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.

Some commenters asked for better data on bicycle crashes, including separate fatality and injury data for bicycle and pedestrian crashes, and also for information per miles traveled – which would also require better data-keeping on bicycle miles traveled. In addition to providing far more useful safety information, better bike VMT data could also serve to justify larger public expenditures on bicycling infrastructure.

Freight decisions should take environmental and economic impacts into consideration, said a commenter called “railsolution,” who clearly thinks rail would often beat out highways in such an analysis.

Some MPOs wrote in worrying that too many performance measures could be to burdensome, or could unfairly compare them to other MPOs in an apples-to-oranges way.

Maybe performance measures themselves need to be examined for mutual contradiction. As commenter Phil Winters said, “Adding capacity may increase travel speeds but also may result in an increase (or decrease) in the number and/or severity of injuries and fatalities among ped/bicyclists.” Winters requested guidance and tech assistance to states/MPOs to identify and address the interrelationships.

Some want to mitigate congestion with turn lanes, another by broadcasting information about how many cars the highway can handle at any particular time.

Sometimes the comments contradict each other. Paul Minett suggested maximizing “passengership” as a performance goal, which is something transit advocates can get behind, but then said, “It does not matter if they are a passenger in a car, van, or bus, it all has the same impact on the traffic if they become a passenger rather than driving.” But then Phil Winters piped back up, saying various “non-SOV modes actually have different impacts in reducing vehicle trips.” After all, carpooling with one other person is great but doesn’t take as many cars off the road as a full bus.

There are some ideas on there that Streetsblog readers might take issue with, like the self-described “radical” perspective on safety: that the overwhelming cause of death on our national network is not due to the design or operation of the system but driver behavior. Commenter Michael Strange wants to move safety funds out of federal and state DOTs and into Health and Human Services. It’s reasonable to brainstorm the best place for safety funds – maybe they should go toward road diets and bicycle tours for DOT officials?

An idea by “rcase” is also raising some eyebrows, currently clocking “-2” votes (meaning it has two more no votes than yes votes). Rcase wants a set of financial performance measures, including “how quickly federal transportation money is spent (and therefore injected into the economy).” Looks like some other participants in this online dialogue think that might not be the most important criterion for project selection.

It’s a fruitful discussion so far. I look forward to checking back and seeing Streetsblog readers’ comments on the page.