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Posts from the "Performance Measures" Category

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State DOTs Brazenly Request a Blank Check to Build More Highways

Want your state DOT to support safer, multi-modal local streets? You can dream, but don't dare tell them what to do. Photo:flickr

“This is a money and power grab.”

“It’s very disappointing and very AASHTO.”

That’s how some transportation reformers are describing the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ new recommendations for the next surface transportation bill. The current bill, MAP-21, expires in less than a year.

AASHTO’s proposal is “so mired in protective technical-speak that it’ll fail to inspire anyone outside of state DOT technical staff — which I guess just sees ‘more money’ and that’s all they care about,” vented Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council upon seeing the document.

AASHTO’s recommendations boil down to one thing: less local control and more power at the state level. They want to wrest control over transit funds from transit agencies. They want more “flexibility” on every front. They want less distribution of funds to officials at the city or regional level — a move Lovaas calls “regressive” since “more and more people, businesses and jobs are becoming centralized in metro areas.”

MAP-21’s one real achievement, a provision allowing some degree of local control over funds for biking and walking, gets targeted in AASHTO’s wish list. AASHTO complains that states aren’t eligible for this relatively tiny pot of money, and demand to get their hands in the cookie jar that’s closed to them.

What’s more, Lovaas noted, AASHTO boldly resists any form of accountability. The association insists that no additional performance measures be implemented until the new ones from MAP-21 can be amply tested out. And yet they want to go full throttle with their agenda to accelerate “project delivery” — basically making an end run around environmental and community scrutiny.

Indeed, AASHTO is positively allergic to performance measures. They want to make sure states aren’t required to fix infrastructure that’s in the worst condition first, though they don’t explain why any other approach would make any sense. Over and over again, they affirm their “steadfast opposition” to “using performance measures as the basis for apportioning or allocating federal funds among the States” — in other words, having any mechanism whatsoever to ensure that they don’t spend billions of dollars on wasteful projects.

Above all, AASHTO says over and over that “the implementation of MAP 21 [and any subsequent bill] should avoid any unnecessary administrative burdens or unnecessary restrictions on State flexibility.” Translation: Hand over a blank check. Nowhere does AASHTO say how it intends to improve the transportation system, meet national goals like greater safety or environmental sustainability, or be more accountable to the public. They don’t even bother to explain the expected outcomes of their recommendations. The list is nothing but “give us the money and go away,” in the words of David Burwell, transportation analyst at the Carnegie Endowment.

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The Dangerous Myth That States Give More Than They Get For Transpo

The states in red get the biggest federal transportation subsidies relative to the amount they contribute in gas taxes. The states in violet get less than 100 percent of their gas taxes back in transportation money. What, there are no states in violet? Exactly. Source: FHWA (Click to enlarge.)

There is a pernicious myth among some states that they give more to Washington in the form of gas taxes than they get back in the form of federal transportation funding. A recent rash of federal bailouts — $35 billion between September 2008 and March 2010 — ensured a windfall for every state in the union. And yet many still believe that federal bureaucrats are skimming off the top of their payments to give their hard-earned highway money to the liberal subway-riders in New York or something. It’s a dangerous lie with serious repercussions.

FHWA has published a comparison of each state’s highway payments and allocations for fiscal year 2012 [PDF]. Two years after the last federal infusion to the trust fund, states are still profiting. Alaska gets back 7.28 times what it sends to DC. DC itself gets back its gas taxes 10 times over (because of all the federal infrastructure the city maintains). Montana and North Dakota get back three times what they pay. Vermont, almost five times. And not a single state gets back less than 100 percent of what they pay in. Kansas draws the shortest straw of all, which is still a five percent boost from the gas taxes the state contributes.

Even more telling: Looking at the cumulative ratios going all the way back to 1956, only five states — Indiana, Michigan, North and South Carolina, and Texas — have recouped less than 100 percent of the gas taxes they’ve sent to Washington. And those only by the barest margins.

There are two dangers to the falsehood that states get back less than they give.

