Bang for the Buck: How States Spend Precious Transpo Dollars

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(Matt Dellinger - Transportation Nation) Last week, we noted that Indiana and Pennsylvania had launched formal studies to explore transportation funding opportunities—a move that somewhat resembles dithering, given that both states already posses a keen enough sense of funding sources to have made several attempts at additional tolling and/or taxing and/or privatization over the last few years

Today, the Pew Center on the States and the Rockefeller Foundation (a financial benefactor to Transportation Nation) offer a helpful layer to the drumbeat for more investment. Their new report, Measuring Transportation Investments: The Road to Results, investigates not where more money might come from, but our habits in spending the money we have. Pew and Rockefeller analyze the criteria (or lack thereof) that states use (or don’t) to greenlight projects and measure their success.

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If, in this new age of austerity, we’re going to have to “doing more with less,” as House Transportation Chairman John Mica likes to suggest, then we’ll want to avoid waste. That would mean, in essence, finishing smart projects and not starting dumb ones.

But separating the smart from the dumb has been all too subjective a task, and to execute a single project often requires decades-long agreement among multiple administrations’ officials at the federal, state, and local levels. This precarious arrangement has recently failed spectacularly, and millions of dollars have been wasted laying the groundwork for projects—like the ARC tunnel and Florida High Speed Rail—that would later fall through political trap doors. Turning this game of Chutes and Ladders into a smooth pipeline of worthwhile infrastructure won’t be easy.

Click the map for interactive version.

“Some Americans may think of the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems as ends unto themselves,” the Pew-Rockefeller study says. “In fact, they are instruments that can influence broader societal goals—from strengthening our economies and giving citizens better access to jobs to creating a cleaner environment. Slowly but surely, federal and state policy makers are beginning to realize this. Still, in many states, this process is in its early stages, and states vary enormously in how well they are tracking transportation’s impact on key policy goals.”

The report goes on to call out specific states as being particularly thoughtful (Oregon, Maryland, Missouri, Minnesota) or not (Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Hampshire) when it came to employing cost-benefit analysis and performance measures into their 2010 spending. (See the interactive map and state-by-state fact sheets here.)

The Pew-Rockefeller paper is not the first to suggest the importance of bringing clear goals and rigorous performance analysis into transportation decision-making. Similar ideas were championed in the 2006 manifesto of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, and objective cost-benefit analysis is a key element to the National Infrastructure Bank concept. But this new study lays out the state-by-state practices in a way that’s rather astounding and instructive.

Rationalizing funding is the goal of Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) and Senator Frank Lautenberg, who today introduced a bill that would create an “American Infrastructure Investment Fund.”

A lite version of the perennial National Infrastructure Bank idea, the Fund wouldn’t insist on revenue-positive projects (thus, the name “fund” rather than “bank”), it would give grants in addition to loans and loan guarantees, and it would operate as part of the USDOT, rather than as an independent entity. But as with the proposed bank, the eponymous investments from the Fund would be directed to large projects that met agreed-upon criteria beyond (often temporary) political support.

Under the new measure, a seven-member board of directors—made up of the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Energy, and four executives of the Department of Transportation appointed by the Secretary—would set the strategic focus of the fund, create an investment plan, and review applications. But certain standards would be mandated by the legislation.

The perfect project, as the bill defines it, would be one that “leverages Federal investment by encouraging non-Federal contributions to the project, including contributions from public-private partnerships;... improves energy efficiency or reduces greenhouse gas emissions; helps maintain or protect the environment, including reducing air and water pollution; reduces congestion; ... demonstrates that the proposed project cannot be readily and efficiently realized without Federal support and participation; and enhances national or regional economic development, growth, and competitiveness.”

Any nominations? Tell us in the comments section, to the left.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.