Joseph Schofer is a professor at Northwestern University. Johanna Zmud is director of the transportation, space and technology program at the RAND Corporation. Mortimer Downey served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation during the Clinton administration.
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?
Saving money at the expense of informed transportation decisions is pennywise and pound foolish.
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.