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U.S. DOT Still Has Time to Get MAP-21 Performance Measures Right

Many transportation reform advocates were disappointed in the performance measures included in MAP-21, which was signed into law in July 2012. They weren’t tied to funding, they gave states and localities too much leeway to set their own performance targets, and they measured the wrong things. But there’s still a chance for them to get much stronger.

Eno, BPC and SSTI convened a daylong meeting of transportation experts to figure out how to improve MAP-21's performance measures within the constraints of the law itself. Photo: Eno

The Federal Highway Administration has six more months to finalize the rulemaking, in which they’ll define and give guidance on the metrics. Some at U.S. DOT feared that FHWA would neglect non-automotive modes, and reached out to the Eno Center for Transportation, the Bipartisan Policy Center and the State-Smart Transportation Initiative. Those groups convened a daylong task force in June, and yesterday they released their findings.

“Performance of the system, as we see it, isn’t just limited to the speed of cars,” said Eric Sundquist of SSTI, “but how does it work with the local network, how does it work with other modes, how does it perform in terms of some goals that are somewhat nontraditional for state DOTs — economic development, property values, livability, sustainability, and those sorts of things.”

Measuring our transportation network by those criteria might be “bleeding edge,” Sundquist acknowledged, and not on state DOTs’ radar. “But MAP-21, with its focus on system performance and congestion, certainly gets us a foot in the door in having the conversation,” he said. “And the way we do it under MAP-21 will probably set the pattern for how we think about it going forward.”

The groups focused their attention on two MAP-21 performance measures — congestion and system performance — that could be interpreted either to consolidate the dominance of highways or to promote multi-modalism, in hopes that they could inspire FHWA to do the latter.

We’ve written before about the dangers of a rulemaking that sets in stone a performance measure on congestion that measures nothing but travel delay for automobiles.

“Measures of congestion are largely highway-focused and are not necessarily providing a good indication of mobility and transportation outcomes,” Eno’s Joshua Schank told reporters yesterday. He said congestion isn’t always bad, especially in places where there’s still capacity to add more infrastructure for walking, biking, and transit, or where congestion isn’t harming economic development. “Congestion might not be the problem you’re trying to address,” he said, “but actually trying to get more mobility or accessibility to that area, rather than dealing with congestion itself.”

He’d like to change MAP-21′s “congestion” measure to one looking at average trip time. That’s a multi-modal way of addressing the issue people really care about: how long will it take them to get somewhere.

Tied to that is MAP-21′s metric on system performance. The only systems that metric evaluates are the national highway system and the interstate system. “It’s a synonym for congestion,” Schank said. “By its very nature, because you’re measuring the performance of those highway systems, you’re not looking at the larger system.”

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Why Are State DOTs So Afraid of Accountability?

Deron Lovaas is the federal transportation policy director for NRDC. A version of this article appeared on his blog this morning.

In this era of constrained resources, the country must move toward performance-based management and accountability for results in all sectors — including transportation. It’s a Culture of Consequences, in the words of the RAND think tank.  We need to use all the new tools and technologies at our disposal to ensure we get good bang from every buck.

Florida Transportation Chief Ananth Prasad has a message for U.S. DOT: When it comes to performance measures, we prefer the toothless kind. Photo: Joe Burbank, Orland Sentinel

Tell that to state DOTs.

Ensuring that reforms are effective requires setting clear goals. A few years ago, the Bipartisan Policy Center set out five goals for a sound transportation system: economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, energy security and environmental protection, and safety. If our transportation officials made sure every dollar they spent was in the service of those core goals, we would see immediate reforms.

In recent years performance management has become common practice in many fields, including education and medicine. And now it is coming to transportation. RAND found that tying performance to incentives is necessary to improve the performance of government bureaucracies. As RAND bluntly puts it, reformers should “make the rewards or penalties big enough to matter.”

So imagine my dismay when grantees of the national transportation program – state transportation departments – launched what appears to be a concerted campaign this week against accountability. Their target: one sentence in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s newly proposed strategic plan for 2014-2018.

