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Report: Maryland among best at assessing transportation needs

Maryland is one of the best states in the country at measuring the performance of its transportation network, according to a report to be released Wednesday by The Pew Center on the States and The Rockefeller Foundation.

The data collected — it ranges from traffic fatalities to total miles traveled on the state’s highways to how long it takes to turn a shipping container around at the Port of Baltimore — factor into which projects get funded from the ever-growing list of transportation needs.

“There may be $40 billion in identified needs out there, but I think we all know that we’re not going to have $40 billion to throw at transportation,” said Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, the state’s transportation secretary. “So we need to have the data to helps us prioritize.”

The nonprofits had originally sought to analyze states’ data-driven evaluation of proposed transportation projects. But, they found the type of data kept by the states was so different, and in many cases, so lacking, that there was not enough available to make state-by-state comparisons.

Indiana, for example, spent $2.82 billion on transportation in fiscal 2010, but fell far short when measuring its return on that investment, the report found. That state did not measure the impact that that spending had on the economy, the environment, system preservation needs and accessibility of different transportation options to state residents.

“Too many states don’t know what they’re getting from their transportation systems,” said Robert Zahradnik, the Pew center’s director of research. “We are in a tight fiscal environment right now, so there’s an even greater premium put on having the best information to make decisions.”

States spent an estimated $131 billion on transportation in fiscal 2010 as most, if not all, grappled with budget deficits that have persisted since the start of the recession. The report estimated states collectively had closed $400 billion in budget gaps since 2008.

Maryland was one of five states to get top marks in each of the six areas the report studied, including measurement of economic impact, the connectivity of different transportation modes and safety.

The state, which spent $3.37 billion on transportation in fiscal 2010, was praised in the report for its tracking of on-time performance of buses and trains, highway congestion and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that can be tied to transportation initiatives.

Maryland’s Department of Transportation examined rising traffic congestion figures and the potential economic impact of the Red Line and Purple Line light rail systems planned in Baltimore and suburban Washington, Swaim-Staley said. Daily reviews of MARC’s on-time performance can reveal the need for more trains, and a large number of fatalities in one intersection can lead the department changing from traffic lights to a roundabout.

The amount of data collected and familiarity with it could give the state a head start on some of its neighbors if Congress opts for a “performance-based” transportation funding system.

“It’s a very significant change,” said Nicholas Turner, the Rockefeller Foundation’s managing director. “Right now, much of the federal money that goes to the states goes because of formulas, without strings attached.”

Turner said discussions in recent years have centered on safety and system preservation measures, but added that any change away from the formulas would be very slow to overcome the “inertia” of the old system.