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No Data? Big Problem

How can we address the problems of passenger and freight mobility with limited resources?

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July 31, 2012

By Joseph Schofer, Johanna Zmud and Mortimer Downey

This article originally appeared in D.C. Streets Blog on March 20, 2012

Bridges are falling down, or being built to nowhere. Highways are getting more congested, airports more crowded, and transit systems struggle to cover costs and keep up with growing demand. How can we address the problems of passenger and freight mobility with limited resources?

In hard economic times, America’s leaders are looking for every opportunity to spend less and get more bang for the taxpayer’s buck. It’s a time for smarter decisions – especially transportation investment and policy choices based on independent and objective information. We must understand where and what the needs are, what works and doesn’t, and where the payoffs are greatest. That takes data – and good data are hard to find.

Yet in passing the long-overdue two-year, $109 billion highway finance reauthorization bill, the Senate dropped a modest provision to assure timely travel data needed to make the smart choices that will keep people and freight moving safely and efficiently.

The federal government allocates about $50 billion each year from motor fuel tax dollars to assure that we have the passenger and freight mobility to keep society productive and the economy ticking. State and local governments spend even more for the same purposes. Making the best use of such funds – for highways, transit systems, passenger rail services, airports, ports — is especially important when costs are outstripping tax revenues and needs are continuing to grow.

Smarter transportation decisions require comprehensive, accurate and timely data about infrastructure condition, travel time reliability, crashes and their causes. These data can inform decision makers about what really works – how best to relieve congestion and improve supply-chain connectivity to make freight transportation – and hence the U.S. economy – more competitive. Good data can enable people and businesses to use the transportation system more efficiently and ensure universal mobility.

The National Travel Data Program, defined in a study conducted by the Transportation Research Board (TRB), part of the National Research Council, would have directed the Secretary of Transportation “…to collect essential national passenger and freight travel data to guide transportation operations, policy, and investment decisions for Federal, State, and local governments and the private sector.” This program would have integrated, enhanced, and sustained existing federal transportation data programs to serve as an anchor for efforts now conducted by state and local governments and the private sector. The result would be a powerful decision-support infrastructure to preserve and improve America’s transportation system and keep the country competitive in the years to come.

Critics, of course, figure they already know where and how to spend the money, so information-based decision making is superfluous But there are all too many examples of transportation investments – or non-investments – that have not made good use of America’s limited resources. Bridges are load-restricted, closed, or falling down from lack of maintenance; transit systems endure unending cycles of maintenance interruptions; congestion wastes our time and impedes logistics. We have bridges to nowhere and other misplaced investments: good data can embarrass bad projects as well as promote good ones. There is plenty that decision makers can learn from good data thoughtfully used.

Some say that the private sector will collect all the data we need. True, entrepreneurs are far down the road collecting and disseminating real-time congestion data useful to drivers and decision makers. But the private sector isn’t interested in monitoring public infrastructure or providing data to support transportation policies that guide economic development or equity. The data problem we face will be solved only through effective public-private collaborations – just the sort the National Transportation Data Program would support.

The Senate may have passed up the National Travel Data Program to save money. But saving money at the expense of informed transportation decisions is pennywise and pound foolish. The National Travel Data Program could help us pick smart solutions to mobility problems at a cost of about nine cents a year for the average driver. Not a bad investment to make transportation decisions better and smarter.

This column was also signed by fellow members of the Transportation Research Board Policy Committee on Strategies for Improved Passenger and Freight Travel Data: Joseph G.B. Bryan; Anne Canby, president of the Surface Transportation Policy Project; Anand Desai, professor at The Ohio State University; Lance R. Grenzeback, senior vice president of Cambridge Systematics Inc.; Hermann Habermann; Timothy A. Henkel; James M. Lepkowski, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan; Daniel Murray, vice president of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI); Alan Pisarksi, transportation consultant; and Steven Polzin, University of South Florida. The views expressed are the authors’ and not necessarily those of TRB or the National Research Council.

Topics: Opinion