Specifically, the state DOTs were up in arms about the modest bit of progress encapsulated in this line on page 28: “[DOTs will] Use the system performance information to drive programmatic and legislative linkages between system performance and Federal funding.” This is in the chapter about achieving a state of good repair, one of the two measures that DOT and states can most readily implement since they already collect a lot of data on it. (The other one is safety). Seems like a logical place to start connecting incentives to performance goals.

But the state DOTs weren’t having it. A flurry of seemingly coordinated responses started populating U.S. DOT’s website.

Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad posted the following “idea” on the DOT site: “Performance Measurement Must Not Be Linked To Funding.” Say what?

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Moving People or Moving Vehicles: How Should We Grade America’s Streets?

Darren Flusche is the policy director of the League of American Bicyclists.

Should the performance of this road…

…be measured like this one?

Under the new federal transportation bill, known as MAP-21, the performance of these two roads could be measured the same way — even though one is a bustling business district, and the other is an interstate highway. (Example provided by Transportation for America.)

MAP-21 expands the scope of the National Highway System by 60,000 lane-miles; now it will include many streets, called “primary arterials,” that don’t feel like highways at all. At the same time, the law directs U.S. DOT to set up performance measures for the $22 billion National Highway Performance Program – the largest transportation program under the new law – that will ultimately reward and penalize states for reaching or failing to meet these targets.

So, unless the performance measures are set appropriately, state DOTs will treat many streets that cut through neighborhoods essentially the same way they treat interstate highways: prioritizing speed over other factors. (Jonathan Maus at BikePortland has investigated what this could mean for his city, where he says local transportation leaders will have “much less leeway and independence to do innovative designs and to make changes to the streetscape without a potentially onerous process of seeking federal approval.”)

Which streets will that affect in your state? You can find the primary arterial routes that will be added to the NHS on the Federal Highway Administration’s website.

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UPDATE: Here’s Your Chance to Influence MAP-21’s Implementation

UPDATE 9/18 with comments from DOT officials.

In July, Congress handed U.S. DOT a transportation bill with a lot of holes in it, especially relating to performance measures. We’ve reported on some of the more significant holes, and suggested some ideas on how to fill them. But there’s much more to say – and U.S. DOT has opened a web-based dialogue to solicit opinions on how they should design performance measures for the new bill. There is also a page devoted to soliciting stakeholder input on how to design the new national freight policy.

Participants on U.S. DOT's public comment page have asked for better data collection on bicycle crashes. Photo: Canton, SD Police Department

Transportation bills haven’t historically been opened up to this sort of process, but with more sophisticated web tools now than in 2005, the last time a bill was passed, DOT officials say we’ll be seeing a lot more of it. I had wondered if they focused in on these two issues because there was internal dissent at DOT and they were looking for a tie-breaker, but officials frame it a different way — just an attempt to see if there is an “emerging consensus” that they should be tuning in to.

It’s especially important, as one official told me, because so many people felt left out of the legislative process around MAP-21. “We are trying to make sure we don’t repeat the mistake in implementation.”

They say the freight policy, especially, has generated a lot of interest, and they want to make sure their outreach captures all the good ideas out there. The call for comments on freight policy separates out different issue categories, each with a set of questions, but the page on performance measures is far more open to interpretation.

This is an opportunity not to be missed. We’re all stakeholders in the U.S. transportation system, and this is a way we can all have U.S. DOT’s ear — not just those who hire expensive lobbyists.

So far, there are 29 ideas on the performance measures page, and some of them are very thoughtful.

Alexandra Tyson suggested prioritizing state of good repair, essentially leading states to maintain existing capacity rather than constantly seeking to build more. Bill Barlow wants transit systems with good safety records to get some kind of bonus. “In the highway world,” he said, “projects get extra credits for high volumes of serious crashes.” Clearly there needs to be a better way.

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How State DOTs Got Congress to Grant Their Wish List

Bike and pedestrian funding got slashed. Federal assistance for transit operations was rejected. Even the performance measures – arguably the high point of the recently passed federal transportation bill – are too weak to be very meaningful. For Americans who want federal policy to support safe streets, sustainable transportation, and livable neighborhoods, there were few bright spots in the transportation bill Congress passed last month.

