You Can’t Manage What You Can’t Measure

You Can’t Manage What You Can’t Measure

Will it ever end?

By Mark Luedtke

I-75 modernization so far

Motorists traveling to and from downtown Dayton on I-75 are in for some big changes. The good news is that the Phase 1A modernization project is complete. That phase fixed malfunction junction at the intersection of I-75 and State Route 4. It replaced the Main Street exit with a modern, high capacity ramp and intersection and upgraded Stanley Road access. It upgraded old bridges and created three continuous lanes both north and south. The ramp from I-75 north to State Route 4 is an adjunct project, and it’s scheduled to be completed by July 2013.

The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) Public Information Officer, Mandi Abner, considers the project a success, “We have received numerous compliments from drivers on the finished product at Phase 1A.”

Phase 1B upgrades I-75 near the US 35 interchange. Abner expects that traffic will be returned to the regular configuration, with drivers driving on the right sides of the road, by this December. Finishing work will continue until June 2013. This project will also create three continuous lanes of traffic in both directions.

Five more years

The bad news is Phase 2 just started and it will not be completed until September of 2017, though ODOT has provided the contractor, Kokosing, incentives to pull in the schedule to December of 2016. The ramps on the northbound side have already been shut down. The ramps on the southbound side are scheduled to be shut down before December. The ramps for First, Third and Fifth Streets and Salem Avenue will remain closed for the duration of the project.

ODOT recommends that motorists traveling to and from the south use the Edwin Moses Boulevard or US 35 exits for downtown access. Drivers from the north can use the Main Street exit, which is why Phase 1A had to be completed before Phase 2 could start. Accessing Salem Avenue will be somewhat complicated. From Main Street, drivers can take the newly built Great Miami Boulevard to Riverview Avenue, then on to Salem Avenue. From the south, drivers can take Edwin Moses Boulevard until it merges into Riverview Avenue, then to Salem Avenue.

This project will remove all left-hand entrances and exits from the highway, and it will replace the existing ramps with one access point at Second Street. It will replace aging bridges and provide three continuous lanes both in directions from north of Main Street to south of US 35.

ODOT and the Downtown Dayton Partnership (DDP) have set up numerous facilities for communicating with Daytonians about the project. They have held numerous joint meetings. Both of the ODOT District Seven and DDP websites provide information on the project including detour maps, and allow visitors to sign up for email alerts and to provide feedback. District Seven has opened a local office.

ODOT conducted a survey after the completion of Phase 1A to help improve Phase 2. Abner reports on the changes, “We will be using pavement tattoos to make directions easier for motorists to see while on the interstate. We will also be using a radar speed sign to let drivers know how fast they are going. We are increasing communications by giving the public an option to sign up for monthly project newsletters emailed to them. We will have lanes open when we are not working. We will have more crossover lighting in the project. We will have an increased smoothness specification for the pavement. We are increasing the width of the painted lines on the roadway and are repainting them twice a year. We will have a work zone traffic supervisor on the project to monitor everything.”

Why does construction take so long?

Ludwig on Mises pointed out that economic calculation is required for a producer to be able to make rational decisions. The fundamental reason highway construction takes so long is the marginal cost of using the highway is zero, so ODOT managers, no matter how experienced, cannot perform economic calculation to guide rational decisions. This situation creates a cascade of management problems that can only be addressed by educated guesses.

The function of prices is to balance supply and demand. If demand for a good outpaces supply, the producer raises prices until demand matches supply. Lacking prices for highway use, ODOT managers cannot match demand for the highway with the capacity of the highway. Therefore they cannot predict future loading. This problem shows up first in the initial modeling phase of the project. The modeler attempts to predict what conditions will exist when construction is completed ten years later by inputting numerous guesses into a sophisticated computer program. Throughout the course of the project, the guesses are tweaked. As ODOT District Deputy Director Randy Chevalley says, “We have traffic modelers with black boxes. They do the best they can to project. It’s like a crystal ball.” The process is akin to magic because, since the inputs are irrational, so is the output.

Environmental analysis is almost comical. Area Engineer Scott LeBlanc describes the process, “Environmental is typically what hangs us up on these jobs because that can be years to get environmental clearances. … Every set of plans that we sell has an environmental commitments page that talks about what we have committed environmentally. It talks about the Indiana bat. If we’ve had a mussel relocation, it says the mussel relocation must be completed before construction. It talks about archeological Indian bones and that kind of thing.” Imagine having to move mussels up the river.

