FOUR YEARS ago the Virginia Department of Transportation managed to finish less than 20 percent of its construction projects on time. Only about half of the projects stayed within their budget. These numbers won't surprise those who spent countless hours crawling along in construction-related backups, but they did come as something of a surprise to VDOT. That's because until late 2002, the department had an array of databases that didn't talk to each other, so it was virtually impossible for anyone to discern the exact status of a project.
A team of VDOT employees was formed to create a computer program that could have access to the different databases and fit the pieces together, forming a complete picture of where a project was in the construction process. The system, dubbed Dashboard, went online in March 2003, allowing VDOT managers -- and the public -- to keep an eye on progress. On-time performance doubled in that first year and doubled again in the second, such that nearly three-quarters of projects are now completed on schedule, and 80 percent of projects come in on budget.
Last week VDOT introduced a greatly expanded version of Dashboard (http://dashboard.virginiadot.org). The new system incorporates data on road maintenance, environmental compliance, statewide statistics on auto accident fatalities and other useful information, most of which can be viewed by jurisdiction. Feedback buttons -- which VDOT encourages people to use to send comments about road projects or suggestions on how to improve the Web site -- adorn nearly every page, and the messages are directed to the right person, not to some anonymous drop box.
There is still work to be done on enhancing search functions, eliminating (or explaining) technical jargon and adding more real-time traffic information. Dashboard isn't perfect, but perfection, though a worthy goal, is not the point. What makes it so impressive is that it's there at all. It is not terribly often that we see such regard for transparency from a government agency -- especially when the transparency isn't being enforced by court order. VDOT officials wisely recognize that Virginians (and everyone else) should have easy access to the details of how $3 billion of taxpayer money is being spent each year. VDOT's willingness to undergo scrutiny should encourage other agencies in the region to give this sort of voluntary accountability a try.