States Exploring Options for Future Transporation Projects

Even though states may not have the data to know how well their transportation investments fared, they still need to consider options that could maximize the value of any transportation spending.
by | May 13, 2011 AT 3:00 PM

When it comes to measuring the mileage of transportation dollars, many states are stuck in neutral. As we reported over in FedWatch, many states don't have the data to conduct performance measurements on their transportation projects.

This reality check, as noted in a new study released by the Pew Center on the States and the Rockefeller Foundation, comes at a critical time. Budgets are tight, funds are short and the next surface transportation authorization act is right around the corner.

Under this pressure, states have an opportunity to make smart investments in roads, highways, bridges and bus and rail systems that benefit (rather than burden) local economies. But to make the right decisions, you have to first consider all the options that could potentially get the most bang for the buck.

The result could be a complete overhaul of transportation plans or a shift in project priorities. For instance, the Ohio Department of Transportation recently ceased all talk of an integrated multimodal network. Republican Gov. John Kasich released a 34-page proposal this week, which aims to shift transportation priorities to pursue projects with greater economic potential and those with local government funding already in the pipeline, The Columbus Dispatch reports.

States might even want to explore other countries to see what's working and what's not. That's the plan in Virginia, which recently entered into a cooperative agreement with Germany, a known leader in intercity passenger rail and high-speed passenger rail. The agreement will allow the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) to exchange information and benefit from the policies and experiences of the German Federal Ministry of Transportation. According to DRPT, Germany is the second-largest export destination for the Virginia's products and services, and the state is home to more than 140 German companies, resulting in $12 billion in investment.

Capitalizing on this mutually beneficial partnership through collaboration represents a step in the right direction, especially when it comes to a huge investment like high-speed rail. Consider California, where its $43 billion high-speed rail project has come under fire in a new report out of the Legislative Analyst's Office called High-Speed Rail Is at a Critical Juncture. Back in 2008, California residents voted to sell $9 billion in bonds to help fund the high-speed rail, designed to connect Northern and Southern California. But this recent report urges the Legislature to cut spending and completely re-examine the project, which has been rattled with problems and could bury the state in an even deeper hole of debt. This is how columnist Dan Walters with the Sacramento Bee sees it:

There's probably no way for California to gather the untold tens of billions of dollars in construction money the system would require and operate bullet trains without subsidies or "revenue guarantees" to private investors.

However, before the rail authority moves dirt and pushes us into a bottomless money pit, we'd best find out for certain -- and have the guts to call it quits if the project doesn't add up.

Obviously, these tight financial times call for different strategies, more research and greater analysis. According to the Pew study, lawmakers can adopt the following practices to make smart transportation investments going forward:

Enact or improve performance measurement legislation. These measures could incentivize states to use information to make crucial policy changes and funding choices.

Develop an appropriations process that makes better use of data. Systems that examine funding history and past performance of agencies can help legislators make more informed decisions.

Increase the use of cost-benefit and other types of economic analysis in making transportation decisions. These economic assessments can be valuable when it comes to figuring out cost-effectiveness of a proposed transportation project.