Reducing Congestion Through Performance-Based Transportation Programs

Wendell Cox, Alan E. Pisarksi, and Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D.

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Traffic congestion in most of America’s metropolitan areas has worsened steadily over the past two and a half decades and is at its worst in the nation’s major commercial centers. There is growing evidence that this congestion, once considered merely a nuisance and an unpleasant side effect of modernization and prosperity, is impeding economic activity in some metropolitan areas—a trend that could diminish prosperity by raising the cost of products and services by way of higher transportation costs and wages, uncertain delivery, and production delays.

A key reason for this worsening congestion is that road capacity has not kept pace with population, licensed drivers, automobiles, or vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Too many cars and trucks are sharing too little pavement.

Since 1970, the federal government has spent (in inflation-adjusted 2005 dollars) nearly $800 billion on roads, and the 50 state departments of transportation combined have spent an even larger sum. Yet despite this vast amount of money, capacity increased by only 6 percent. The outcome for transit spending was considerably worse: Annual expenditures have risen 275 percent, in inflation-adjusted terms, since 1970 while transit ridership has risen less than 20 percent.

The apparent failure of the public sector to improve infrastructure and produce much new capacity with the great sums of money it has spent on transportation programs has made both taxpayers and representatives reluctant to support proposals for transportation-related tax increases at the federal, state, and local levels. As a result, the federal highway program and the state DOTs have been forced to make do with current levels of financial resources, which recently have stagnated because tax and fee revenues (mostly from fuel taxes) have flattened out since 2000. In response, public officials have cited funding limitations as an excuse for their inability to stem the decline in mobility over the future, and some have attempted to turn the blame back on motorists (for driving too much) and local communities (for building too many houses).

Solution: Emerging Emphasis on Performance Measures and Quantitative Goals for DOTs

State officials are adopting new strategies to use available resources more efficiently in order to provide the greatest measure of transportation services. These plans differ significantly in detail, but all of them rely on quantitative performance measures that the state DOT is required to attain over a specified period of time.

Although congestion relief should be the most important goal, other quantitative performance goals could be included in a state performance plan. These include measures of safety, roadway incidents and response time, maintenance and repair, environmental quality, and emergency preparedness.

Without these performance goals, a comprehensive set of data on needs, and the concise goals to guide the allocation of limited resources, the outcome of a state performance plan would be less than optimal, and scarce resources would be wasted on inefficient and ineffective programs and projects, as they are in most states and municipalities today. Instead of being focused on mobility enhancement, most federal, state, and local programs and projects are chosen to accommodate influential constituencies, powerful elected officials, and whatever is currently in fashion among America’s planning community.

A performance-based system anchored on the attainment of measurable goals related to mobility and congestion relief and safety enhancement requires the development of a comprehensive set of data on how the citizens of the state choose to travel. Thus, one of the earliest steps in implementing such a system is to establish a comprehensive data collection and reporting system. The development of this reliable information will help to ensure that goals of congestion mitigation and safe roads do not lose out to fiscal imprudence and impractical allocation of resources: often the result of Smartgrowth-supporters touting ephemeral trends and fashions in urban planning.

Costs and Benefits, Modes and Choices

Most transportation programs are ill-equipped to serve their users because they lack basic information on how much it costs to provide a particular transportation service by mode and by location. Few, if any, state DOTs have attempted such analyses, and the federal government has done it only once.1 Absent information on unit costs by mode of transportation, officials cannot allocate scarce resources effectively among alternative modes to maximize consumer mobility.

Suppose, for example, that the DOT identifies a certain corridor as suffering from severe congestion and subsequently reviews alternative modal options as potential remedies subject to whatever budgetary limitations are imposed on it. Obviously, it would want to use the most cost-effective mode, and the relative cost information would be essential to making the best decision. In essence, the current predicament confronting state DOTs is not dissimilar from that which would confront a family trying to get the best nutritional value on a limited budget in a supermarket that posted no prices.

Absent information on modal/project unit costs, state DOTs have no way of determining how best to allocate their fixed financial resources among competing uses to serve the citizens of the state most effectively. For example, such information would be a valuable resource for a state DOT that is attempting to get the greatest mobility bang from its limited budget.

Under the circumstances and with the cost differentials described above, a performance-based system would suggest that states and the federal government examine the benefits of shifting public resources and government attention from transit to carpooling and telecommuting so as to maximize the impact on improving mobility. While many have noted the declines in both carpooling and transit over time,2 shifting some resources from transit to carpooling (e.g., to fund more and bigger parking lots and collection stations at critical connection points), deregulating carpools (allowing fees to be charged), and telecommuting (e.g., modifications in labor laws and incentives for remote telecommuting centers) might reverse that trend.