Another reason road construction takes so long is the way the state assigns jobs and contractors. An idealized thought experiment will help explain. Imagine if the state had five projects and a contractor had a team that could complete each project in one year. The most efficient way to allocate those resources would be to complete one project at a time, then start the next. Each highway would be under construction for one year only. The least efficient way to allocate those resources would be to spread the resources over all jobs at the same time. Each highway would be under construction for five years. The price of construction and the manpower would be the same either way. The only difference would be how long each highway was under construction.

But politicians and people don’t want to wait for other projects to complete. Since the funding for all highways comes from a common pool, mostly from federal gas taxes, all districts compete to grab the most money, spreading resources all over the state instead of focusing them on finishing projects as quickly as possible. This situation is called the Tragedy of the Commons. In addition, politicians like to use road projects as advertisements, as the signs for the American Recovery Act illustrate, so having more roads under construction longer benefits politicians. These incentives encourage contractors to patronize politicians and bid as many jobs as they can. According to opensecrets.org, Kokosing is a major donor to Ohio politicians. While ODOT officials try to schedule jobs to complete as quickly as they can, they are constrained by this systemic division of resources.

Despite the best efforts of ODOT engineers and contractors, this system makes highways less safe. While LeBlanc points to malfunction junction as one example where a finished highway was more dangerous than a construction zone, this is not true in general, and it’s hardly an endorsement for the system that created malfunction junction and left it in place for 40 years. ODOT recently finished a ten-year study showing that construction zones are especially dangerous, but it blamed aggressive drivers, not construction itself. LeBlanc explains that contractors are accountable for mistakes because they must pay to fix errors out of their own pockets, but the contractor did not pay to fix malfunction junction. Malfunction junction was considered a success at the time, illustrating that ODOT has no objective way to measure the success or failure of a project. ODOT enjoys sovereign immunity from lawsuits, and contractors can only be held accountable if the zone is outside of specifications.

District Construction Administrator David Ley and LeBlanc are devastated by deaths on the roads they manage, but as economist Walter Block points out in his book “Privatization of Roads and Highways,” “As far as safety is concerned, presently there is no road manager who loses financially if the accident rate on ‘his’ turnpike increases, or is higher than other comparable avenues of transportation. A civil servant draws his annual salary regardless of the accident toll piled up under his domain.”

The system also produces inefficiency in investigating accidents. For example, on July 13, 2012 two accidents occurred late at night at the same location in I-75 construction, eight minutes apart. A driver from Detroit died. Witnesses report there were large gaps in the barrels and that black bases were in place but without orange barrels attached. LeBlanc drove that job site in the morning, and he reported the signs and barrels were within specifications, yet Abner noted that a bent sign was replaced after the accident, and the Ohio Department of Public Safety reported an arrow board was supposed to be in place, but was not. Even though contractors are required to drive the job daily to ensure that signage meets specifications, the system failed. Two accidents, one fatal, at the same location within eight minutes is de facto evidence of a problem at the construction site whether signage met specifications or not, but the Ohio State Highway Patrol indicated a crash reconstruction report wouldn’t be available for months, too late to address any problems.

If construction and accidents cost the state revenue, this system would change to minimize lost revenue. Construction would be faster and safer and, once completed, highways would last longer. Projects could be managed rationally to minimize or eliminate all the problems above.

Will I-75 construction ever really end?

If it seems that construction on I-75 never ends, that’s because for the last 30 years that’s been true. I-75 is 50 years old. It didn’t need much maintenance for the first 20 years, but as it got older and as the number of trucks and the load restrictions on trucks increased, it began to break down. ODOT’s initial response was to apply quick patches. Ley explains, “Most of the projects you’ve seen over the last 30 years were maintenance things where we took three inches of asphalt off the top and put three inches of asphalt back on it just to get it another six or seven years until we had to do it again.”

Heavy loads used to be sent by rail, but loads on highways are rapidly increasing. Because of this, ODOT can no longer just patch roads. It’s replacing them using better materials, deeper base and thicker roads. But Ley can’t predict how long the roads will last, “We build them better now than we did before. But they’re taking an incredible amount more loading than they did. So, are they going to last as long or longer? I can’t tell you. It’ll depend on truck volumes and loading.”

So while Phase 2 of the I-75 downtown project is scheduled to complete in five years, there’s no way to predict if local I-75 will ever be free of construction. Abner explains, “Anytime you are dealing with a product that is constantly being used you have to maintain it, so it would be very hard to say if there would be a time that there would be no construction. There are many variables in that. However, as long as the roadways are being utilized by motorists on a daily basis they are receiving wear and tear, which will, over time, have to be repaired and updated. This is an ongoing process.”

ODOT has figured out the benefits of charging to use highways, so it’s considering tolls for new highways like the Ohio Turnpike model, but it’s not considering tolls for existing highways. That means I-75 construction may never end.

