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Blogging from TRB: More Prep for a Performance-Based Reauthorization
TRB panelists discussed how to put pieces in place for the reauthorization of the U.S. transportation bill. Photo by woodleywonderworks.

TRB panelists discussed how to put pieces in place for the reauthorization of the U.S. transportation bill. Photo by woodleywonderworks.

Talk of the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill, and how to prepare for it, permeated this year’s Transportation Research Board meeting. (See what we’ve wrote about it before here.)  As a follow-up to a session on visions for performance-based reauthorization, officials from the Bipartisan Policy Center, the USDOT and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee added their perspectives.  This panel was recorded and will be available after the meeting on TRB’s website. In the meantime, see some notes, below.

Emil Frankel, the director of transportation policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, discussed several key issues that designers of a performance-based system must address:

  • Sustainability measures must be included
  • The role of the federal government should be prescriptive but permissive, leaving the “how” up to states
  • Measures should be simple and understandable, for example:
    • Access to jobs
    • CO2 reduction
    • Per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT)
  • Performance must be tied to funding, with either bonuses for achieving goals or penalties for not achieving them
  • Regulators must pay attention to trends, not targets, to indicate whether a state is addressing goals
  • It will be difficult to measure performance when it may take 20 years to design, build and use a piece of infrastructure.  As a result, we may need a predictive system.

Jack Wells, the Chief Economist at the USDOT, drew on his experience with the DOT’s Strategic Plan, which currently uses performance measures.  Key lessons are that targets must be achievable but must stretch capabilities, the benefits of reaching them must be greater than the costs, and the system must be enforced by sanctions that motivate actors but are not “nuclear options.”

Wells discussed the difficulty of the federal-state interaction when it comes to measuring performance.  In the case of the Strategic Plan, the DOT is responsible for meeting the targets identified, but how the states spend their money, and whether they contribute to meeting those targets, is beyond its control.  Many members of the Obama administration and members of Congress are in favor of giving the federal government more authority over how funds are spent.  For instance, the bill put forth by Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) requires state investment plans and annual reports so federal officials can compare progress between states.  This practice has been avoided in the past, as the feds have been afraid of souring their partnerships with states.

Wells also emphasized the varying quality of data for different areas.  For instance, sustainability data is plentiful and comprehensive, while data on economic competitiveness is sparse, as are methodologies for measuring it.  Livability data is also poor and not well-defined (somewhat concerning, Wells put forth a rather narrow definition of livability being used at the DOT – the “accessibility of people to multiple modes of transit.”)

Susan Binder added a few thoughts from her experience with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

  • A performance-based reauthorization bill should be seen as not one bill but a series of bills.  We should concentrate on setting a policy direction and learn as we go along.
  • A performance-based system must not stifle innovation.
  • Performance must be evaluated at the program/system level, not the project level.
  • We must watch out for the potential to micromanage.
  • We should recognize that states and localities do not only need new data but also the tools to understand it.

All speakers recognized the uncertainty of when a multi-year reauthorization bill will be finalized – it could be months or even years.  They stressed the importance of putting the necessary systems in place now.

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