Friday, December 19th, 2014

Gov. McDonnell's road cost claim revisited

Gov. Bob McDonnell says cheap road construction bids are a reason to build now.
Gov. Bob McDonnell says cheap road construction bids are a reason to build now.

On Sunday, we gave a Barely True to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s claim that road construction bids are the lowest of the "modern era," which his spokesman defined as about a 20-year period. A reader who is normally complimentary of our work wondered if we were unfair to McDonnell.

We reported that the Virginia Department of Transportation doesn’t record historic data about annual bid averages. But we found some other statistics that cast doubt on the governor’s claim.

A Federal Highway Administration chart shows road construction prices are the lowest in six years. An index kept by five Western states shows their road building costs increased by 115 percent since 1990. And a Bureau of Labor Statistics index shows the cost of highway construction materials -- such as steel, copper, concrete and oil -- went up 98 percent since 1990.

The reader suggested that our rating was harsh. A more "reasonable" interpretation of the governor’s comments would be that bids "are below the long-term trend of inflation to a remarkable degree -- probably to a degree not seen in 20 years."

We asked two gubernatorial advisers to explain McDonnell’s comments and neither mentioned inflation. We are reluctant to interpret comments ourselves because we don’t want to be accused of skewing a politician’s words.

Still, our reader raised an interesting point: how does the increase in road costs compare to the rise in overall inflation?

We found the increase in the cost of highway construction materials has outpaced inflation for the last decade. The cost of those materials went up 69 percent since 2000, compared to a 28 percent rise in the Consumer Price Index. Road construction costs in the five Western states went up 68 percent over the last decade.

So the governor’s claim that road bids are the cheapest in 20 years is still suspect. Even when you factor in inflation, the sticker price on roads would have been cheaper in 2000 than today.

Choosing claims to check

We’re occasionally asked how we chose the claims we check. Here’s a great explanation provided by Bill Adair, the founder of PolitiFact. Bill is the Washington bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times.

"Every day, PolitiFact staffers look for statements that can be checked. We comb through speeches, news stories, press releases, campaign brochures, TV ads, Facebook postings and transcripts of TV and radio interviews. Because we can't possibly check all claims, we select the most newsworthy and significant ones.

"In deciding which statements to check, we ask ourselves these questions:

  • Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable? We don’t check opinions, and we recognize that in the world of speechmaking and political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole.
  • Is the statement leaving a particular impression that may be misleading?
  • Is the statement significant? We avoid minor "gotchas" on claims that obviously represent a slip of the tongue.
  • Is the statement likely to be passed on and repeated by others?
  • Would a typical person hear or read the statement and wonder: Is that true?"

New Arrival

We have a new reporter at PolitiFact Virginia. Sean Gorman has strong experience covering government on the local and national levels.

For the last decade, Sean wrote for The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., where he broke a number of stories about questionable governmental spending and a secret $650,000 departure payment to a school superintendent. He’s also worked in Washington for States News Service and Scripps Howard News Service, as well as doing a three-month stint in Argentina for the Buenos Aires Herald.

Sean grew up in Dayton, Ohio and graduated from Ohio University. His wife is from Chesapeake, Va. They have two cats and Sean is an avid mountain biker.