I-75 modernization so far

Motorists traveling to and from downtown Dayton on I-75 are in for some big changes. The good news is that the Phase 1A modernization project is complete. That phase fixed malfunction junction at the intersection of I-75 and State Route 4. It replaced the Main Street exit with a modern, high capacity ramp and intersection and upgraded Stanley Road access. It upgraded old bridges and created three continuous lanes both north and south. The ramp from I-75 north to State Route 4 is an adjunct project, and it’s scheduled to be completed by July 2013.

The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) Public Information Officer, Mandi Abner, considers the project a success, “We have received numerous compliments from drivers on the finished product at Phase 1A.”

Phase 1B upgrades I-75 near the US 35 interchange. Abner expects that traffic will be returned to the regular configuration, with drivers driving on the right sides of the road, by this December. Finishing work will continue until June 2013. This project will also create three continuous lanes of traffic in both directions.

Five more years

The bad news is Phase 2 just started and it will not be completed until September of 2017, though ODOT has provided the contractor, Kokosing, incentives to pull in the schedule to December of 2016. The ramps on the northbound side have already been shut down. The ramps on the southbound side are scheduled to be shut down before December. The ramps for First, Third and Fifth Streets and Salem Avenue will remain closed for the duration of the project.

ODOT recommends that motorists traveling to and from the south use the Edwin Moses Boulevard or US 35 exits for downtown access. Drivers from the north can use the Main Street exit, which is why Phase 1A had to be completed before Phase 2 could start. Accessing Salem Avenue will be somewhat complicated. From Main Street, drivers can take the newly built Great Miami Boulevard to Riverview Avenue, then on to Salem Avenue. From the south, drivers can take Edwin Moses Boulevard until it merges into Riverview Avenue, then to Salem Avenue.

This project will remove all left-hand entrances and exits from the highway, and it will replace the existing ramps with one access point at Second Street. It will replace aging bridges and provide three continuous lanes both in directions from north of Main Street to south of US 35.

ODOT and the Downtown Dayton Partnership (DDP) have set up numerous facilities for communicating with Daytonians about the project. They have held numerous joint meetings. Both of the ODOT District Seven and DDP websites provide information on the project including detour maps, and allow visitors to sign up for email alerts and to provide feedback. District Seven has opened a local office.

ODOT conducted a survey after the completion of Phase 1A to help improve Phase 2. Abner reports on the changes, “We will be using pavement tattoos to make directions easier for motorists to see while on the interstate. We will also be using a radar speed sign to let drivers know how fast they are going. We are increasing communications by giving the public an option to sign up for monthly project newsletters emailed to them. We will have lanes open when we are not working. We will have more crossover lighting in the project. We will have an increased smoothness specification for the pavement. We are increasing the width of the painted lines on the roadway and are repainting them twice a year. We will have a work zone traffic supervisor on the project to monitor everything.”

Why does construction take so long?

Ludwig on Mises pointed out that economic calculation is required for a producer to be able to make rational decisions. The fundamental reason highway construction takes so long is the marginal cost of using the highway is zero, so ODOT managers, no matter how experienced, cannot perform economic calculation to guide rational decisions. This situation creates a cascade of management problems that can only be addressed by educated guesses.

The function of prices is to balance supply and demand. If demand for a good outpaces supply, the producer raises prices until demand matches supply. Lacking prices for highway use, ODOT managers cannot match demand for the highway with the capacity of the highway. Therefore they cannot predict future loading. This problem shows up first in the initial modeling phase of the project. The modeler attempts to predict what conditions will exist when construction is completed ten years later by inputting numerous guesses into a sophisticated computer program. Throughout the course of the project, the guesses are tweaked. As ODOT District Deputy Director Randy Chevalley says, “We have traffic modelers with black boxes. They do the best they can to project. It’s like a crystal ball.” The process is akin to magic because, since the inputs are irrational, so is the output.

Environmental analysis is almost comical. Area Engineer Scott LeBlanc describes the process, “Environmental is typically what hangs us up on these jobs because that can be years to get environmental clearances. … Every set of plans that we sell has an environmental commitments page that talks about what we have committed environmentally. It talks about the Indiana bat. If we’ve had a mussel relocation, it says the mussel relocation must be completed before construction. It talks about archeological Indian bones and that kind of thing.” Imagine having to move mussels up the river.

Another reason road construction takes so long is the way the state assigns jobs and contractors. An idealized thought experiment will help explain. Imagine if the state had five projects and a contractor had a team that could complete each project in one year. The most efficient way to allocate those resources would be to complete one project at a time, then start the next. Each highway would be under construction for one year only. The least efficient way to allocate those resources would be to spread the resources over all jobs at the same time. Each highway would be under construction for five years. The price of construction and the manpower would be the same either way. The only difference would be how long each highway was under construction.

