Planners are people. I know I tend to harp on them a lot – and maybe it is because I am an engineer – but I think the processes that are used are too out-of-date. They are the bases for decisions that have huge socioeconomic impacts, which we are finding out, were wrong at the onset.
The US PIRG just released a report called “Stop Highway Boondoggles:” http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/highway-boondoggles-2 In it, they detail 12 projects that, in their mind, are wastes of money. Now, I am not sure if there is an ulterior motive or not, but, after reading it I start to notice a trend: they are all based on, what the authors call, “old models.” Being in the industry, I attribute it to something more: the absence of revalidation of planning models. This, I believe, is the crux of the issue.
In the transportation realm, we plan out projects years in advance. FHWA estimates that a large project takes an average of 13 years to go from planning through construction. This is not a cheap endeavor. Staff are hired to create documents. Data is collected and analyzed. Models are ran, reran, then rereran. Millions of dollars are spent to create the right project. Therefore, the amount of effort does not want to be wasted.
Now, some of you may say, “Well, isn’t the environmental process supposed to catch this? I mean, folks have to go over various alternatives, hold public meetings, etc.” I understand the intention of this, but have you ever been to a public meeting? The ones I have been to have been quite a joke. It’s more of a “going through the motions” routine. Usually, the DOT hires a consultant that is not allowed to speak on the DOT’s behalf. They take down questions for the DOT that are then answered later. This is a way of skirting the process by avoiding the hard questions.
However, in all the analysis and good intentions, I think this is where the blinders get put on. I do not believe this is intentional, but rather a function of an echo chamber, where everyone is on a team to finish the project. No one begs to ask the question: should we even be building it in the first place?
With no one questioning the norm, it is only natural that this phenomena is occurring.
The big question is: how do you solve an issue like this?
And to that question, I think the answer is simple: have continual data updates, keep these forecasts accountable, and model these on a continuous basis. Now, this is not a cheap endeavor, but, when put up against the cost of a major project, its nothing. For example, a system like this could cost a few million dollars, with annual costs in maybe half to a full million. Compared with the annual budget of, lets say Florida, which is $10 Billion, this is nothing.
This will allow users to be accountable for their predictions, which is everything. See, the current process allows us to not only hold these predictions as infallible, but also we are not accountable for them. The mistakes are contained behind closed doors and not updated for 5 or so years. We don’t do this in any other industry (save for maybe sports casting), so why is it okay for transportation?
Accountability is key, and it is with this concept that I will be dissecting the Tampa Bay Express Lanes projects, as I do not fully agree with the project.
* Steven Dubner’s podcast really opened my eyes to this
What about you? What other boondoggles could have been a result of not checking the planning numbers?