The Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) Gray Notebook is the state agency’s quarterly performance report. First published in 2001, it is now considered the “gold standard” nationally for government accountability and transparency. The figures and metrics included in the report also reflects WSDOT’s goals, priorities and how it gauges success in areas overseen by the department.
A recent change in the document has drawn mixed responses from transportation analysts and the former WSDOT secretary who invented the report, as to the importance of the revision and how much it reflects shifting priorities for the agency. As recently as the December 2017 report, the Gray Notebook included the total amount of annual weekday vehicle hours of delay compared to “maximum throughput speeds” of 70-85 percent of the posted speed limit, with a stated desired goal to reduce those hours of delay (page 5).
However, since then the quarterly reports have had that figure removed entirely and replaced with the total vehicle miles traveled on state highways, with a stated desired goal to reduce the number of miles driven (page 5).
It’s a move that Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost interprets as symbolic of a new direction under WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar, who earlier this year said that traffic congestion was “unsolvable” and that his goal was to manage it, instead.
“It’s a philosophical shift,” Frost said. “There’s a big difference between reducing delays and reducing how much people drive.”
However, Frost doesn’t see it as an attempt to conceal the numbers. WSDOT is still reporting that figure in other publications, including its Transportation Attainment Report (page 11) and the Corridor Capacity Report (page 4). For those interested in finding out how congested their local roads are, Kirkland-based INRIX also releases an annual Global Traffic Scorecard.
At the same time, Frost says removing the data from one of the agency’s most important publications represents its demotion as a priority.
It also makes it harder for state residents interested in the topic to find it, she added. “Data on traffic delay is the number one issue for commuters who are stuck in those delays (but) people don’t know what to ask. How would people know, even a transportation expert, that you can find traffic delay metrics in a biennium transportation attainment report? DOT gets to say they report it, but who reads it?”
While WSDOT did not respond to a request by Lens for comment, some are not as critical of the change as Frost. That includes Doug McDonald, who served as WSDOT Secretary from 2001-07 and first conceived of the Gray Notebook while serving as part of Governor Gary Locke’s administration.
McDonald told Lens that both total vehicle miles traveled and hours of delay are relevant metrics for the agency to track. He also said that while some other information now included in the report is “antithetical to the fundamental spirit to which the Gray Notebook was conceived,” he argued that other government transportation agencies both in Washington and elsewhere in the nation lag behind WSDOT in their transparency and reporting data such as the total hours of delay.
“By and large, I’m enormously glad that WSDOT is publishing this document,” he said. “I hope it is as successful as it has been in resisting the impulse to make all these numbers shine.”