National Academies Press: OpenBook

Public Benefits of Highway System Preservation and Maintenance (2004)


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Suggested Citation:"CHAPTER THREE - PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF MAINTENANCE BENEFITS." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2004. Public Benefits of Highway System Preservation and Maintenance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23362.
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Suggested Citation:"CHAPTER THREE - PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF MAINTENANCE BENEFITS." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2004. Public Benefits of Highway System Preservation and Maintenance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23362.
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Suggested Citation:"CHAPTER THREE - PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF MAINTENANCE BENEFITS." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2004. Public Benefits of Highway System Preservation and Maintenance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23362.
Page 31
Suggested Citation:"CHAPTER THREE - PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF MAINTENANCE BENEFITS." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2004. Public Benefits of Highway System Preservation and Maintenance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23362.
Page 32
Suggested Citation:"CHAPTER THREE - PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF MAINTENANCE BENEFITS." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2004. Public Benefits of Highway System Preservation and Maintenance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23362.

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17 CHAPTER THREE PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF MAINTENANCE BENEFITS Although responsible officials and researchers argue that highway maintenance yields significant public benefits, funding for maintenance, compared with funding for con- struction of new roads, has been problematic in the United States at least since the close of the Revolutionary War (History of Public Works . . . 1976). The situation is not unique to this country; the World Bank has for many years recognized the lack of effective road maintenance as an “intractable” and complex problem threatening national development (The Road Maintenance Problem . . . 1981). Geoffroy (1996, p. 8) found that only 18% of agencies re- ported any earmarking of funds to ensure that PM would be performed. Some professionals propose, as the back- ground and scope of this study suggest, that the problem stems from a lack of appreciation—particularly among public officials, political leaders, and the general public— of the benefits of effective maintenance and the costs of neglecting maintenance. Respondents to a Foundation for Pavement Preservation (FP2) survey of state agencies most frequently cited public perceptions as a barrier to adoption of PM programs (Da- vies and Sorenson 2000). The survey may be biased how- ever, as the form itself suggests as a response that “motor- ists will not accept” a departure from a conventional approach of giving highest priority to maintenance of those pavements in the poorest condition—the “worst first” strat- egy. The FP2 survey form also suggests that the low regard for maintenance felt by senior agency management may be another barrier to establishing PM programs, and several respondents agreed. A lack of appreciation of maintenance benefits is linked by many highway professionals with inadequate commit- ment to PM and preservation. FHWA staff suggests, for example, that establishing dedicated funding is a major hurdle that agencies encounter when considering the crea- tion of pavement preservation programs. More than 90% of respondents to the FP2 survey anticipated that pavement PM will increase customer satisfaction. However, fewer than 30% of those respondents had some system of meas- urements that could confirm that expectation. More than two-thirds of agencies responding to the survey conducted for this synthesis study reported having undertaken surveys to identify public interests and preferences generally, but just more than half reported having tried within the past 5 years to assess public opinions about maintenance in par- ticular (Table 5). PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS AND OPINIONS OF MAINTENANCE A search of the literature revealed only a few studies offer- ing insight into the opinions of various segments of the public with regard to the benefits or importance of mainte- nance. Attitudinal studies are frequently used in transporta- tion planning and management, particularly considering road users’ concerns about traffic and safety conditions (e.g., Fulton 1988). Some investigators (e.g., Heine 1990; Cuevas 1997; Jackson and Ruehr 1998) have examined drivers’ attitudes regarding workzone safety or vehicle maintenance as a safety issue. A search of TRIS (Transpor- tation Research Information Services) and other on-line da ta- bases, however, yielded only a single reference to the rela- tionship of maintenance to long-term facility service levels (Jefford et al. 1988). TABLE 5 SURVEY RESULTS OF HIGHWAY AGENCY USE OF OUTREACH AND CUSTOMER RESEARCH IDEAS Activity Percentage of All Agencies Use surveys or other methods to assess public interests and preferences regarding agency activities 68 Have used surveys or other methods within the past 5 years to assess public perceptions regarding maintenance activities Definitely use information in agency management 58 21 Have conducted maintenance-targeted briefings for elected officials within the past 5 years Do so at least annually 42 26 Have conducted maintenance-targeted briefings for local officials within the past 5 years Do so at least annually 32 16 Regularly report to public on maintenance program output or productivity (e.g., lane-miles patched) 21 Regularly report to public on maintenance program accomplishments in terms of outcome measures (e.g., pavement condition) 11

