Developing Transportation ROI Metrics: Easier Said than Done

Prickly details

Prickly details

Calling for a “consumer-based transportation model,” House Speaker William J. Howell intends to submit a bill in the upcoming session of the General Assembly to base project funding decisions upon “specific, quantifiable and measurable metrics.” The hope is that money will start flowing to projects not on the basis of politics and ideology but on the amount of congestion relief, improved safety and economic development they offer.

I have been touting such an approach for years. I even took a stab at using congestion and safety measures to gauge the benefits of the Charlottesville Bypass, guesstimating that the project would yield a sup-par 3.3% Return on Investment.  Since then, Virginia’s Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment has started developing its own methodology for linking transportation goals to investment priorities for the purposes of long-range planning.

The task doesn’t sound so difficult in the abstract. But it can get prickly when you get into the briars and thorns. The federal government has launched a similar initiative as an outgrowth of its 2012 MAP-21 legislation. That law set into motion the development of performance-based criteria for surface transportation investments, including road, rail, bike and pedestrian travel.

As Tanya Snyder reports for the D.C. Streets Blog, once you start digging into the metrics, they get complicated real fast. The Department of Transportation opened up a web-based dialogue and got an earful — much of it very constructive, but all of it adding to the complexity of the task.

For example: How do you measure highway congestion? By tracking the average speed of travel on roads and highways? By the number of hours of congestion? It doesn’t sound too daunting. But the Texas Transportation Institute recently introduced the “planning time index,” which purports to measure the extra amount of time people build into their trips to avert the risk of delays. That measure recognizes that congestion varies widely, depending upon weather, accidents or special events, creating uncertainty. Should transportation metrics incorporate planning time?

Another example: Roads and highways exist to accommodate the high-speed movement of cars and trucks over comparatively long distances. But the function of streets, in the taxonomy of transportation, is to accommodate cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians in order to provide local access. The thrust of the “complete streets” movement is to balance the needs of all transportation modes. Metrics that focus exclusively on the movement of cars would short-change other transportation modes. Sounds great — but how do you measure bicycle and pedestrian traffic? And how do you weigh the utility of free-flowing conditions for, says, cars vs. bicycles?

The potential exists for transportation metrics to become a tangled mess in which road, transit, bike and pedestrian advocates seek to shape the metrics to favor their preferred transportation mode. Sigh. I guess that’s inevitable in a democracy. The key to making this work in Virginia is to develop an open, transparent process and give it enough time for thoughtful debate. As he drafts his legislation, Speaker Howell would be well advised to pay special attention to the process of how the metrics are determined so all interested parties get to participate.


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17 responses to “Developing Transportation ROI Metrics: Easier Said than Done

  1. re: ” The potential exists for transportation metrics to become a tangled mess”

    how about – transportation itself being a mess?


    We’ve come up with a priority system at our local MPO but the very first cut is that interstates are not funded from the same pot as state roads are or regional/local roads so the “priorities” have to stay within each funding category which pretty much dorks the rest of it.

    the second aspect is just as much a conundrum just for roads or rail – considered separately.

    what are the things that are most important to people – not highway engineers or politicians or developers.

    I would posit that two of the most important to most folks are:

    1. – reliable/predictable trip time – no matter whether it’s 800 miles or 8 miles.

    2. – network redundancy if the primary route gets closed down. is there a viable bail out alternative that you know about in advance so you can take it and not get caught in the maul?

    both of these things I would submit are important to most people and both of these things can be provided without one foot of additional pavement if you think about it.

    How many people – if they KNEW before they left their house that it was going to take them 45 minutes longer than normal to get to their destination would do something else – INSTEAD of heading to the same mess to become part of the gridlock?

  2. This is classic for you on this issue, Bacon. And for the No Growth Not Smart Growth crowd you speak for. You want NO new roads, and minimal effort to expand capacity of existing roads. So having successfully advocated a ROI model to set priorities, you will not set about arguing that NO project meets a decent ROI return or if it appears to, then the method must be flawed.

