Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Why there is so much waste in road construction

Pork roads are those which are not built based on need but on political favor. The practice is alive and well and now there is a bill in Annapolis to put a damper on it.
"Unfortunately, today's reckless power grab over transportation funding shows that certain members of the legislature are still more interested in playing politics and advancing their own agenda than working together for the good of the entire state."(Governor Hogan on Facebook).
But the reality is a bit more complex. Even when Hogan's predecessor Democrat Martin O'Malley collected votes for his Maryland Transportation Financing And Infrastructure Investment Act of 2012 (the gas tax increase), transportation and environmental advocates were concerned about giving the State more money for transportation without stronger requirements that would ensure that the money would be spent wisely.
Transportation bill announcements in Annapolis (Sun photo)

O'Malley's tax increase, chiefly a means to fund the Maryland's large transit projects, the Purple and the Red Line, ultimately passed precisely because such measures were not in place. The common practice of bartering allowed O'Malley to collect rural votes with a promise of "pork-roads" all across Maryland.

What broke the camel's neck was Hogan's move to kill the Red Line anyway even after those roads had been committed. Hogan redirected the freed transit funds towards even more rural roads to nowhere. Thus, HB1013  and Senate bill SB908 - The Open Transportation Investment Decision Act - were introduced this year and received support from Senate President Miller and House Speaker Busch.
"Getting rid of the mystery of how, why and where roads get built in Maryland will only increase citizen confidence in the process." (Mike Miller, Senate President)
The Senate bill is summarized this way:
Establishing State transportation goals; establishing measures by which the Department of Transportation is required to score the extent to which major capital projects satisfy the goals; requiring the Department to evaluate, score, and rank specified projects for inclusion in the draft and final Consolidated Transportation Program; requiring, with a specified exception, that capital projects with higher scores be ranked ahead of capital projects with lower scores; etc.
Road projects receive little scrutiny: HOT Lanes on I-95,
interchange with I-695 (photo JMT)
 The desire to score transportation projects according to purpose and need is certainly not a new idea.

In fact, the national landmark ISTEA transportation bill enacted by President George Bush Senior in the early 1990's tried to do just that. But as it turned out, criteria and metrics were diligently applied to (federally funded) transit projects like the Red Line under the strict regulations of "New Starts" while frivolous road construction continued almost unimpeded.

Given how much the entire country is vetted to the car as the only mobility option, it is not surprising that a culture of mutual back-scratching has evolved between the road industry, politicians and anybody else with a stake in current policies. The asphalt lobby is a powerful force across the nation which is neither interested in less or in longer lasting construction.

Roads to nowhere, bridges to nowhere, widening of roads barely used and pristine pavement in the hinterlands of America while urban streets are in shambles, who would not have seen that? Hogan's road dollars went, among other projects, to a road from Cumberland to Pennsylvania and one on the Eastern Shore to better reach Rehoboth, in both cases the  dollars would widen the roads in Maryland only to lead into a narrow unimproved section as soon as they reach Pennsylvania and Delaware respectively.
Governor Hogan when he announced to kill the Red Line

The irony is that efficiency in government spending should be where Republicans and Democrats find common ground. If new government revenue (taxes) are off limit (Republicans) then it would only stand to reason that efficient and effective spending would be in order. The proposed bills do just that. Similar measures have been enacted in Virginia, Louisiana and Texas.

"We're hardly talking about the most progressive places in the world", said Dru Schmidt Perkins Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, one of the groups calling for years for better oversight of MDOT's spending. Schmidt-Perkins is a strong critic of the annual "Road Show" in which MDOT officials travel the state to compile the list of projects to be funded in the Consolidated Transportation Program CTP.  Too often the squeaky wheel got the grease without much proper vetting.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Sun article
SUN commentary regarding the bills discussed here