18 Anecdotal evidence suggests how maintenance and ser- vice-level characteristics influence road users’ opinions. For example, Overdrive, a magazine serving the long-haul trucking community, conducts an annual survey of the “best and worst roads.” Factors considered in their survey include truckers’ opinions about potholes, cracking and patching, traffic and congestion, and construction. Roads in Florida and that state’s stretch of Interstate 75 were fa- vorably rated in 2001, along with roads in Georgia, Tennes- see, and Texas. Pennsylvania’s roads also ranked well in 2001, after that state was reported as having the worst roads for the previous 7 consecutive years. A writer for Overdrive, however, had visited Pennsyl- vania in 1997 and traveled these roads, observing only 50 mi of aged pavement in two counties that she judged needed serious attention (Hatfield 1997). State officials, seeking to explain the low ratings in the 1990s, had sug- gested that “truck drivers, angry about high tolls, rigid po- lice enforcement and length and weight restrictions” in Pennsylvania, might “have an ax to grind.” On the other hand, the state spent heavily on repairs during the mid- 1990s, which suggests that poor facility conditions and re- pair-related workzone delays could have accounted for these complaints. In any case, a state highway official stated, “We’ve changed the reality; now we’ve got to change the perception” of the state’s highways following completion of their extensive repair work. Opinions by a broader segment of the public are ex- plored in a series of surveys conducted in 2000 by the FHWA (Keever et al. 2001). Asked to rate their satisfaction with “the major highways you most often use,” 65% of highway travelers reported that they were satisfied or very satisfied. However, as the researchers acknowledged, the level of satisfaction was not strong; only about 10% of re- spondents indicated they were “very satisfied,” whereas more than 20% were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. Ap- proximately 15% expressed no opinion. Users of nonurban highways were more satisfied than those using urban highways, suggesting that traffic volumes and congestion may have been influential in their responses. Heavy traffic and related delays were frequently cited as reasons for dis- satisfaction. The 2000 results, compared with a similar survey in 1985, showed increased polarization of opinions; that is, increases in percentages of both satisfied and dissatisfied travelers (Keever et al. 2001). CORRELATING PERCEPTIONS, OPINIONS, AND MEASURABLE ROAD CONDITIONS The FHWA surveys asked travelers to rate their satisfaction with pavement and bridge conditions that might be influ- enced by maintenance, including durability, ride quietness (pavements) or smoothness (bridges), and (for bridges only) visual appearance. The percentage of respondents satisfied with these factors was similar to that expressing an overall level of satisfaction, just over 60%. In contrast, fewer than 50% were satisfied with traffic-flow conditions. Other frequently cited sources for dissatisfaction included workzones (presumably associated with both highway maintenance and expansion) and pavement conditions. However, the researchers noted that pavement durability and smoothness account for only approximately 20% of the dissatisfaction, suggesting that factors not measured in the survey may be more important than these in explaining traveler opinions. Also, participants were not asked to re- spond to specific statistics, numerical measures of pave- ment condition or durability, or examples that might stan- dardize their responses. In the absence of specific measures, it is not clear what levels of smoothness, quiet- ness, or durability would produce substantial satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Recent NCHRP studies of DOT activities undertaken to enhance their public relations noted that a few agencies (e.g., Montana, South Dakota, and Utah) have included pavement conditions or pavement maintenance among the characteristics about which they survey public opinion. Asphalt and concrete maintenance and road striping were occasionally mentioned. DOTs in Montana and South Da- kota went further, asking explicitly about road user’s inter- est in certain maintenance activities. The South Dakota DOT asked users how they would allocate $100 spent on roads among various activities and then used that informa- tion to shape agency programs (Stein and Sloane 2001, 2003). The Union Pacific Railroad is noteworthy for estab- lishing a particularly strong link between maintenance and customer satisfaction and company profitability (McNeil et al. 2002). Some agencies have made an effort to correlate public perceptions or opinions with measurable characteristics of road conditions. The Pennsylvania DOT, for example, con- ducted a large-scale mail survey of licensed drivers, focus- ing on highway and bridge conditions, maintenance workzone activities, and customer service at county-level maintenance units (Poister et al. 1998). Just over half of the respondents rated the state’s Interstate highway and pri- mary highways as satisfactory—meeting or exceeding ex- pectations—although the ratings varied dramatically among counties. Approximately 42% of respondents rated the state’s secondary roads as satisfactory. Measurements of the IRI as an indicator showed that pavement conditions on secondary roads were significantly poorer than on the Interstate system and primary routes. However, statistical analysis was unable to show a significant relationship be- tween average IRI measurements and motorists’ satisfac- tion ratings. Conversely, engineering estimates of mainte- nance spending needed to bring the roads to a level judged