    Soooooo predictable.

    • Breckenridge is completely right. The only reason that the no growthers want an ROI analysis is so they can use the analysis to delay all road projects. No matter what analysis is done the no growthers will claim that it is overly optimistic. They’ll complain, they’ll sue, they’ll use the ROI as a weapon against progress. We’ve already heard Jim Bacon’s belief that no population growth estimates can be made because population growth has been structurally changed since 2007. Guess what? No population estimates = no ROI analysis.

  3. “You will NOW set about arguing….”one day I’ll learn to proofread before hitting post….(I like those places that let you preview…)

  4. glad to see Breckinridge has similar problems with his keyboard as I do!

    but why are dynamic tolls not a good proxy for “priorities”?

    this is a very conservative idea – it comes from none other than the Heritage folks. It goes directly to the heart of supply/demand.

    why spend time tying to construct what we “think” are priorities when we can actually put a price on it and find out pretty dang quick how valuable a road is or is not to people?

    I would advocate tolls even if we have money for new roads because dynamic tolls pretty much manage demand and would extend the life of most roads.

    why don’t we sell road capacity the same way we sell gasoline or any other product – supply/demand?

  5. I’ve talked with a number of engineers who see our transportation network as just that – a network. Any network has primary routes, peak and slack demand. A network operator cannot afford to build its network to handle any level of demand. It’s too expensive. Ask Verizon, AT&T, Comcast.

    Instead, network operators tend to use prices to control demand. Cell phone calls are most expensive during the workweek days, but are given away at night. Want to watch several NFL games on your cell phone or tablet, be prepared to pay more than someone who use little data.

    Want to come from Spotsylvania to the Pentagon and arrive by 8 am, while driving alone? Expect to sit in traffic (so you need to get up earlier); pick up a couple slugs and ride in the HOV lanes); take a bus or train and pay a fare. The same will hold true for Tysons as it develops. Ride the Silver Line, the Express Lanes, car pool, take an express bus – or pay a significantly higher parking fee if you want to arrive between 8 and 9 am.

    A landowner needs a road to develop his speculative land purchase, help pay for the road; form a public-private partnership. Heaven forbid!

    Simply for network management purposes, we will see more dynamic tolling.

    • Where can I get one of those cellular contracts where all the minutes are free? You know, like all the roads are free in 95% of Virginia. I want the free roads that exist in 95% of the state.

      Roads are never free. They weren’t built for free, they are not maintained for free, they are not patrolled for free. So – why do 95% of the roads have no tolls?

      If you want to toll everybody – fine. Otherwise, toll nobody.

  6. “Roads are never free. They weren’t built for free, they are not maintained for free, they are not patrolled for free. So – why do 95% of the roads have no tolls?

    If you want to toll everybody – fine. Otherwise, toll nobody.”

    can the current gas tax adequately pay for maintenance, operations and new infrastructure – for everyone – everywhere?

    even with the increase in taxes, it’s pretty clear the state does not have enough money – for instance, to expand the tunnels in Hampton, or add more capacity to Northern Va.

    I don’t see the problem with tolls for new roads if those tolls pay for the new road to be built (and it cannot be otherwise) and the tolls also pay for it’s maintenance and operation – and only the people using it are paying for it – and not other taxpayers have to pay for it.

    Let’s use the CBBT as an example. Right now – only the folks using the CBBT pay for it. Would it be better to remove the tolls and let all Va gasoline buyers pay for it?

    I took the Powhite Parkway the other day, paid almost $5 in tolls (both ways) and encountered reasonable traffic. I’m quite sure if that road was ‘free’ it would be a mess. I don’t mind paying the $5 to get a relatively congestion free trip. In fact, I prefer it. I’d be more than willing to go through the Washington DC area North to Maine for an extra $5 bucks instead of the mess it is right now.

    why is giving people that option – bad?

    • “even with the increase in taxes, it’s pretty clear the state does not have enough money – for instance, to expand the tunnels in Hampton, or add more capacity to Northern Va.”

