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Data Manipulation Must Not Be Tolerated!

Charlotte News & Observer Op. Ed.

Data manipulation must not be tolerated

Toll road documents point to misleading projections.

Posted: Thursday, Mar. 24, 2011

Liar, liar, pants on fire?

That childhood rhyme might sound like a flip assessment of the N.C. Turnpike Authority’s apparent deception to federal officials about the impact of a proposed $800 million toll road in Union County on the environment. But based on documents, the liar part might be about right. We’ll be kind and say misleading. And as for the pants on fire, N.C. officials should put someone or some ones on the hot seat for what appears to be manipulation of data to make it easier for the highway to get the necessary approvals for construction.

Here’s the problem, as Observer reporter Steve Harrison wrote in a front page story Wednesday: Before highways are built, the federal government requires environmental impact projections. Those are compared to a forecast of what would happen if the road were not built.

But the turnpike authority didn’t do a forecast assuming the road wasn’t built. It used only data assuming the Monroe Connector/Bypass highway was already in place, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has filed a lawsuit to stop construction.

The N.C. Department of Transportation, which works with the authority, acknowledged that’s true. But it said engineers adjusted their analysis to make the studies valid, and that the amount of data used assuming the toll road existed was insignificant. Right.

In any case, there’s no getting around the outright lie one federal official says she was told about the project. Marella Buncick, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said she asked the Turnpike Authority and the Federal Highway Administration point-blank last summer whether the studies used “build” data in its “no build” forecast. “They told me no,” she said. “Now, if they are saying it doesn’t matter, then why not re-do the analysis with the correct information?” Why not, indeed?

This is the second time recently that the state has been criticized for how it handled the required federal studies for a proposed toll road. The Turnpike Authority was accused in February of manipulating a job loss study in connection with the proposed Garden Parkway in Gaston County. An email from an authority consultant questioning whether the job loss data would look bad raised suspicions that the study might have been changed. State officials deny that.

Given the documents the Observer obtained about the proposed Monroe toll road, we’re not so sure. Those items point to a lack of forthrightness from the state, if not blatant deception.

Growth advocates and environmentalists often clash over these kinds of issues. Communities are well-served by a healthy debate weighing all points of views.

But that debate must be based on accurate data and projections – and the public must be able to trust that it is. Data manipulation and deception jeopardize policymakers’ ability to make prudent decisions that don’t waste taxpayer dollars. Gov. Bev Perdue and N.C. lawmakers who appoint members to the authority’s board should make it crystal clear that such shenanigans won’t be tolerated.

Read more: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2011/03/24/2166789/data-manipulation-must-not-be.html#ixzz1HX27Fdj9

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