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The Stimulus: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Congress seems intent on once again using infrastructure spending to address the nation’s rising unemployment. The real shame here is not whether this is--or isn’t--a good idea but that we don’t know one way or the other.

 The promise of the recovery package (formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA) was for an unprecedented approach to transparency, accountability, and performance. Make no mistake, for transportation and infrastructure we’re talking about a sea change in how the federal government tracks, reports, and makes available information about spending decisions.

Yet it is not enough to just track job numbers. Despite the rare gesture towards transparency, we are now too aware of job creation potentials and not about the other, potentially more important, metrics to the performance of our transportation investments.  Examining the transportation program, the GAO argues that “improvements in data, performance measures, and evaluations are needed to determine whether programs are achieving intended results.” Yet credible data largely does not exist on the conditions, operations, benefits, cost, and performance of our transportation network. Without solid data and information transportation decisionmaking is often made based on ideology, rather than solid facts. As former U.S. Deputy Transportation Secretary Mortimer Downey once described it, when it comes to transportation policy, “We are flying blind.”

So here we are again debating another multi-billion dollar infusion of general fund revenue for transportation as a job and economic stimulant without a real understanding of whether or not it actually works.

The White House stimulus adviser Ed DeSeve is right to highlight how unprecedented the recovery package’s information effort is. As such there will be missteps and course corrections along the way. Yet that leaves us in a tough bind. With a December 18 deadline for the latest extension to the transportation law and very scary employment numbers looming there may not be much more time to wait. From proper measurement will come performance and innovation.