Roadway performance: Getting what we pay for
Our roadways play a vital role in assuring personal and commercial mobility and the productivity of the overall economy. The success of the U.S. Interstate Highway Program stands as a well-understood example. U.S.Interstate highways are the backbone of our National Highway System. this 4% of American roads handle 40% of all traffic and three-quarters of heavy truck traffic.
These benefits, however, are only realized to the extent that the roadways operate efficiently. When clogged trying to accommodate more traffic than they were designed to handle or closed or congested by weather events, construction zones or a traffic crash, roads fail to deliver their intended benefit. Poor roadway operations sacrifice the enormous investment to build them in the first place.
Highway agencies, increasingly, manage their operations using a performance outcome metric; their snowfighting crews are judged in how well they maintain service during a snowstorm, how quickly full service is restored after each storm and the toll in vehicle crashes caused by slick driving conditions. Measures such as the “travel rate index” help highway users and highway agencies assess the operating efficiency of their roadways. Increasingly, agencies are concerned not only for traffic speed, but for the reliability of travel times – the variable most valued by roadway users.
In some snowbelt agencies, snowfighting consumes a majority of the agency’s operations (non-capital) budget. Snowfighters are trained, skilled and committed professionals often working long hours under harsh conditions to deliver their life-saving service.
To derive the benefits of our investment in highways, we need consistency and reliability in our "just in time" economy to remain competitive in the global economy. Proposals include specifiying a minimum standard for service. The American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA), for example proposes that:
Congress establish a national goal that every segment of our National Highway System achieves an 80 percent level of service (LOS) of "C" or better by the year 2020. Once achieved, this would ensure that no segment on the NHS would operate below a "C" level of service for more than 4.8 hours daily, on a typical weekday. While 80 percent at a level "C" LOS is certainly not optimum, we suggest that, at the very least, it is achievable."
AHUA also proposes the federal government induce every state to produce a strategic congestion abatement plan which would include real-time traffic data analysis, a description of how management actions contribute to congestion and how the agency will meet the performance benchmarks.