19 acceptable by the estimators (including considerations of shoulder, guardrail, and drainage conditions as well as pavement roughness) were found to be significantly related to motorists’ ratings. No effort to explain statistically the large variations in motorists’ satisfaction among counties was reported. The Wisconsin DOT (WisDOT), in its efforts as part of a three-state research project (with Minnesota and Iowa), undertook a staged exploration involving focus group dis- cussions followed by telephone surveys (Robinson et al 2000). That work found that drivers had a generally high opinion of WisDOT’s general competence, concern for safety and drivers’ convenience, and responsiveness to the concerns of average drivers. This satisfaction with Wis- DOT seemed to make respondents more inclined to be sat- isfied with pavement conditions as well. However, al- though almost one-third of the respondents believed that pavement conditions on a road segment they knew well could be improved, more than half also felt that conditions on that segment were better than is typical on other roads in the state. When asked how limited funds should be allo- cated among several choices proposed, more than one-half of the respondents favored building longer-lasting pave- ments. Only 38.3% selected any one of the three suggested choices clearly identifiable as maintenance: fixing bumpy highways, resurfacing patched pavement, or correcting noisy pavement. The WisDOT survey also posed hypothetical questions to explore drivers’ preferences about delays caused by roadway maintenance and repair work. Respondents gener- ally preferred more frequent, shorter delays rather than longer delays less frequently imposed. A 2001 telephone survey conducted by the Oregon Sur- vey Research Laboratory (“Transportation Need”) asked participants how they would “compare the overall condi- tion of Oregon’s highways, roads and bridges to other states.” Just over 31% of respondents rated Oregon’s condi- tion as “better,” slightly more than 46% rated it as “about the same,” and 12% felt it was “worse.” Approximately 83% of respondents were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with “how ODOT maintains Oregon’s highways, roads, and bridges.” Nearly 77% rated the agency’s overall performance as “excellent” or “good,” and 68% believed that conditions on the state’s highways, roads, and bridges were “better” or “about the same” as they were 10 years earlier. In response to a direct question as to whether the Ore- gon DOT (ODOT) should give priority to maintaining ex- isting facilities instead of building new ones, nearly 37% answered “yes” and slightly less than 7% said “no.” How- ever, more than half refused to answer the question, gave no answer, or answered that they “don’t know.” A question asking whether “it is more important for ODOT to make system improvements to reduce congestion, or to preserve and maintain the highways Oregon already has” found re- spondents about equally divided (just under 21% each). Again, more than half refused to answer the question, gave no answer, or answered that they “don’t know.” For subse- quent questions, respondents overwhelmingly reported that maintaining the state’s existing system is “very important” or “somewhat important” (99%), as is expanding and im- proving the system (89%) and reducing congestion (91%). The National Quality Initiative (NQI) has motivated such studies. The NQI is a collaboration formed in 1992 by the FHWA, AASHTO, APWA, and several other groups, “to focus attention on continuous quality improvement within the highway industry” (National 1997). One of the NQI’s objectives has been to “promote customer focus and measurement of quality in the highway industry,” and em- phasis in at least one set of demonstration projects has been on a “least cost approach to maintenance/systems preservation activities” (Quality Accomplishments 1997). Initial guidance on how to implement customer-based definitions of quality was provided to state DOTs in 1995, through the NCHRP (Stein-Hudson et al. 1995). Telephone interviews are the most frequently cited method for collect- ing public opinion information and are used by 64% of agencies that reported using any method (Table 6). Mail and e-mail questionnaires are next in popularity, used by 45% of responding agencies. TABLE 6 SURVEY RESULTS ON METHODS USED FOR MAINTENANCE UTREACH AND MARKET RESEARCH O Method Agencies Using Method (%) Telephone survey Mail-back or e-mail survey Focus groups Telephone and mail-back survey Other (website, state fair) 64 45 36 27 27 The Arizona DOT (ADOT), for example, commissioned a telephone survey of state residents and selected commu- nity leaders to obtain information on the opinions of cus- tomers with regard to the types of transportation services they want. The survey found that only 11% of those polled judged transportation to be among the most important problems facing the community. The results were similar to those of the national NQI surveys: approximately 60% of respondents rated their highways, roads, and streets as “ex- cellent” or “good,” and only approximately 15% rated them as “poor” or “very poor.” A significant portion of the Ari- zona sample expressed a desire for more lane-miles of freeways and major highways, but they opposed all options for increasing funding for transportation improvements.

