States spent an estimated $131 billion on transportation in fiscal year 2010, but many cannot answer critical questions about what returns this investment is generating, according to a new report by the Pew Center on the States and the Rockefeller Foundation.
The study comes at a time when some members of Congress are proposing that the next surface transportation authorization act, the law that governs the largest federal funding streams for states’ transportation systems, more closely tie dollars to performance.
The report, Measuring Transportation Investments: The Road to Results, found considerable differences among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in linking transportation systems to six key goals particularly important to states’ economic well-being and taxpayers’ quality of life: safety, jobs and commerce, mobility, access, environmental stewardship and infrastructure preservation.
Only 13 states — California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington — have goals, performance measures and data to help decision makers prioritize transportation spending. Nineteen states trail behind, lacking 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 and Washington, D.C., fall someplace in between, with mixed results.
Most states are entering their fourth year of the ongoing budget crisis, having closed more than $400 billion in budget gaps since 2008. 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.
“State lawmakers must make transportation policy and spending choices based on evidence about what works and what does not,” said Robert Zahradnik, director of research, Pew Center on the States. “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 American public expects leaders to manage our transportation investment with an eye toward performance and results. In fact, in our recent Rockefeller Foundation Infrastructure Survey, 90 percent 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,” said Nicholas Turner, Rockefeller Foundation managing director. “This report, which comes at a time when performance and outcomes are such critical pieces of the transportation policy debate, provides both examples of how a handful of states do this well and how many others still have a long road ahead of them.”
The six key goals are:
- Safety: This is the area in which states are doing the best job of measuring performance and responding to results. Every state and Washington, DC, 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.
- 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. 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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 percent of its primary roads be in fair or better condition. The state surveys conditions each year to gauge its performance.
The report describes policies and practices lawmakers can adopt to collect and use information that can improve taxpayers’ return on investment in states’ transportation systems, even in difficult fiscal times. Among them:
- Enact or improve performance measurement legislation. At both the federal and state levels, legislation can seek to mandate or incentivize 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.
- 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.
States were assessed based on a review of more than 800 performance, planning and budget documents. They were rated on one of three levels — leading the way, having mixed results or trailing behind — for each of the six key goals. Each state also was given an overall rating.