My Turn: Transportation department road stats fail to illuminate

Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pat Kemp, a good public servant and vocal Lynn Canal road advocate for many years, mentioned my Feb. 29 newsletter in his recent opinion piece. Here's what the 1,175 newsletter subscribers read:

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is losing street cred faster than Idaho Sen. Larry Craig.

The transportation department's credibility problem arises because some managers use statistics the way Vin Scully says a drunk uses a lamp post. The value of a lamp post to the inebriated is it props you up. But for policy makers the real value should be illumination.

The transportation department pooh-bahs are not tipplers but neither are they fully committed to using statistics for illumination. Let's review the statistics they used advocating for the Lynn Canal road to a new ferry terminal opposite Haines.

Transportation department statistic 1: (Ferry system) costs over 12 years are equivalent to about six Juneau Access projects. My reaction to this statistical lamp post is: Comparing the proposed Lynn Canal road costs to the cost of the entire ferry system over 12 years is no more appropriate than comparing the costs of the entire state highway system over 12 years to the cost of a new ferry.

Transportation department statistic 2: The number of vehicle miles traveled on the ferry system is 0.5 percent of vehicle miles on state roads. My reaction to this statistical lamp post is: The huge majority of vehicle miles on state roads is commuter traffic in Alaska's big cities. Ferries go from town to town, not downtown to the suburbs.

Transportation department statistic 3: The cost per vehicle mile on the highways is far less than the cost per vehicle mile on the marine highway system. My reaction to this statistical lamp post is: So what? This is, at best, a meaningless figure and at worst purposefully misleading. Ferries don't have the tens and tens and tens of thousands of daily vehicle miles that accrue because of the intra-urban state roads that move big city commuters. Ferries don't do drags like Egan Expressway, the A-C couplet, Tudor, Dimond, or O'Malley, or all the other Anchorage and Fairbanks state roads that move drivers from home to job and job to the grocery store. Massive numbers from commuter volume obviously distort any cost comparisons with ferries that don't serve commuters.

Transportation department statistic 4: The projected inflation rate used to help support the estimated $350 million road cost is 4 percent per year over the course of a 12-year construction period. My reaction to this statistical lamp post: Remember, this third of a billion dollar cost estimate, based on 4 percent inflation for the next 12 years, comes from the same folks who estimated the cost of the one-mile Third Avenue project in Ketchikan at $6 million while the final cost was four times that.

I'm especially aggrieved by transportation department statistic 4. On a Tuesday, transportation department officials projected yearly inflation for the Lynn Canal Highway over 12 years will be 4 percent. On the day after, they testified in support of a $1 billion endowment for future road projects by noting inflation was 80 percent for paving and 60 percent for earthmoving in the past seven years.

Let's repeat this: Transportation department folks touted a theoretical 4 percent inflation rate in support of the road, but the next day they touted a real inflation rate of 10 percent-plus to convince us to back $1 billion for future, unspecified, road spending. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes, known for cracking the 7 percent solution caper, to intuit there may be mischief afoot with the transportation department's situational statistics.

Transportation department officials lose street cred (in this case, road cred) massaging statistics to suit the advocacy on proposals adding up to $1.35 billion ($1 billion for the transportation project fund and $350 million-plus for the road). That's a lot of money - 1.35 billion seconds ago it was 1942.

When we deal with that much money let's find statistics that illuminate. The lamp posts and the lamps are supposed to light the way, not just prop us up.

• Kim Elton, D-Juneau, is an Alaska state senator.

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