This week, the Bipartisan Policy Center will release recommendations to fund transportation programs based on performance measures, with the idea that money can be spent more efficiently if a cost-benefit analysis is a central component of the decision-making process. If it's a familiar refrain, that's because the Department of Transportation also is honing some of its grant programs to fund the projects that offer the biggest bang for the buck. The White House's idea is to model transportation projects after the Education Department's Race to the Top program, which uses federal incentives to get states to come up with the best ideas to run and maintain their programs.
It won't be easy. Bipartisan Policy Center Transportation Advocacy Director JayEtta Hecker told the Senate Banking Committee last month that "a performance‐driven approach will challenge entrenched interests and require government institutions at all levels to change longstanding practices and ways of doing business." A performance-based transportation funding system also will require a strong federal presence, one that can "support for comprehensive testing and refining of outcome‐oriented national metrics," Hecker said.
With budgets so tight that governors and mayors must choose between filling potholes and repairing schools, is the country finally ready for a merit-based system of funding transportation? Are there good measurements available to determine which projects offer the best economic return? Can policymakers ask the right questions to ensure that the best projects receive the funding they need? What are the appropriate questions to ask about transportation projects? Are there situations when a cost-benefit analysis doesn't make sense?