The state of state transportation spending

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Transportation matters and it matters more today because dollars are scarce.” –Robert Zahradnik, director of research for the Pew Center on the States, discussing the group’s new report Measuring Transportation Investments: The Road to Results

Now seriously – would you REALLY be surprised to discover that many state governments can’t definitely determine what they’re getting in return for billions upon billions in transportation spending every year?

Well, it’s not shocking news to me – and now I’ve got confirmation of my suspicions, courtesy of a new report by the Pew Center on the States and the Rockefeller Foundation called Measuring Transportation Investments: The Road to Results.

The Pew Center’s transportation experts found that while states spent an estimated $131 billion on transportation in fiscal year 2010, the large majority cannot answer critical questions about the return on investment (ROI) -- if any -- these billions are generating.

[Below, Robert Zahradnik, director of research for the Pew Center on the States, discusses why determining the effectiveness of state transportation spending is so critical.]

In fact, just 13 states – California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia (my home state!) and Washington – maintain goals, performance measures and data to help decision makers prioritize transportation spending.

Another 19 states, though, lack a full array of tools needed to account for the return on investment in their roads, highways, bridges and bus and rail systems. The remaining 18 states – plus Washington, D.C. – fall someplace in between, with mixed results.

This need to determine to track the effectiveness of transportation spending is also critical as most states are entering their fourth year of the ongoing budget crisis, having closed more than $400 billion in budget gaps since 2008.

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At the same time, policy and business leaders across the country are acknowledging that states’ transportation systems are essential to helping advance short- and long-term economic growth, according to Zahradnik.

“State lawmakers must make transportation policy and spending choices based on evidence about what works and what does not,” he said. “Unless states have clear goals, performance measures and data to generate that information, it is very difficult for policy makers to prioritize transportation investments effectively, target scarce resources and help foster economic growth.”

The Pew Center’s report examined six goals state transportation planners should be aiming at in terms of determining the ROI for the billions being spent annually on roads, bridges, bus and rail systems and how successful they’ve been in achieving them:

Safety: This is the area in which states are doing the best job of measuring performance and responding to results, according to the Pew Center’s study. Every state and Washington, D.C., has goals and compiles data on indicators such as fatalities and crashes. For example, Oregon measures the number and rate of crashes in which large trucks were at fault. Based on data focusing on commercial drivers, the state has instituted more frequent inspections, safety compliance reviews and removal of drivers in the event of violations.

Jobs and commerce: Conversely, only 16 states earn top marks for measuring their transportation systems’ performance in this area. Some have begun to develop methods to connect transportation dollars more closely with jobs and commerce. Michigan, for instance, uses an analytical tool to estimate the economic benefits of transportation spending over time, including jobs by industry sector, the value of shipments and gross state product. But many are struggling to make those linkages, the group found.

[Much of these findings dovetail with other, broader efforts to redirect U.S. transportation strategy, by the way.]

Mobility: Twenty-eight states and Washington, DC, are doing a good job measuring how well they connect people to their destinations, using the information to combat congestion and manage accidents and other incidents that affect traffic flow, according to the Pew Center. For example, Washington State uses performance data to track accidents and responses, not only as a means of improving safety but also to cut down on the time wasted and the mobility lost when an incident clogs the highway system.

Access: Half the states and Washington, DC, are leading the way in collecting and tracking information about the availability and use of transportation options such as public transit, including in linking workers and employers, the group found. Minnesota, one state that earns high marks in this area, tracks data on the percentage of important commercial centers served by inter-city bus service.

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Environmental stewardship: Thirty-four states and Washington, DC, show mixed results or are trailing behind in having the goals, performance measures or data in place to assess how their transportation systems affect the environment. But some states, such as Maryland, are taking steps forward. Maryland tracks its progress in reducing vehicle miles traveled, measures reductions in energy consumption by examining the use of hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles and presents annual data on acres of wetlands or wildlife habitat created, restored or improved, the Pew Center noted.

Infrastructure preservation: More than three-quarters of states earn top marks for having needed information to assess their progress and make smart decisions in this area. For example, Virginia has set a target that 82% of its primary roads must be in fair or better condition and it surveys conditions each year to gauge its performance, according to the Pew Center’s research.

[The same infrastructure pressures exist at the federal level, too. Last year, Kate Siggerud, managing director for physical infrastructure at the U.S. General Accountability Office, discussed some of these issues.]

The group’s report also delves into what it dubs “best policies and practices” lawmakers can adopt to collect and use information that can improve the ROI for state transportation dollars, even in difficult fiscal times. Those recommendations include:

Enact or improve performance measurement legislation. At both the federal and state levels, legislation can seek to mandate or provide incentives states to go beyond simply collecting information and actually use it to make important transportation policy and funding choices. For instance, in some cases, budget requests are tied to submission of performance data.

Develop an appropriations process that makes better use of data. States need to develop more comprehensive systems to ensure that policy makers are asking for and using solid information in their deliberations about transportation spending. Some Connecticut legislators, for example, use data from agencies’ past performance, including demonstrated accomplishments, before they make new funding choices.

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Increase the use of cost-benefit and other types of economic analysis in making transportation decisions. Economic analysis can be valuable in assessing the cost effectiveness or economic impact of a proposed transportation project. Missouri, for example, estimates the number of jobs that may be created by proposed transportation projects. The state also estimates job creation by specific industry. This method can help inform decisions about transportation investments.

Nicholas Turner, managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, noted that this report should serve as a “wake up call” to state transportation planners as continuing budget pressures means they must make far better use of scare fiscal resources.

"The American public expects leaders to manage our transportation investment with an eye toward performance and results,” he said. “In fact, in our recent Rockefeller Foundation Infrastructure Survey, 90% favored strengthening policies that hold government accountable for collecting data and ensuring that investments fit into an overall plan that is on time and on budget, [for] performance and outcomes are critical pieces of the transportation policy debate.”

Let’s hope both state and federal lawmakers take that philosophy to heart.

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