Last month we reported on some funky statistics coming out of the Maryland Department of Transportation—something about adding lanes to the Beltway.
Ben Ross sends an update:
Thank you so much for reporting in your blog on my letter about possible scientific fraud in the traffic model for the Maryland toll lane project. There are new developments that your readers may be interested in.
My [Ross’s] letter, sent to US Dept. of Transportation Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg, concerned the Final Environmental Impact Statement issued in June by the Federal Highway Administration. This document is the basis for a Record of Decision (ROD), the federal approval needed for the project to go forward.
On July 18, a lobbying group supporting the project wrote to Trottenberg asking her to “ignore” my letter. The signer of the letter was Doug Mayer, former Communications Director to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. The Mayer letter is attached and a news report on it is here.
A few days ago, the Federal Highway Administration informed the Maryland Dept. of Transportation that USDOT was not ready to issue the ROD and asked them to respond to public comments they had received on the FEIS. This clearly includes my letter to Trottenberg; I don’t know the full extent of what MDOT was asked to respond to.
Yesterday morning, Governor Hogan wrote to President Biden and USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg demanding immediate issuance of the ROD without any response to comments on the FEIS. He issued a press release describing the delay as “purely political” and “irresponsible and incompetent federal overreach” and threatening legal action. Press coverage of this has appeared in Maryland Matters and the Washington Post.
In response, the Federal Highway Administration issued the following statement yesterday afternoon:
In his letter, the former communications director says a lot about professionalism: “The traffic engineering and environmental analyses were performed by professional engineers and other qualified subject matter experts from eight federal, state, and local agencies and 20 participating agencies . . . following approved, industry standard procedures . . . consistent with accepted industry standards . . . licensed professionals with advanced degrees in traffic engineering . . .”
Expertise can be important, that’s for sure. But I’m not sure what I’m supposed to think about work that is “consistent with accepted industry standards” in traffic engineering. This came up a few years ago in our article, The Commissar for TrafficPresents the Latest Five-Year Plan. For whatever reason, it seems like standard practice to make bad forecasts and then not update them appropriately with new information:
This sort of behavior might be ok if you’re an academic economist writing about the Soviet Union:
But government employees should be able to do better, no?
Here’s the point. When we see forecasts of bridge traffic, transit traffic, cost projections, etc., made by people with a political or financial interest in the project . . . OK, these forecasts could be good or they could be bad. You can’t just assume they’re correct, just cos they’re by traffic engineers with advanced degrees, consistent with accepted industry standards, etc. Industry standards aren’t always so great, and there are real conflicts of interests here. I’m not saying that these studies shouldn’t be done; I’m just saying that it could be a mistake to assume that the “eight federal, state, and local agencies and 20 participating agencies” experts are producing an unbiased report.
The other interesting thing from the former communication director’s letter is a report from an organization called Public Opinion Strategies. They share results from a poll of 500 registered voters in Maryland, but it’s kind of impossible for me to evaluate given that they don’t say how they sampled the voters or what the survey questions were. I have a horrible feeling the poll was done with the goal of getting positive responses on this Beltway expansion thing. The poll is irrelevant to concerns about the traffic report, but it’s an interesting example of possibly slanted news. Seeing poll results with no information of where the respondents came from or what the questions were . . . it’s like trying to piece together a conversation from hearing only one person’s words.
I absolutely love this bit:
No sense of where these respondents come from or what questions were asked, but, hey, the margin of error is 4.38%. The only thing I don’t get is why didn’t they say it more precisely: the margin of error is 4.382693%. What’s with the rounding, dude??