Rockefeller-Pew Report Says Performance Measurement Key to Assessing Transportation Investments

Last week I blogged about a recent forum in which transportation and infrastructure experts came together to discuss how to move the conversation forward on addressing the nation’s infrastructure needs. One of the consistent themes throughout that meeting involved the need to put greater emphasis on performance metrics to assure the public and their representatives in government that investments in infrastructure are being well spent and having the kind of impact they hope in areas like economic development. Well there’s a new report out today from The Rockefeller Foundation and the Pew Center on the States that assesses the capacity of all 50 states to use those kinds of metrics to identify just what they’re getting for their transportation dollars.

“State policy makers want to demonstrate they are delivering the most cost-effective services possible for the public,” write the authors of the report entitled “Measuring Transportation Investments: The Road to Results.” “Today, it is more important than ever that every tax dollar spent on transportation generates the best results and advances states’ short- and long-term economic interests. Most states are entering their fourth year of the ongoing budget crisis, with revenues far below pre-recession levels and expenditures rising—and policy makers around the country are making tough choices about where to spend limited resources.”

But according to the report only 13 states—California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington—have the necessary goals, performance measures and data collection in place to help decision makers ensure that transportation investments are advancing such policy objectives as economic growth (jobs and commerce), safety, mobility, access, environmental stewardship and preservation of existing infrastructure. Nineteen other states lack the full array of tools necessary to tally the return on their investment. The remaining 18 states and Washington, D.C. fall somewhere in the middle, the report finds.

“To advance these broader objectives, state lawmakers must make transportation policy and spending choices based on solid information about what works and what does not,” the report’s authors write. “But unless states have clear goals, performance measures and good data in place to generate the information, it is very difficult for policy makers to prioritize transportation investments effectively, target scarce resources and help foster economic growth.”

The report rates states at one of three levels (leading the way, having mixed results or trailing behind) for each of six objectives. The policy goals and state performance measurement of them break down like this:

  • Safety: All 50 states and Washington, D.C. were “leading the way” in assessing safety performance using such measures as traffic fatalities and injuries.
  • Jobs and Commerce: 16 states lead the way in assessing how well the transportation system facilitates or supports business development and employment using such measures as job creation, freight movement and estimates of economic return from policies and investments.
  • Mobility: 28 states and Washington, D.C. lead the way in assessing the efficient movement of people between destinations using such measures as congestion levels, travel times, travel speed and volume, time lost to traffic delays and on-time transit performance.
  • Access: 25 states and D.C. lead the way in assessing the ability of the transportation system to connect people to desired goods, services, activities and destinations for both work and leisure, and to meet the transportation needs of different populations. Performance measures include availability and use of multimodal transportation options (transit, pedestrian, bike) for the general public and populations with special needs (elderly, disabled, low-income).
  • Environmental Stewardship: 16 states lead the way in assessing the effect of the transportation system on energy use and the natural environment using such performance measures as fuel usage, transportation-related emissions, climate change indicators and preservation of and impact on ecological systems.
  • Infrastructure Preservation: 39 states and D.C. lead the way in assessing the condition of the transportation system’s assets using such measures as the physical condition of roads, bridges, pavements, signs, culverts and rail systems.

The report recommends several actions lawmakers can take to improve measurement of state transportation investments and their impacts. They include:

  • Improving the information – States can seek to improve the usefulness of performance measures and make sure they link to concrete goals that reflect state priorities. There is also a need to establish consistent measures for common benchmarking across all states, particularly in areas like commerce and access, the report finds.
  • Enacting or improving performance measurement legislation – According to the report, such legislation generally prescribes: a consistent use of measurement, benchmarking against goals and evaluation and seeks to go beyond collecting the data to mandate that the information is actually used when transportation policy and funding choices are made.
  • Developing an appropriations process that makes better use of data – States can develop more comprehensive systems that ensure that policy makers are asking for and using solid information in their transportation spending deliberations.
  • Increasing the use of cost-benefit and other types of economic analysis in making transportation decisions – According to the Government Accountability Office, only about 20 percent of states report that economic analysis of projects was of great or very great importance in deciding what to include in their statewide transportation plans.
  • Better connecting goals, measures and plans
  • Tracking citizen feedback on transportation
  • Improving intergovernmental and interagency coordination

The complete 108-page report is well worth a read (there’s a 15-page Executive Summary as well) because not only is performance measurement going to be important for states facing limited transportation revenues in the years ahead, it is likely to be a key focus of the next federal surface transportation reauthorization as well.

Transparency and accountability were heavily emphasized in 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and several states stepped up to the plate, as detailed in my 2010 CSG national report “Shovel-Ready or Not? State Stimulus Successes on the Road to Recovery.” But the Government Accountability Office has reported that state officials had difficulty attributing benefits directly to Recovery Act spending since many transportation projects drew funding from a number of different sources. Long-term impacts may be even harder to assess, GAO said.

“Although recipients reported jobs funded, other long-term impacts of Recovery Act investments in transportation are unknown at this point,” Phillip Herr, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure, told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this month. “Although (the U.S. Department of Transportation) has set broad performance goals for its high speed intercity passenger rail and TIGER programs—and is currently evaluating the best methods for measuring objectives and collecting data—it has not committed to assessing the long-term benefits of the Recovery Act investments in transportation.”

Any future federal spending on transportation is likely to come with even more performance measurement and return on investment strings attached. So it’s important that states get benchmarks in place and start using them now to evaluate transportation investments.

CSG is a supporter of state performance measurement efforts. Our States Perform interactive website provides users access to customizable data for 50 states across six key areas including transportation. I encourage you to check it out and learn more about the kinds of data being collected around the country and where the gaps may lie. More knowledge of the true impact of transportation investment will help ensure that the right kinds of investment are being made, that taxpayer dollars are being well spent and that future investments are supported by taxpayers and policy makers alike.

Additional Reading:

National Transportation Policy Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Strengthening Connections Between Transportation Investments and Economic Growth,” January 2011

NTPP, “Transitioning to a Performance-Based Federal Surface Transportation Policy,” March 2010.

NTPP, “Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy,” June 2009.