Project Name

Determinants of Preliminary Engineering (PE) Funding Variability

Research Team

Bethany Turner

John Miller, Ph.D.


Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research

Project Dates

8/10/2012 - 12/31/2013

Project Description

Preliminary engineering (PE) may loosely be described as detailed physical planning and design conducted during project development, after which a project’s scope, cost estimate, and financial plan should not be changed (Smith, 2009; FTA, 2007). Preliminary engineering is also a phase in the project development process that is differentiated from the right of way and construction phases in terms of expenditures. The allocation of PE funds in a given fiscal year to a particular set of projects serves two conflicting goals: (1) ensure sufficient funds are spent on PE in the current fiscal year in order to prepare enough projects for construction (CN) spending in further fiscal years; yet (2) constrain total spending on PE in this fiscal year in order to ensure that enough monies are spent on CN in this fiscal year.

This research effort will (1) define preliminary engineering; (2) examine Virginia trends in the percentage of funds spent on PE versus RW versus CN at the district level; (3) identify factors influencing this PE percentage for different types of projects (e.g., highway-only versus multimodal); and (4) as appropriate, compare the Virginia results with those in other states. The result will be an identification of best practices for determining an expected balance of funds between PE and other project development phases. While it is possible these results may be used by agencies with project decision-making authority, a larger benefit may be to inform other stakeholders (e.g., MPOs, localities, or advocacy groups) who wish to influence the transportation planning process. The key challenge in this project is achieving these objectives within the constraints of available data as discussed in Appendices A and B.


1. Define preliminary engineering. A literature review will be conducted to determine what tasks comprise preliminary engineering as opposed to the other phases of construction. The answer is context-dependent; FHWA (2011) agues that “the point where planning ends and project preliminary engineering begins is a critical discussion that needs to occur” for any given project where a NEPA analysis will be required. For example, Maryland does not have a preliminary engineering construction phase per se in its Consolidated Transportation Program (Maryland DOT, 2011). However, what Maryland defines as the planning phase appears to resemble what Virginia would define as its preliminary engineering phase, where planning is defined as follows: “Once a proposal is funded for project planning, detailed studies and analyses are conducted to evaluate the need for the project, to establish the scope and location of proposed transportation facilities and to obtain environmental approvals.”

2. Examine the construction spending in other states’ transportation programs to determine a range of construction targets. First, a review of publicly available information such as state construction programs, will be undertaken and the proportion of funds devoted to construction will be tabulated. Then, a few interviews will be used to determine the practices used by those states to estimate preliminary engineering funds.

3. Examine Virginia spending over a period of years to determine how Virginia compares to the best practices nationwide. Information gleaned from a subset of Virginia programming documents will e sued to determine the proportion of funds spent on PE relative to other construction phases. If the proportion of Virginia construction phase spending is below the construction target, then this research should compare Virginia practices to the best nationwide practices to determine how Virginia might achieve a higher construction spending target. If the proportion of Virginia construction spending meets the Construction target, then clarification of the transportation program’s structure will alleviate this perception. At this point in time, it appears that the proper way to acquire these data will be to manipulate the VDOT Business Objects Database (BOXI) based on conversations with VDOT staff who work in this area.