I want to step back a little and ask some questions about the way we handle the traffic forecasts. Above all, the SRC team, and traffic planners here generally, both in public employment and in private contracting, pretty much everyone involved in traffic engineering, elide the uncertainty around forecasts. If there is any statistical uncertainty around the projections, you'd never know it.
There are also a couple of other ways that planners play fast-and-loose with the forecasting.
Traffic Forecasts Generally Deserve Margins of Error
As we receive the forecasts now - and they are delivered rather ex cathedra - they are full of false precision.
|2040 counts from Section 13.c|
|2040 counts from Section 15.d|
In particular, look at this comparison:
|Section 13.f: Look at the deltas: 3.1 vs. 2.7 and 3.9 vs. 3.7|
To make it clear: The suggestion here is that differences 20 years out on the order of 10% are statistically insignificant. I don't know what range is meaningful, but it's a lot bigger than the precision in the SRC claims. (We will see that the variance on historical forecasting wildly exceeds 10%.)
Reputable forecasts include statements about uncertainty intervals right up front. Here are two examples.
|This forecast that includes uncertainty|
and a probabilistic range of outcomes - via fivethirtyeight
|Uncertainty at the center of hurricane forecasting|
Look at how the cone widens with time!
(And even if you accept the numbers straight-up, come one, a 10% improvement for $500 million?!?!?! And more likely a billion with cost overruns and escalations? 10% or even 15% is an amazingly tiny return on a huge, huge investment.)
We Deserve an Historical Assessment of Traffic Forecasting
Maybe 10% seems significant to you. Looking at 20-year forecasts from 1980 clearly shows that 10% is totally inside any margin of error or uncertainty.
There is never any retrospective assessment that asks, "Well, how'd we do?"
The top half of the chart is from a scan of a folded insert with year 2000 traffic projections from the Front Street Bypass FEIS circa 1980. Current counts were added in white and red. (It is also rotated 90 degrees more or less.)
The bottom half of the chart is in the Q & A, a summary of year 2040 traffic projections for the same area.
|Another one for year 2000 from Salem Parkway FEIS|
This would give the public and policy-makers an empirically grounded sense for the uncertainty in traffic forecasts.
|Front, Commercial, and Liberty all are wildly off|
I don't know that planners deliberately hide old forecasts, but it is convenient that they not be talked about too much. We should talk about them more and complete the assessment loop. We should know how strongly to weigh them as evidence in argument. From here, it looks like we place way too much faith in them. Even if the modeling has greatly improved, and with computing power alone it should have improved, we should still see the historic variance.
Sometimes the SRC Includes Tolling Forecasts, But Mostly It Ignores their Effects
There other ways the SRC team plays fast-and-loose with forecasting.
|Which column here informs "2040 Preferred Alternative Model"?|
The efficacy of tolling is erased.
Since tolling is an important part of the funding plan, and since tolling is very effective on changing traffic patterns, all of the 2040 forecasts should have additional columns that include the effects of tolling or decongestion pricing.
There is little Reason to Think the SRC would be a Good Investment
So there are multiple sources of uncertainty in our 2040 forecasts:
- A general statistical range of error/uncertainty inherent to any 20 year forecast
- The unknown effects of induced demand (what is the uncertainty on the 15% projected increase?)
- Total erasure of tolling effects
Altogether, I think this means the numbers given to Council for 2040 are not very good. But since they are what we have, it's almost certainly true that there is in aggregate essentially no difference between the Build and No Build alternatives. Based on the information we have, at $500 million, there is little reason to prefer the Build Alternative. If tolling projections were more consistently carried through the analysis, they would even more strongly show the foolishness of the SRC as an ineffective and expensive solution.