      Transportation consumes between 9 – 11% of the state budget. There is plenty of money for the roads. The state simply has decided not to spend its money on roads – except, of course, in some places.

      Local roads should be funded by local taxes. Highways of state significance should all be tolled. Every last one of them. Drivers should pay by the mile to drive on those roads.

  7. Using Technology, Metrics, and ROI in a software program to measure the wisdom of building a road in a particular place is “easier said than done.”

    The wisdom of that above statement is incontrovertible.

    The dangers, pitfalls, and inherent limitations of any such program are enormous. Even when deployed by the most conscientious, responsible, impartial, and wisest of hands, the limitations of such tools are quite substantial. The reach of numbers, data, and projections are quite limited.

    As often as not, numbers, data, and projections, or any combination thereof used in any analysis, tend to mislead the reader toward the wrong result, rather than enlightening the reader toward the right result. The pernicious consequences of such analysis toward the abuse and obfuscation are the stuff of legend. The aura of expertize and authority compound the problem.

    That is why the ideologue and self seeker always fall back on expert opinion. It is why the ideologue or self seeker always try to manipulate expert opinion so as to use it as a weapon to achieve precooked results.

    And it is also why in all cases the ideologue and self seeker try to dress the expert opinion or analysis in the clothes of the Infallible Conclusion – the “Consensus of the Experts”, or the “Irrefutable Analysis of the Esteemed and Highly Credentialed Professor(s), or convocation of such professors.

    Hence unknowns are reduced to a sharp edged sword of certainty. Any objection or contrary opinion is instantly reduced to ignorance.

    Hence subjective human values and wisdom, intangibles of human psyche and experience, are overcome and rejected, and are thus replaced by, and reduced to, an analysis of numbers and statistics that far too often are built on the false or irrelevant or corrupted information of experts who are often themselves manipulated by their own masters, whether politician offering favor, paymaster, boss, or psychic prejudice of their own disposition.

    Does the Va. Secretary of Transportation use a Technology, Metrics, and ROI software analysis program as a weapon or for impartial analysis?

    1. Does he use it as a tool to sell what he promised a special interest?
    2. Does he use it to defend against an adverse consequence?
    3. Does he use it to promote a hidden agenda?
    4. Does he use to to spread disinformation?
    5. Does he use it as a sales and marketing tool in a PR Campaign.

    Or does the Va. Secretary of Transportation use it as one tool among many to conduct a search for truth – to expose to the light of day all the pros and cons of a proposed road, and all of the short and long benefits and adverse consequences of a proposed road, in the context of, and as measured against, all other alternatives at hand, and all the other opportunities lost.

    Which ever the case, the Va. Secretary has enormous power by reason of this tool. It was built under his supervision and direction. It is also used under this supervision and direction. What goes in and what comes out, and why, are all under his control, and manipulated by his underlyings.

    Let’s us use our imaginations. How would this tool be used to analyze the Bi-County Parkway going from I-66 to Dulles? What information would go in. What conclusions would come out? What would be left out, or underplayed? And how would what comes out fit into, and be used by the Secretary of Transportation’s Private Public Relations Campaign paid for with Virginia taxpayer dollars?

    • Let me add that I greatly value experts. I spend as much time as I can afford reading the work of experts and learning from them. I also support Jim Bacon’s statement that the Virginia’s House Speaker William J. Howell’s speech was the most important by a politician on the subject in 25 years. I support the general proposals as stated in that speech.

      The problems arise in the implementation of his general proposal.

      And most particularly those problems arise by the opportunity it affords well funded interests to game the process and abuse it so as to push their narrow self interests. In that regard, I have lately been reading a lot of “expert studies” on Northern Virginia lands use and transportation issues. I know something about these matters and, in my opinion, many of the studies I have read (in painful detail) work hard to distort facts and conclusions to serve the interests of those who paid for the study.