AASHTO Director John Horsley is thrilled with the new transportation bill, which gave state DOTs just about everything they wanted. Photo: International Transport Forum

But state transportation departments are celebrating. They scored victory after victory, getting a bigger share of federal funding with fewer rules and regulations attached.

In the Senate, advocates were able to work some reforms into the bill and mobilize grassroots support for amendments like the Cardin-Cochran provision, which put funds for street safety projects in the hands of local governments, not state DOTs. But the House never managed to pass a bill of its own, and the opaque conference committee process was an exercise in horse-trading that advocates found difficult to penetrate.

The final product, which included measures like raising the federal contribution for certain highway expansions, seemed finely tailored to benefit DOTs in several ways. “This is a bill written by and for the benefit of state DOTs at the expense of both federal oversight and regional and community outcomes,” wrote David Burwell, director of the climate change program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an email shortly after the bill passed. He said the policy changes “are too elegantly crafted and specific in their effect to have been written, or even conceived, by members of Congress or their staff.”

For state DOTs, access to lawmakers is a given. “We worked very closely with the House and Senate to craft those measures,” AASHTO Director John Horsley confirmed to Streetsblog in an interview yesterday. He said that while AASHTO offered recommendations, no text written by AASHTO made it into the bill verbatim, as far as he knows.

According to Horsley’s account, AASHTO followed a pretty standard script when it came to advocating for their interests on the Hill. Every stakeholder and special interest under the sun had its lobbyists knocking on lawmakers’ doors, offering their two cents – everyone from gravel producers to equipment manufacturers to environmentalists to free market fundamentalists. It’s just that the state DOTs seemed to get everything on their wish list.

Horsley said AASHTO had been laying the groundwork for many, many months before conference started, working with Republican House Transportation Committee staffers as well as aides of both parties in the Senate. (He didn’t mention working with House Democrats, who were shut out of the process from day one.)

The House is where the magic happened for AASHTO. “We’ve been very pleased with where the Senate bill started,” Horsley said. “And we were even more pleased when the House and the Senate in conference agreed to incorporate a lot of the House provisions that were even better for states.”

What were those House provisions? Horsley went through the list:

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A New Bill Passes, But America’s Transpo Policy Stays Stuck in 20th Century

The House of Representatives approved the transportation bill conference report this afternoon by a vote of 373 to 52. [UPDATE 4:00 PM: The Senate has also approved the bill, 74-19.] This is a bill that’s been called “a death blow to mass transit” by the Amalgamated Transit Union, “a step backwards for America’s transportation system” by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, “a retreat from the goals of sustainability and economic resiliency” by Reconnecting America, “a substantial capitulation” by Transportation for America, and “bad news for biking and walking” by America Bikes.

Remember the empty highways that symbolized the House Republicans' vision of America's transportation system? The final transpo bill might as well have the same unfortunate cover.

After more than 1,000 days of waiting since the last transportation bill expired, the nation’s new transportation policy is a grave disappointment to people seeking to reform the current highway-centric system.

The fact that the House GOP tried and, for the most part, failed to reverse the progress made under presidents Reagan and Bush the elder offers a small degree of consolation. “Some of the worst ideas pushed initially by House Republicans went nowhere – funding the highway system with new oil drilling revenues, taking transit out of the highway trust fund, de-federalizing transportation funding – to mention some of the most radical proposals that were seriously being put forward,” wrote Deron Lovaas of NRDC this morning. “But… that pretty much exhausts the good news.”

So what does the bill actually do? Overall, it doesn’t change a whole lot, and the most significant changes tend not to benefit livable streets or sustainable transportation. Here’s a breakdown.

Length and funding. The bill lasts a year longer than the Senate bill would have, expiring at the end of September 2014. That gives states, cities, and the construction industry substantially more stability and allows them to move forward on projects that have been delayed for years because of the uncertainty surrounding federal funding. It maintains funding levels at around $54 billion a year, as did the Senate bill, which is roughly current levels plus inflation.

While some have criticized the complex funding mechanisms that prop it up and its departure from a user-pays model, the Congressional Budget Office reported this morning that the bill actually reduces the deficit by $16.3 billion.

