State DOTs: We Back National Transport Goals — If We Get to Write Them

Congressional efforts to set national goals for the American transportation system are stalled
for now, but the U.S. DOT said today that it is preparing for an
eventual transition to a world where performance targets are the norm
for transit, roads, bridges, and ports.

interstate_traffic.jpg(Photo: UVA)

goals should be set by U.S. DOT in collaboration with states and
stakeholders," Federal Highway Administration executive director Jeffrey Paniatti said yesterday during a session of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) conference.

how will Washington measure progress on transportation metrics such as
safety, pollution reduction, and efficiency in states that are, as
Paniatti put it gently, "starting from different places"?

Rahn, the chief of Missouri’s state DOT and past president of the
American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
(AASHTO), had a simple answer: States should be in charge of the

"We believe there should be a state-driven
performance management approach," Rahn told TRB attendees, in which
"states establish targets which they can deliver given their unique

At AASHTO, he added, "we don’t envision a
process in which the Secretary of the U.S. DOT will dole out a share of
a target to each state … U.S. DOT would establish targets and we’d
certainly hope that the total cumulative balance of state targets would
equal the national [goal]."

And if state-written targets
don’t meet national performance standards? "[T]hat means the national
target is not realistic," Rahn said.

AASHTO’s lack of
interest in meeting transportation goals that are not written within
their ranks could create a major headache for the Obama administration,
should it pursue broader infrastructure reform that would hold state
DOTs accountable for their spending.

Letting states craft
performance measures internally would risk rigging the system to ensure
that DOTs always meet their targets — but if the federal government
wanted to effect broader change on a state or regional level, such as
lower emissions or fewer pedestrian deaths, where would it get leverage?

Paniatti and Rahn ruled out any attempt to threaten a loss of federal
transportation funding if goals were not met, a tactic successfully used in the 1980s to set the national speed limit at 55 miles per hour.

fact, Rahn fondly recalled his past work at a state DOT that
successfully gamed the speed-limit system. "We chose to put our speed
sensors in really sharp corners," he told the TRB audience, drawing
sporadic chuckles. "That’s why [the push for national transportation
targets] has to be a project we work on together."

state DOTs work to shape the Obama administration’s progress on
national transportation goals, it’s unclear whether any advocacy or
lobbying group exists to counter their influence.

Hecker, an infrastructure specialist at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s
transportation project, countered the suggestion from one state DOT
official that performance metrics ought to remain secret — the data
"has got to be available to the public," she said. But she also
emphasized that "the states should be the ones to interpret [national
performance goals] in a locally relevant way."

noted in his TRB remarks that the U.S. DOT is currently working on two
major research projects intended to guide the writing and
implementation of nationwide transportation targets.



Why Are State DOTs So Afraid of Accountability?

Deron Lovaas is the federal transportation policy director for NRDC. A version of this article appeared on his blog this morning. In this era of constrained resources, the country must move toward performance-based management and accountability for results in all sectors — including transportation. It’s a Culture of Consequences, in the words of the RAND […]
Photo: SFMTA

Transportation Agencies Will Finally Measure the Movement of People, Not Just Cars

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent in the quest for free-flowing vehicular traffic. The result is wider highways, more sprawl, and more people stuck in congestion. But this week U.S. DOT took an important step to change course, releasing new standards to guide how transportation agencies measure their performance. Advocates for transit and walkability say the policy is a significant improvement.