Reason vs. Streetsblog on annual state highway performance rankings

Reason recently published the 20th Annual Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems. Over at Streetsblog, Angie Schmitt took exception to the report, claiming it “works against urban areas.” I’m responding to her criticisms.

The opening salvo: “Reason Foundation — has a funny way of judging these things. But media outlets all over the United States are reporting its findings as if they’re gospel.” Well, what this report does is very simple. It takes annual data reported by the state departments of transportation to the Federal Highway Administration and reports it with useful graphs and tables, and creates a ranking of the 50 states based on the 14 metrics they track.* Nothing ‘funny’ I can see about using the only existing, reliable, and comparable sources of data on state highway system performance and presenting that data to the public. And the massive media coverage shows that public is hungry for such information and that the states do not provide it.

Next, Streetsblog Reason took exception to ranking higher those states who spend less per mile for building and maintaining roads. ” Here rural, southern, lower-cost regions perform better: South Carolina and West Virginia spend the least per mile, receiving the highest rankings. Places with higher costs of living score badly. The “worst performers” in this category are New Jersey, Florida, and California.” I have a hard time understanding why states that have relatively good highway conditions while spending less should not be ranked higher. Is Streesblog suggesting the opposite? That we should rank higher the states that spend more, regardless of what is accomplished with that money?

Streetsblog goes on to say “The more urban you are, the harder it is to just pour tarmac and open roads, the more expensive it is.” True, but some states with large urban areas do well– Missouri (8th), Texas (11th) and Georgia (12th). Indeed, Texas has the most major urban areas of the 50 states. Again, it makes sense to rank higher those states that get more bang for their buck.

Our report uses available and comparable federal data on all states highway systems. Yet Streetsblog complains that ” A more fundamental problem is that Reason’s report ignores non-motorized transportation.” Transit is not run by the states, but by local governments, and similar data is not collected by the federal government. There are many things our report does not do because it has a specific scope and purpose. That is hardly a criticism.

Streetsblog has two bottom line comments.

“One, states that are doing a decent job of managing their transportation systems might actually be rated very poorly by this report.” No, actually. If a state is spending more and the condition of the state highway system is not getting better, you are not managing your system well. For example California has for years been in the top five in spending, but the bottom five in highway conditions. If they were managing use of those dollars well, conditions would improve with all that spending.

Every state has unique circumstances that it will gladly point to as excuses for its poor performance. This study is about holding states accountable for their spending. Are they fixing potholes, repairing bridges, reducing congestion? Are they paying attention to administrative costs? Reason believes transportation money should be spent effectively and that taxpayers benefit when state transportation departments are held accountable.

Second, Streetsblog wraps up with “media outlets should be much more skeptical about transportation reports from groups that deny climate science.” Really? Read that link yourself and see if you think it “denies” any science. Moreover, Reason’s position on climate change is “For the record, it is still my judgment that the balance of scientific evidence indicates that man-made global warming is real and is a problem. The question remains: Is What Governments Are Likely to Do About It Worse than Global Warming?”

Just as distasteful is the reliance on Ad Hominem (remember that college freshman logical fallacy?) arguing that if you disagree with us on any one topic you can disregard anything we say on any other topic. And it is particularly absurd regarding a report that does not include opinions or judgments, but is simply a reporting of publicly available government data.


* The federal data sources used are: The Highway Performance Monitoring System; National Bridge Inventory; and the Fatal Accident Reporting System. For congestion data, we use the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report