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SPA Researcher Shows Key to Better Roads Involves More Than Money

Managerial capacity matters to nationwide road improvements.

SPA Associate Professor of Public Administration and Policy Carla Flink has recently published two papers showing the importance of managerial capacity to improved outcomes in government-financed transportation projects.

“It takes more than just money to see road improvement,” Flink said. “We have to invest in the physical maintenance, but also in the organizations that are implementing this. If you have a better management capacity, that’s when we get the bigger bang for our buck.”

Her article “Management Capacity, Financial Resources, and Organizational Performance: Evidence from State Transportation Agencies,” with coauthor Can Chen of Georgia State University, appears in the July issue of Public Performance & Management Review. Their analysis of road infrastructure development data from 50 U.S. state transportation agencies from 1995 to 2013 indicates that the skillset of management matters in the link between performance and funding of transportation projects. Agencies with greater managerial capacity scored higher on delivery of road improvements than those that did not invest in leadership.

This finding indicates the value of improving the transparency, accounting, planning, and monitoring of transportation project management, in addition to securing adequate financing.

“We often think money for infrastructure should go directly to materials, but money should also go towards people and systems and providing professional development opportunities,” Flink said. “Government needs to make good financial decisions and due diligence, but also do its part on the management side for these big multi-year projects.”

Flink and Chen used this same state transportation data set in a second article, published in Policy Studies Journal, titled “Budgetary Changes and Organizational Performance: Evidence from State Transportation Agencies.” This piece examined fluctuations in state spending on highway maintenance and the resulting impact on changes in road quality. When state highway transportation agencies experience large budget cuts, they found, it does not significantly hurt road quality – just as influxes in funding do not reliably predict large increases in the number of acceptable roads.

Insights on best practices for transportation projects are especially timely, as many agencies have deferred maintenance during the pandemic and the U.S. Congress considers infrastructure legislation.

Flink said the public should understand that it takes time and planning address these issues. “I hope these findings add some nuance to the conversation, as policymakers try to more effectively deploy massive resources to see performance improvement, better roads, and better bridges with these long-term projects.”