning tool as well as a federal requirement. Major investment studies have been performed for many years under the names subarea studies, corridor studies, and feasibility studies, to name a few. Regardless of what they have been called, their purpose has always been the same: to guide the decision-making process for planning, financing, and implementing major transportation projects. This paper is organized as follows: MIS purpose and warrant (introduction), relationship with the regional transportation plan and congestion management system, participating agencies and their roles, public involvement, consistency with the regional plan (feedback), and conclusion. References to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) are given for clarification; however, applications for the MIS as described include small- to medium-sized MPOs. While federal transportation planning regulations require that major investment studies be performed, the development of a methodology for performing them has largely been the responsibility of each metropolitan area. The North Central Texas Council of Governments has completed one MIS and is near completion of a second MIS, making it one of the first MPOs to have completed the MIS process.

The major investment study (MIS) is a subset of the more comprehensive metropolitan transportation system planning process. Metropolitan planning regulations require major investment studies to support decisions on significant transportation investments (1). While federally funded major transportation investments are being contemplated, the MIS identifies all reasonable alternative strategies for addressing the transportation demands and other problems at a corridor or subarea level of the metropolitan area. The MIS provides information to elected officials, technical staff, the business community, and the general public on the costs, benefits, and impacts of these alternatives so that an informed choice can be made. Examples of proposed projects which would require an MIS include the following:


Historically, planning for transportation facilities provides relatively uncongested travel during peak hours. However, because of funding shortfalls, it is unlikely that this traditional planning goal can be achieved. In addition, federal law prohibits single-occupant vehicle (SOV) capacity from being added in transportation management areas (urbanized areas with a population greater than 200,000) which are also nonattainment areas for ozone, unless the recommendation is part of the regional congestion management system (CMS) (1,2,3). The planning approach used in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to address both of these issues is to satisfy the demand for one hour of the day other than the peak hour. A plan is then developed which aggressively manages the transportation system and travel demand in the peak hours (4). Two key issues are involved in this philosophy—the equitable allocation of resources in the regional transportation plan (RTP) and the development of a congestion management system. This approach focuses on transportation system management (TSM) and travel demand management (TDM) activities in the peak hours where the demand would not be satisfied by other capital intensive projects. Additional capacity would only be provided where TSM/TDM strategies would not reduce congestion sufficiently to satisfy the non-peak travel demand. As a result, a series of scaled-back projects are proposed across the region as opposed to allocating resources in a few heavily congested areas while providing no improvements in other areas.

Since these recommendations are the result of the system planning process aimed at maximizing system-level performance and financial issues, the results in each corridor must be refined to reflect the specific issues for that corridor. This refinement of the RTP and CMS is the purpose of the major investment study. If the recommendations of the MIS differ from those of the RTP or CMS for the same horizon year, the RTP and CMS must be updated to reflect the recommendations. Since the RTP, including the CMS component, is financially constrained, any change in the financial assumption for the corridor will impact the entire RTP, thus requiring thorough evaluation. The relationship between the major investment study process, the congestion management system, and the regional transportation plan is shown in Figure 1.


As a cooperative effort between all participants, the following agencies and organizations should be involved to the appropriate degree in all major investment studies (1):

Social and economic effects in the corridor may warrant involvement from affected agencies including community development and governmental housing agencies. Such agencies may include the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, federal and state welfare agencies, and city development organizations. These agencies are included in all coordination meetings with the MIS team if substantial involvement is expected in residential or commercial areas under their jurisdiction.

In addition to the degree of involvement, the roles of each participating agency may differ depending on each MIS. The lead agency may be any agency mentioned in the previous list. This lead agency is responsible for the overall study coordination and documentation for the MIS. As part of the MIS initial coordination process, an agreement outlining the specific roles and responsibilities of each agency must be drafted and signed by all major participants in the study.


Both the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) and the final rules for metropolitan transportation planning stress the importance of proactive public involvement in decision making during an MIS (1,2). The level of public involvement during an MIS must be extensive in order to inform the public and solicit necessary input throughout the study process. At a minimum, the public must have the opportunity to comment on the proposed study methodology, the concepts and alternatives to be considered, any decisions resulting in the screening of concepts and alternatives, and the selection of a locally preferred alternative. In many cases it is most effective to involve the public more actively as members of focus groups, task forces, or advisory committees. This approach meets the public part of the decision-making structure and ensures that the process is open and responsive to the community. As part of each major investment study, public involvement must be appropriate for the scope and magnitude of the issues that will be addressed in the corridor.


The results of the MIS (for example, a final locally preferred alternative design) must be incorporated into the regional transportation plan (1). Placeholders included in the plan, both from a design concept and financial standpoint, must be replaced with the final recommendations of the MIS.

Design concepts matching those in the plan require no modification to the plan. However, endorsement of the recommendations is necessary. If the design concept is different (i.e., mode, number of lanes, spacing of interchanges, alignment), the plan must be modified by the governing body of the metropolitan area before proceeding to project development.

In addition to the design concept, the financial implications of the MIS recommendations must also be consistent with the plan's financial assumptions. As part of the MIS, more refined costs and revenue figures are developed which indicate how the project is expected to be financed and operated. If the refined net cost of the final recommendation, (referred to as the locally preferred alternative, LPA) is different from the plan assumption, two options are possible. The first option is to modify the funds for the corridor. However, in a financially constrained plan, funds must either be reduced in other corridors or additional funding sources (e.g., user fees) must be identified. The second option is to stage the project appropriately throughout the planning horizon. This second option may result in the design concept being modified in the plan.


The MIS process leads to improved transportation decisions which are consistent with transportation system performance, community resources, land usage, and environmental considerations. Major investment study results also provide input to subsequent National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documents. Under previous procedures, it sometimes became necessary to revisit certain elements of the system planning process during project level studies and NEPA documents in order to better define the purpose or to more fully consider a wider range of alternatives. The MIS eliminates this revisiting of analyses and reaches the most effective conclusion in the most efficient manner.


  1. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. Metropolitan Transportation Planning Regulations, 23 CFR 450 (c), October 1993.
  2. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, PL 102-240, December 18,1991.
  3. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. Traffic Congestion Management, 23 CFR 500, December 1993.
  4. North Central Texas Council of Governments Transportation Public Involvement Procedures, June 1, 1994.

CTRE is an Iowa State University center, administered by the Institute for Transportation.

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