Learning the Wrong Lesson

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Cutting through the bureaucratese of the assembled emails and memos from MASSDoT in this weekend’s Globe was a chilling phrase: according to the District 6 (i.e. metro Boston) highway director,

We don’t write things down because they trigger a formal event.

The article proceeds to detail a confusing he-said, he-said, he-said over what the Transportation Secretary, Acting Highway Administrator, and District 6 Engineer knew about the falling light in the Big Dig tunnel and what they did about it.

I won’t unravel that tale here. But the macro-point is that the culture deep within MassDoT remains one of opacity and concealment. The irony is that no one (well, almost no one) blames the current administration for issues related to the Big Dig.

And disclosure of issues and information would help galvanize public attention and resources to our serious infrastructure challenges. Sure, there would be some recriminations (perhaps warranted – even I know that you don’t put two different metals in contact then expose them to corrosion — the cream of the design and construction crop missed this? ), but those recriminations wouldn’t be directed at the current administration or MassDOT.

The simple fact is that MassDOT, collectively, continues to struggle with transparency. A brief example: The 2009 transportation law compels them to “establish a performance measurement” that provides data on, among other things, “measurements of congestion”.

So, what do they do? Given multiple distribution channels in this era, they crank out a static PDF at the end of each year.

But what’s missing? “[M]easurements of congestion”, that’s what. It’s been missing since they started issuing scorecards and is promised for next year.

So, how does MassDOT build its creditability (and make the case for more revenues) without transparency? I don’t think they can. Right now, short-term thinking about disclosure is preventing an important long-term case from being made and it’s a shame that MassDOT doesn’t get this.

Crossposted at Boston Daily.