But politicians and people don’t want to wait for other projects to complete. Since the funding for all highways comes from a common pool, mostly from federal gas taxes, all districts compete to grab the most money, spreading resources all over the state instead of focusing them on finishing projects as quickly as possible. This situation is called the Tragedy of the Commons. In addition, politicians like to use road projects as advertisements, as the signs for the American Recovery Act illustrate, so having more roads under construction longer benefits politicians. These incentives encourage contractors to patronize politicians and bid as many jobs as they can. According to opensecrets.org, Kokosing is a major donor to Ohio politicians. While ODOT officials try to schedule jobs to complete as quickly as they can, they are constrained by this systemic division of resources.

Despite the best efforts of ODOT engineers and contractors, this system makes highways less safe. While LeBlanc points to malfunction junction as one example where a finished highway was more dangerous than a construction zone, this is not true in general, and it’s hardly an endorsement for the system that created malfunction junction and left it in place for 40 years. ODOT recently finished a ten-year study showing that construction zones are especially dangerous, but it blamed aggressive drivers, not construction itself. LeBlanc explains that contractors are accountable for mistakes because they must pay to fix errors out of their own pockets, but the contractor did not pay to fix malfunction junction. Malfunction junction was considered a success at the time, illustrating that ODOT has no objective way to measure the success or failure of a project. ODOT enjoys sovereign immunity from lawsuits, and contractors can only be held accountable if the zone is outside of specifications.

District Construction Administrator David Ley and LeBlanc are devastated by deaths on the roads they manage, but as economist Walter Block points out in his book “Privatization of Roads and Highways,” “As far as safety is concerned, presently there is no road manager who loses financially if the accident rate on ‘his’ turnpike increases, or is higher than other comparable avenues of transportation. A civil servant draws his annual salary regardless of the accident toll piled up under his domain.”

The system also produces inefficiency in investigating accidents. For example, on July 13, 2012 two accidents occurred late at night at the same location in I-75 construction, eight minutes apart. A driver from Detroit died. Witnesses report there were large gaps in the barrels and that black bases were in place but without orange barrels attached. LeBlanc drove that job site in the morning, and he reported the signs and barrels were within specifications, yet Abner noted that a bent sign was replaced after the accident, and the Ohio Department of Public Safety reported an arrow board was supposed to be in place, but was not. Even though contractors are required to drive the job daily to ensure that signage meets specifications, the system failed. Two accidents, one fatal, at the same location within eight minutes is de facto evidence of a problem at the construction site whether signage met specifications or not, but the Ohio State Highway Patrol indicated a crash reconstruction report wouldn’t be available for months, too late to address any problems.

If construction and accidents cost the state revenue, this system would change to minimize lost revenue. Construction would be faster and safer and, once completed, highways would last longer. Projects could be managed rationally to minimize or eliminate all the problems above.

Will I-75 construction ever really end?

If it seems that construction on I-75 never ends, that’s because for the last 30 years that’s been true. I-75 is 50 years old. It didn’t need much maintenance for the first 20 years, but as it got older and as the number of trucks and the load restrictions on trucks increased, it began to break down. ODOT’s initial response was to apply quick patches. Ley explains, “Most of the projects you’ve seen over the last 30 years were maintenance things where we took three inches of asphalt off the top and put three inches of asphalt back on it just to get it another six or seven years until we had to do it again.”

Heavy loads used to be sent by rail, but loads on highways are rapidly increasing. Because of this, ODOT can no longer just patch roads. It’s replacing them using better materials, deeper base and thicker roads. But Ley can’t predict how long the roads will last, “We build them better now than we did before. But they’re taking an incredible amount more loading than they did. So, are they going to last as long or longer? I can’t tell you. It’ll depend on truck volumes and loading.”

So while Phase 2 of the I-75 downtown project is scheduled to complete in five years, there’s no way to predict if local I-75 will ever be free of construction. Abner explains, “Anytime you are dealing with a product that is constantly being used you have to maintain it, so it would be very hard to say if there would be a time that there would be no construction. There are many variables in that. However, as long as the roadways are being utilized by motorists on a daily basis they are receiving wear and tear, which will, over time, have to be repaired and updated. This is an ongoing process.”

ODOT has figured out the benefits of charging to use highways, so it’s considering tolls for new highways like the Ohio Turnpike model, but it’s not considering tolls for existing highways. That means I-75 construction may never end.

Reach DCP freelance writer Mark Luedtke at MarkLuedtke@daytoncitypaper.com

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