Congress and DOT should ensure a data-driven transportation infrastructure

Congress and DOT should ensure a data-driven transportation infrastructure
© Greg Nash

All eyes are fixated on the administration and the U.S. Senate as they negotiate a $1 trillion infrastructure package. Meanwhile, another deliberation is underway, completely undetected, over the budget for monitoring our transportation infrastructure and informing fair and responsible investment. 

The data supported by this funding answer a spate of crucial questions: Where is road use rising most quickly? What’s driving the increases and decreases? How and how efficiently does freight travel? How, how much and how safely are people moving between points? How are rideshares, bike shares and e-scooters changing urban travel? For rural Americans, how accessible are jobs, education, medical and social services, groceries and family? Which segments of the population and economy are being poorly served in terms of costs and travel times? How well does transportation serve interstate commerce and international competitiveness? 

The answers to questions like these ensure taxpayer funding is fairly and responsibly invested. But with an annual budget of $26 million, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), the agency funded to collect these data, cannot faithfully complete its charge. 

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BTS is the smallest of the principal federal statistical agencies and continuously hampered in its efforts to collect the data that answers these questions. The budgets for the statistical agencies for the Social Security Administration and the IRS are more than 40 percent larger. Even larger are the Department of Energy’s statistical agency ($126 million) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s two statistical agencies ($260 million). Those are dwarfed by the statistical agency budgets for the Departments of Labor and Commerce.

The uneven funding of statistical agencies does not reflect their importance, but rather, it is a quirk of history. The BTS is not funded directly through the budget, but indirectly through the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) — a decision intended to assure adequate support. However, just the opposite has occurred. HTF funds are highly competitive as the HTF has been used to meet many other needs and vehicle taxes have not been increased. It’s no wonder that BTS has lost nearly 40 percent of its purchasing power in the last two decades. The agency also faces a serious shortage of full-time equivalent staff to keep pace with advancements in statistical science, limiting the agency’s ability to ensure highway investment is fair and responsible. 

Despite its challenges, BTS has strong leadership and a very capable and committed workforce. Consider their nimble and innovative work at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon after the shutdown, they started providing daily and weekly passenger and freight statistics that serve as an early indicator of how the pandemic impacts transportation demand and services. Such agility and innovation will also be critical to informing our recovery from the pandemic and determining the new normal for travel. BTS is also playing a critical role in the Department of Transportation (DOT) work for the administration’s equity and climate executive orders and developing transportation indicators to reduce supply shortages. 

Congress is currently deliberating the BTS budget for the next several years as part of a transportation reauthorization package. BTS’ $26 million budget is decimal dust — and everyone knows it. Three of the main four committees working on transportation reauthorization — and did so in the last Congress — either flat fund or provide BTS a $1 million increase. More positively for evidenced-based transportation policymaking, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, under the leadership of Chair Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonHouse passes bills to boost science competitiveness with China The Chinese-Russian Lunar Axis adopts a plan from the late Paul Spudis Congress and DOT should ensure a data-driven transportation infrastructure MORE (D-Texas) and Ranking Member Frank LucasFrank Dean LucasRepublicans divided on how hard to push vaccines On The Money: Schumer pressured from all sides on spending strategy | GOP hammers HUD chief over sluggish rental aid | Democrat proposes taxes on commercial space flights Republicans hammer HUD chief over sluggish rental aid MORE (R-Okla.), introduced a bill this summer that would firmly support evidence-based transportation policymaking and data-driven decision-making. Their bill, H.R. 3594, would raise the BTS budget to $36 million a year. Their levels for the BTS have the support of 22 organizations, including the organization one of us works for, the American Statistical Association.

Congress and the country should fund BTS at the levels stipulated in Reps. Bernice Johnson’s and Lucas’ bill. It is irresponsible to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure package and not set aside 0.0036 percent of that budget to study and guide that funding. Data-driven analysis should not have to compete with parochial projects; the administration and Congress should also consider tying BTS’s budget to a small fraction of the HTF annual receipts or the DOT budget. For example, indexing the BTS budget to be 0.11 percent of the HTF annual proceeds would be at least a 30 percent increase for the agency. 

The $1 trillion infrastructure package will add to the nation’s existing transportation infrastructure investments, including the $87 billion annual budget of the DOT and scores of other federal, state and local, and private sector investments. We spend so much on transportation because it is critical to our economy, governance, health, education, security and everyday wellbeing. Let’s collect the data to make sure it is spent fairly, responsibly, and in the right places.

Alan E. Pisarski has authored and contributed to national assessments of transportation investment requirements for over 40 years within the US Department of Transportation and currently as an independent researcher and consultant. Steve Pierson is director of science policy for the American Statistical Association.