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Chamber of Commerce: Empty Asphalt = Good Transportation Performance

Source: U.S. Chamber TPI 2011 Update.

The Chamber of Commerce released its annual Transportation Performance Index (TPI) last week [PDF], and you can tell it's due for a total overhaul, because according to the Index, recession-battered 2009 was a banner year for transportation performance.

Using 2009 data, the Chamber, a powerful lobbying group that represents millions of American businesses, determined that the performance of the nation’s transportation infrastructure is improving. However, even the Chamber dismisses the significance of its own results, saying the "improvement" is illusory -- due to the decline in driving, and thus congestion, during the recession. But there's another good reason to dismiss the results: The Chamber is measuring the wrong things.

The Chamber uses the TPI “to track the performance of transportation infrastructure over time... and demonstrate the connection between infrastructure performance, rather than spending, and the economy.” It claims to be the first organization to ever measure the correlation between the quality of transportation systems and economic growth.

But the Chamber's metrics produce some truly baffling results. During the economic torpor of 2009, the index experienced its greatest improvement in a single year since 1990. Despite the nonsensical figures, the Chamber uses the report release as an opportunity to call for renewed infrastructure investment.

“By all accounts, the nation’s transportation networks continue to languish.” said Janet Kavinoky, head lobbyist for the Chamber's infrastructure program. “The improvement of the TPI is not sustainable and does not represent a long-term trend... It is due to the economic downturn, rather than strategic policy and regulatory reforms or new investment."

That’s all true, but that's not the only reason to question the results of the TPI.

Of the 21 indicators the Chamber uses in its complex formulas, none deal with emissions. Of all of the ways the Chamber chooses to evaluate the U.S. transportation system, none investigates the effect on air and water quality. They certainly don’t take public health into account, ignoring the effect of our transportation choices on our waistlines or our lungs. In fact, the Chamber completely glosses over non-motorized transportation. Pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure doesn’t count as one of the “fixed facilities” the Chamber examines.

Here’s all you need to know to be convinced that the Chamber’s measurements of transportation performance don’t add up: Though it didn’t name the top states for transportation performance this year (that listing only comes out every other year), these were the top winners last year:

Source: U.S. Chamber of Commerce ## 2010##

Maybe that’s what you get when you evaluate performance on congestion based on “route-miles per 10,000 population” -- the higher the better. That's right. The Chamber judges congestion using a simple formula: asphalt divided by people.

The Dakotas don’t have a congestion problem because they have about 10 residents per square mile. If you want to see how a state deals with congestion, check out New Jersey (1,196 inhabitants per square mile). Trying to solve their congestion problem by building more “route-miles per 10,000 population” would be an exercise in futility.

Notably, the Chamber uses the Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility Report as its gold standard for measuring congestion, saying that methodological revisions in the TTI are a “game changer.” Report authors like that the TTI now measures off-peak travel times and includes San Juan, among other changes.

But those changes don't address the major defects with the Urban Mobility Report. Real, significant changes would have included a move away from highway traffic speeds as the main measure of urban mobility. CEOs for Cities has produced a detailed review of the report [PDF] that should give the Chamber pause when using it as a primary data source. Among their findings: The UMR rewards longer commute times as long as average driving speeds stay high, and it fails to recognize regions that have actually succeeded in making commutes shorter.

The Chamber’s performance index does take into consideration the availability of transit and rail, as well as safety indicators on all modes. But even the measurements of rail and transit availability only measure route-miles and capacity -- not frequency, reliability, ridership, or whether the route miles go to the right places, adequately connecting people with jobs and destinations.

So what are we left with? A transportation ranking that tells us that the wide-open states of the American West have wide-open highways, and that’s good for business. And as soon as those highways fill up with enough vehicles to justify their existence, better build more.

Clearly, as a representative of business interests, the Chamber believes it is looking out for the best thing for economic growth. But the assumptions it's using are out-of-date. Building a transportation system that produces economic growth in the 21st century does not entail creating the conditions for vehicle miles traveled to rise continually. A recent report from the Center for Clean Air Policy documented how GDP is increasingly disconnected from VMT. Even the Chamber has recognized this trend, stating that "the importance of travel as a component of the U.S. economy has been declining since the early 1990s.”

For next year's Transportation Performance Index, instead of more metrics praising empty highways, how about a smart growth indicator?

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