Billions spent on roads and transit projects are often based on optimistic forecasts

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Ridership estimates can be used to justify spending on infrastructure

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Transportation planners are looking for ways to improve their travel forecasts as Congress debates spending Billions of dollars on new projects.

If lawmakers enact $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill Now before the House, state and local officials will have to decide on which projects to spend the money. But researchers have found that transportation planners often expect that more people will eventually use their road and transit projects than they do. Yet those optimistic forecasts become part of the rationale for spending millions or even billions of dollars on such projects.

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“The implication is quite clear: it’s wasting resources,” said Robert Bain, a traffic consultant who studies toll-road forecasts. “We are concentrating resources and investing in areas that are not as productive as other sectors.”

The infrastructure bill includes a provision that requires the US Department of Transportation to assess the accuracy of travel forecasts and to help state and local governments come up with better models.

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Complicating their challenge is the Covid-19 pandemic, which commuting has changed And dashed hopes for how people will travel in the future.

Many workers have spent more than a year working remotely, and it is unclear when they will return to their old patterns, making future demands on roads, buses, subways, airports and other infrastructure difficult. Will happen. guessed.

“We need to show decision-makers that we’re helping them make good decisions and giving them good answers and good numbers,” said Dave Schmidt, travel forecaster at the consulting firm, Kinetics Transportation Group. “The big wrinkle is Covid.”

A Federal Transit Administration survey of 27 recent public-transit projects that opened between 2007 and 2015 found that the average one reduced ridership by about 21% two years after opening. This was an improvement compared to previous years. The FTA found that projects that opened between 1990 and 2002 increased ridership by an average of 77 percent.

“There is a great temptation to use rider estimates to present the project in the best possible light,” said Carol Vulgaris, professor of urban planning at Harvard University.

According to the FTA, before the pandemic, the expansion rides of the Washington, D.C., area’s subway system that opened in 2014 were nearly half of what was forecast before it opened. The agency said those forecasts were met before the recession of 2007-09, which limited growth and population growth along the route.

According to a study of nearly 1,300 projects by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine conducted before the pandemic, public road projects accounted for about 6% of the use. And according to Mr. Bain’s research, the number of traffic on a sample of toll roads around the world was about 77% of what was estimated.

“This is probably one of the biggest failures of the industry, and it is an international issue not only in the US,” he said.

An unexpected potential in new money from the infrastructure bill “highlights much that we need to get it right,” said Gregory Erhart, an engineering professor at the University of Kentucky and author of the National Academies report.

“If they do there is some incentive for the forecast to be higher [a project] more likely to be made,” he said. “If we systematically evaluate every forecast we make and issue a report and say, ‘How accurate were we after the fact,’ it Takes that incentive away.”

To prepare a forecast, planners look at an area’s population predictions and employment data, as well as the number of cars and licensed drivers in each household. They study existing roads and transit networks and estimate how often and how far people travel when they go to work or take other trips.

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A big unknown in any travel forecast is how the economy will develop. A recession could sharply reduce the number of trips people make if they no longer have jobs. This, in turn, may contribute to inaccuracy in travel forecasts.

“Whatever the economic conditions were when the model was calibrated, we believe those economic conditions are correct,” said Mr. Schmidt, who co-authored the National Academies study.

In some cases, forecasts can be controversial. For example, in Ohio, state transportation officials plan to increase 9 miles of I-77 near Akron from four lanes to six, at a cost of $125 million. At one point on the stretch, the department sees an average traffic of 71,890 vehicles a day in 2040, up from 66,093 in 2019, the last year before the pandemic, according to the 2016 forecast. At another point, the agency estimated that traffic would increase from 52,366 to 63,360.

Matt Bruning, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation, said the forecasters account for future residential and commercial development in the area.

“Due to Ohio’s location within a day’s drive of 60% of the population of the US and Canada, we are seeing a steady increase in freight traffic,” he said.

Jason Segedi, the planning director for the city of Akron, questioned those figures.

“I highly doubt that the projections that are being made now are going to come to pass,” he said. “I think the state still relies on frequent travel models that predict that there’s going to be a steady increase in traffic.”

According to the Census Bureau, the Akron metropolitan area lost about 0.14% of its population between 2010 and 2020.

“Our money could be better spent fixing the roads we already have, or the state could perhaps play a more active role in urban revitalization,” Mr Segedi said.

To read more from The Wall Street Journal, Click here.


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