      Indeed, most of these reports distort facts and conclusions to the point of being substantially misleading, and give me the impression that the reports were written with the obvious intent of clouding (if not hiding altogether) the truth so as to reach conclusions most favorable to the paying client. And also that far too often the expert’s opinion worked to the detriment of the public interest.

      One shining exception to this chronic problem in Northern Virginia was the fine, truthful and prescient traffic report written in Oct. 2005 by Dr. Allen for Dulles Airport and its proponents. As best as I can tell, this report and its conclusions were largely ignored. Its author was not invited to complete phase II and III of the Report. See Dulles’ Grand Plan archived herein.

      Instead, new consultants, including George Mason University, were hired to prepare reports that spun up ammunition for a public relation blitz to convince people to pave over with roads large swaths of historic lands not only in Norther Virginia, but also in lands on the north side of the Potomac in Maryland, instead.

      Tools are only as good as those who use them. Those same tools can easily harm the public placed in the wrong hands. This is especially true when those wrong hands belong to the state. Then the state abuses its own citizens, in breach of its obligations to serve them instead.

  8. sort of a dumb question …but…

    what are the specific harms done when tolls are dynamically set to maintain a minimum 45 mph speed?

    name the things that are harmed when tolls are varied in that way.

    bonus question:

    would one compute the ROI for a “free road” in the same way that one would compute the ROI for a toll road?

    is the ROI for “free roads” fundamentally different than the ROI for toll roads?

  9. There are concerns about House Speaker William J. Howell’s offering of a transportation bill “to base project funding decisions upon ‘specific, quantifiable and measurable metrics.’”
    Speaker Howell is the one who recently wrote an op-ed saying that Gov. McDonnell was one of our best Virginia governors. And that same Gov. McDonnell is the proponent of the unneeded, unwanted and infeasible “New US Route 460” that will add to our state debt and to money in the pockets of Republican private investors. And here in Norfolk-Portsmouth, our two tunnels’ tolls?
    What’s wrong with Gov. McDonnell? The answer is found above, along with his undeniable and almost unbelievable tendency personally to accept monetary and other gifts from business people who want to influence his decisions that should be based on what’s best for the State, not on what people do to enhance his personal fortune.
    It seems to me that “Gov. McDonnell has made his bed, and must now lie in it,” an expression I heard growing up in Tidewater Virginia. Why don’t more people see it that way? “I have no idea,” as one Republican sympathizer often says.
    Meanwhile, the following “consumer-based transportation model” is quite complex, involving “the development of performance-based criteria for surface transportation investments, including road, rail, bike and pedestrian travel.” I will guess that Virginia’s House Speaker William J. Howell is setting forth a “lawyers’ bill” that will make things much more complicated than the mess we now have, and will require lawyers and lobbyists to sort out a new law and procedures and make them work.
    It will again remove us ordinary citizens one more step from actions that affect us and for which we will have to pay. Thus lawyers and lobbyists will get another chance to dominate our state.
    Let’s hope that Ralph Northam can make a difference as Lt. Governor, and move up soon. Clearly, we need a doctor!

  10. there’s a problem with our current gas tax system and that is it’s sort of like an “all you can eat for one really, low price” type arrangement and you can essentially “game” the system by getting a vehicle that gets 30 mpg or more and using Gas Buddy to find the lowest price fuel.

    So basically, we’re paying a tiny tax pretty much no matter how much or how often we drive or how congestion/overloaded the roads are when we drive.

    and in places like NoVa and Hampton – you do not add extra lanes or tunnels for cheap.

    I think more and more people ARE willing to pay MORE to get a less congested trip. I’m one of them. It’s a value proposition – not only getting reliable trip time but more than that – on crowded “free” roads, people are doing nutting things. It’s a worrying thing to drive on I-95 mainline but the stress level drops by 1/2 or more once I get on the toll lanes so it’s well worth the extra coins to me.

    I’m betting that most poor schmucks traveling I-95 up the East Coast would have no problems “buying” their way out of the NVa traffic nightmare either.

    I drive toll roads in the North East – and again – for some reason – people seem to drive differently… less aggressively….

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