Transportation is one of the “big four” when it comes to spending in state government. Along with K-12 education, Medicaid and higher education, roads and other infrastructure needs take up a majority of states’ budgets every year. (The big four account for 61 percent of total state spending, National Association of State Budget Officers data show, with transportation making up 7.8 percent of the total.)
All of these big-ticket items are vulnerable to budget cuts under current state fiscal conditions, but that may be especially true of transportation — at least if public opinion polls are any indication.
For example, in a 2010 poll done by the Pew Center on the States, only one in five Illinois residents said they would be willing to pay higher taxes in order to maintain current transportation funding levels. In contrast, a majority of Illinoisans said they would accept higher taxes to avoid cuts in K-12 education and health and human services.
A more recent Pew study, released in May, points to these recent poll results as one reason that states should embark on a new path when it comes to transportation policy and financing — one that is guided by clearly defined goals and relies on performance measures and data.
Some states are already on this path, with Minnesota being one of the 13 that Pew says is “leading the way” because of how it evaluates transportation investments.
Minnesota has performance measures for 10 areas identified in its current transportation policy plan: for example, addressing the needs of the state’s aging population, and reducing congestion by targeting areas where a disproportionate share of travel takes place.
The Pew study lists six transportation goals for states to use: 1) safety, 2) jobs and commerce, 3) mobility, 4) access, 5) environmental stewardship and 6) infrastructure preservation.
States have fairly robust systems for tracking, evaluating and making use of safety-related data (fatalities and injuries), Pew researchers say. But states are less likely to have other performance measures in place, such as tying transportation spending to economic and environmental outcomes or to the ability of people to reach jobs.