Basic Principles for Performance and Accountability Legislation

One way to translate the above-described processes and goals into legislation that establishes an operational program based on quantitative measures of performance and accountability is to group the necessary tasks into a series of separate, well-defined steps that, when combined, will lead to an effective program for state DOTs. Based on the preceding analysis, a state transportation program built on quantitative measures of performance and accountability should include five components:

  1. State Traffic Flow Improvement Plan. This plan will include immediate, low-cost, high-return investments throughout the state that reduce congestion and other impediments to traffic flow that affect safety and the environment. Such actions will include traffic management improvements, vehicle incident response systems, ramp metering, and other information technologies that enhance the flow of the state’s existing investment in its transportation system. This program should be completed within 18 months of enactment.
  2. State Traffic Congestion Reduction Program. This plan will include longer-term capital investments as part of a performance-based investment plan to reduce congestion throughout the state. Investments will be ranked by their ability to reduce delay. Performance of the system and progress toward the goal will be strictly monitored. The goal of this program is to increase the entire state’s competitiveness in both the national and international spheres.
  3. State Infrastructure Improvement Plan. This plan will include actions to bring the condition of the state’s inadequate bridges, roadways, and transit facilities up to acceptable levels. Those levels will be strictly monitored and rated against predefined quantitative performance standards of quality.
  4. State Traffic Safety Enhancement Plan. This plan will include the provision of safer and more secure transportation services on the state’s roadways and rails and will be a key component of the DOT’s measure of performance and accountability. This plan will establish goals for improving safety as measured by the annual rate per 100 million VMT of collisions, personal injuries, and fatalities in the state.
  5. State Data Collection and Reporting Plan. This plan requires the state to establish a comprehensive and timely data collection and reporting system that covers operating and capital costs by mode and by normalized standards such as per-passenger-per-mile measures; truck volume and truck share of VMT; quality of service measures in terms of congestion and safety; quantitative measures of the quality of infrastructure, including roadbeds and bridges; daily usage by mode by number of passengers; and any and all other data necessary to fulfill the performance goals established in the plans. The data will also be used to provide meaningful periodic reports to the governor, legislature, and public on all measures of performance and progress, or lack thereof, toward the goals established in the legislation.

Model Legislation: State Transportation Performance and Accountability Program

Combining the principles and proposals of the preceding two sections yields a general legislative proposal that could serve as the basis for model legislation in any state. Where specific references to specific metropolitan areas are required, this draft uses, by way of example, the state of Virginia, where two of the authors reside. This model legislative language can be modified, adapted, and expanded to accommodate the characteristics and interests of any state.

The preamble of the legislation (The Transportation Performance and Accountability Act of 2006) states as its purpose both the economic and quality of life benefits of reducing traffic congestion:

…to minimize traffic congestion, contribute to the economic growth of the State, and improve the wellbeing and safety of all Virginians.

The legislation can be reviewed, in full at

Applicability to Massachusetts

Massachusetts is no different from Virginia or the other states. There is a strong association between economic growth, job creation, poverty reduction and the ability to quickly travel throughout modern urban areas. This program would provide Massachusetts officials with the tools to focus on the objectives of transportation, both with respect to personal travel and goods movement. It would encourage the state to examine policy and funding priorities that look beyond individual projects toward overall policies that deliver better value and better lives to its customers, who pay the highway user fees that finance the system (and are also the ultimate customers, the taxpayers).


One by one, government programs in a growing number of states are becoming subject to performance-based systems to ensure that unresponsive bureaucracies are held accountable to the same standards of performance that have always been common in the private sector, where the difference between success and failure is often a matter of survival.

Public education was one of the first state programs to be subject to quantitative measures of performance and accountability, shifting the emphasis of school management and teaching from process to results: For example, what proportion of students are able to read at grade level? The state of Virginia was one of the first to adopt such a system in 1995, when then-Governor George Allen convinced the legislature to enact his Standards of Learning (SOL) program. A focus on accountability for results has dominated most state education debates as well as the federal education debate for the past decade.

Now many states are adopting performance-based plans of varying degrees of value for their transportation departments. Many of these plans are recent in implementation and had little previous experience to draw upon in developing the system. As a result, most should be viewed as works in progress that will likely experience some measure of modification over time in response to citizen feedback and to the rate of progress toward goals.

The Maryland performance plan offers an interesting case study in how such a program can evolve over a relatively short period of time through trial and error. Over the past six years, it has undergone substantial revisions in the DOT’s3 goals and the quality of the information it provides citizens, elected officials, and transportation officials.

As more and more states adopt such plans,4 the rate of experimentation will accelerate, the number of successful practices will increase, and these discoveries, in turn, will displace those found to be of limited value.

Contact the Author:
Wendell Cox
Alan E. Pisarski
Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D.
  1. See “Federal Subsidies to Passenger Transportation,” U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, December 2004. Congress subsequently eliminated funding for the program, and its 2004 report was the first and last.
  2. See, e.g., Alan E. Pisarski, Commuting in America III: The Third National Report on Commuting Patterns and Trends, National Research Council, Transportation Research Board, National Cooperative Highway Research Program Report No. 550, October 2006.
  3. See Maryland Department of Transportation, “2005 Annual Attainment Report on Transportation Performance,” December 23, 2004, at
  4. For links to many of the state transportation performance plans now in place, see Washington State Department of Transportation, “WSDOT Accountability,” at (January 4, 2007).
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