20 Maintenance and repair was the most frequently cited means for improving transportation (Hernandez 1997). A 1996 telephone survey for the Montana DOT asked highway users’ opinions of the relative importance of seven maintenance activities, including debris removal, mainte- nance of signs, roadsides, rest stops, and striping. Not sur- prisingly, winter maintenance was rated highest (scoring 3.56 on a scale of 1 to 4). Maintaining surface smoothness rated lowest among the seven areas (scoring 2.51) (Quality Accomplishments 1997). CONSEQUENCES OF PERCEPTIONS AND OPINIONS The idea that transportation agencies should make particu- lar efforts to communicate with the road-using public, elected officials, and others, and should listen to these cus- tomers in setting management priorities is widely reported (e.g., Lockwood 1998; Hagler Bailly Services 1999). To distribute information about its programs, each state agency maintains an Internet website, and most agencies make a variety of printed materials available to elected of- ficials and the general public. The influence of public opin- ion on maintenance programs is nevertheless difficult to track. Although 68% of agencies responding to the survey for this study reported having conducted surveys to iden- tify public interests and preferences, only about one-third reported that information about public opinions of their maintenance and performance is definitely used in agency management (see Appendix B, Table B8). However, approximately 79% of agency respondents felt that the public at large had definitely or somewhat favor- able views of their agency’s maintenance programs. All re- spondents, without exception, believed that elected offi- cials and their own senior management held positive views of their maintenance programs. Survey respon- dents most frequently cited news reports, comments made at public hearings, and favorable legislative action on agency budget requests as evidence of public favor. Ap- proximately 40% of respondents listed the results of public opinion surveys. Computing an estimate of the agency’s maintenance backlog or funding gap is a frequently used basis for trying to convince elected officials and the general public that ad- ditional funds are needed for maintenance and repair (e.g., Hatry and Liner 1994). The backlog is generally defined as the estimated cumulative cost of raising the condition of all roads in a system up to a level defined—typically by the agency—as an acceptable minimum. ODOT personnel, for example, explained that the agency used backlog as part of its argument for a proposal to increase the state’s gasoline tax, which went to statewide ballot in 2000. Agency personnel prepared a series of documents and public presentations to explain the termi- nology of maintenance (e.g., rehabilitation versus replace- ment, as shown in Figure 10), the idea of the backlog, and the magnitude of the backlog. The agency adopted the theme “Pave me now or pay more later” for its roads and bridges, explaining that the costs of repair once failure oc- curs (i.e., unacceptable service levels) will be several times greater than the costs for maintenance to preserve accept- able conditions. Agency engineers used the standard model to explain that state roads were approaching the age at which steeply declining service levels could be expected, and estimated a need for at least a 10% increase in mainte- nance spending to ensure that preservation at current lev- els. Presentations to state legislators and the public in- cluded projections, 15 years in the future, of what fraction of the state’s roads would exhibit service levels of “fair” or below, with and without the desired funding increase and compared with current conditions. Although agency per- sonnel judge the campaign to have been effective in influ- encing public opinion, the gasoline tax increase ultimately was defeated. Although PM is shown in theory to be a cost-effective strategy for highway management, relatively few agencies promote their PM programs in their public communica- tions. This appears to be true in the private sector as well, owing to the difficulty of proving that PM spending will reduce the total costs of providing goods or services. TTX Company is a notable exception, because its PM practices yielded clearly measurable benefits; the manager of rail- cars gained regulatory approval from the FTA to extend the usable lifetime of autorack cars (used for shipping new automobiles) from 50 to 65 years (McNeil et al. 2002). SUMMARY Published literature, the study survey, and anecdotal evi- dence gathered during this synthesis study revealed infor- mation about public views on highway maintenance activi- ties and agencies’ efforts to publicize the benefits of those activities: • Public perceptions of maintenance and its benefits— Surveys show that a majority of the general public holds favorable views of highway conditions gener- ally and of the operations of their highway agencies. There is evidence that public perceptions are linked to specific characteristics of pavement or other road- way conditions, but that such evidence is limited. Of- ficials of many agencies believe that elected officials as well as the general public have favorable views of agency maintenance activities. • Influence of public opinion—The idea that customer opinion should influence agency management deci-

21 sions is widely espoused. Many agencies have used surveys or other market research techniques to assess public opinions of their highways and maintenance op- erations. The influence of such information on agency decisions about maintenance budgets and program management is not well documented. • Efforts to communicate with the public and market maintenance—Some agencies routinely hold brief- ings or make other efforts to inform legislators or the general public about maintenance issues. Some agen- cies routinely report maintenance program productiv- ity or other performance measures to the general pub- lic, although most agencies calculate such measures only for their internal management.

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TRB’s National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Synthesis 330: Public Benefits of Highway System Preservation and Maintenance examines the current practices for identifying, measuring, and articulating the public benefits of highway system maintenance and operation, and of communicating those benefits that are understandable and meaningful to stakeholders—road users, elected officials, and others who have an interest in the system’s performance.

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