In the finance world, ROI, or return on investment, is a common performance measure that essentially tells investors whether their money was well-spent, or not.
In Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Teresa Adams’ case, the investors were U.S. citizens, and the money they spent funded transportation projects via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
On campus, Adams directs the Wisconsin Transportation Center. However, for nearly a year in 2009 and 2010, she worked on sabbatical in the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of the Secretary, initially as part of a team of economists that conducted cost-benefit analyses of each grant proposal. “It was very exciting to me because it was the first time since the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 that investments were chosen to support a national strategy,” she says.
That strategy centered around outcomes that included economic competitiveness for the nation or region, safety for all modes of transportation, contributions to livable communities, environmental sustainability, and infrastructure state of good repair.
The department awarded 51 grants in February 2010 for innovative projects ranging from investments in an effort to reduce rail congestion in Chicago to a new streetcar line in a Hurricane Katrina-damaged area of New Orleans.
After her work on the proposal evaluation team concluded, Adams collaborated with the assistant secretary for transportation policy and experts in many transportation modes to define and draft performance metrics for each project.
That’s where the ROI comes into effect. “In this nation, we’ve been able to enjoy an economic advantage over other nations because of the efficiency of our transportation system, and in particular, our freight transportation system,” says Adams. “If we don’t keep up that efficiency and make wise investments, then we’ll fall behind and lose our ability to enjoy the quality of life we do.”