Everyone seems to understand that Congress won’t be able to pull this kind of magic for long and will soon have to deal with the long-term insufficiency of current Highway Trust Fund revenues to cover the nation’s transportation needs. However, the gas tax was not raised, and at the same time the House passed this bill, it also approved an appropriations bill that prohibits even studying the possibility of moving toward a VMT fee.

Non-transportation-related items. The Keystone XL pipeline and the EPA’s ability to regulate coal ash as a hazardous substance, introduced into the transportation negotiations by the House Republicans, were stripped out of the bill. The RESTORE Act to spend BP oil spill fines on Gulf Coast restoration is included.

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From a Reader: Seven More Questions For the Transportation Conference

Last week, I published a list of seven questions I had as the Transportation Conference Committee started meeting. I was examining the politics, not the policy. Turns out some readers wanted to hear more about the policy.

I asked the Cap’n what his questions would be. The reply:

Meanwhile, reader Ryan Richter sent in his revised list of questions too. They’re a little more specific, so I’ll start with Ryan’s. With any luck, the answers to Cap’n Transit’s questions will be woven into the answers below.

Thanks to both of you for keeping me focused on what really matters in this whole political hullabaloo.

Ryan’s first question:

1. How will public transportation fare after being practically decapitated in the last round?

Public transit came out a winner when members of the House GOP mounted their full-frontal assault against it. “The uprising was so immediate and so bipartisan [the Republicans] backed off,” said Deron Lovaas of NRDC. Democrats and some urban and suburban Republicans blew up at the idea that transit would no longer be eligible for its 20 percent of Highway Trust Fund dollars, which it’s gotten since the Fund’s Mass Transit Account was created under Ronald Reagan in 1983. Surviving an attempt against it makes transit that much stronger now – its opponents know that defunding transit is a losing issue for them.

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Lessons From the Former Chairman: Oberstar on Ending the Interstate Era

Streetsblog had a chance today to ask the former Democratic chief of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, about life since the 2010 election, when he lost by a hair to Republican Chip Cravaack. He said he’s spending his post-Congress time traveling to France, getting paid to say things he used to say for free, and telling his four kids and seven grandkids the story of his wife, who succombed to breast cancer 20 years ago.

We also asked him for his thoughts about some major themes in transportation today. 

Chairman Jim Oberstar calls transportation enhancements "the point of transformation" for transportation. Photo courtesy of Oberstar's office.

On the “dissipation” of high-speed rail funds:

We reshaped Amtrak in the 2008 authorization, designating 11 corridors and creating a mechanism by which there could be competition from private sources and from state consortia, with Amtrak, to provide the passenger rail service in a particular corridor.

At first, I didn’t like that idea, but I spent a lot of time talking to Mr. Mica about it and as we talked, I said, “You know, that’s beginning to make more sense. We ought to challenge Amtrak. That’s a good idea; let’s put this into the bill.” And then we got consensus that high-speed should be defined as 110 mph, and that was in the bill. And we got a bill that George Bush signed!

So there was a structure against which to pit [the $8.5 billion in stimulus dollars for high-speed rail]. I thought that was going to happen. Instead, it was all put up for competition for various states to come forward and put a proposal on the table.

Wisconsin, for example: to Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago. That should have been done as part of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Initiative, with Chicago as the hub, south to St. Louis, east through Detroit to Cleveland and eventually to Cincinnati, and west to Minneapolis-St. Paul. That would have been one very defensible, manageable anchor.

The Northeast Corridor could have been another important anchor. The west coast, which is already underway: a third anchor to this system. And then some other amounts in the other corridors, depending on proposals that they would have and should have submitted to DOT.

Allowing pieces to be bid or requested by states dissipated the critical mass of investment. And I’m not saying that in hindsight – that was my concern at the time.

On the attack on Transportation Enhancements in Congress:

Transportation Enhancements was the pivotal point of transformation at the end of the interstate era — an era in which travelers went where the road took them — to the era in which users of our system had a say in their quality of transportation and where that road should go in the future and how their transportation experience should be managed.

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