Most states lack the ability to measure the payoff of the combined $131 billion they spent on transportation last year, according to a new study that finds states lagging when it comes to performance measurement on their transportation investments.
The conclusion is troubling: At a time when state budgets are tighter that they've been in years, leaders are ill-informed about how to best use their resources, and they lack knowledge of whether their investments are yielding adequate results.
Officials in just 13 states have suitable goals, performance measures and data to help prioritize their transportation spending, according to the study released Wednesday by the Pew Center on the States and the Rockefeller Foundation
The report encourages states to measure how transportation dollars impact six areas: safety, jobs and commerce, mobility, access, environmental stewardship and infrastructure preservation. As federal lawmakers craft a new highway bill that could provide as much as six years of funding for roads, many transportation experts are calling for the legislation to place a greater emphasis on performance measurement. Thursday's report underscores that argument. "State lawmakers must make transportation policy and spending choices based on evidence about what works and what does not," said Robert Zahradnik, director of research at Pew Center on the States, in a statement. "Unless states have clear goals, performance measures and data to generate that information, it is very difficult for policy makers to prioritize transportation investments effectively, target scarce resources and help foster economic growth." The study notes that historically, transportation spending and policy decisions made at the state level has not been linked to data analysis. A 2010 Government Accountability Office report found “only a select few states have made significant attempts to integrate performance measurement into their statewide planning process to inform investment decisions.” While officials in 30 states say political support impacts which projects get selected, those in just 11 states say economic analysis played as role, according to that GAO study. The Pew/Rockefeller report finds that states are best at measuring results in the safety category, where they are able to compile extensive data on fatalities and crashes. They're the weakest at measuring how their transportation spending impacts jobs. It's important to note that the study did not evaluate whether states actually achieved the goals of their projects; rather, it determined whether states had the metrics to make those determinations on their own. The report calls for lawmakers to make better use of data in the appropriations process and use a cost-benefit analysis when making transportation decisions. States earning the report's top marks include: California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington. Each of those states were leaders in data-based decision making in at least five of the six categories, and none were behind the curve in any category.