We don’t want to get into the politics of the debate about road signs that advertise the use of stimulus dollars, but it does point out a significant shortcoming in government generally. That’s the difficulty in coming up with good reliable figures about what things cost.
Last month, PolitiFact looked at the controversy over road signs, following up on comments by former Gov. Sarah Palin that one state spent one million dollars to post signs that advertised where stimulus money was being spent. PolitiFact did some research and concluded that the state was Ohio, but that the one million dollar figure was suspect.
It was based on the probably erroneous idea that each sign was about $3000. But the Ohio Department of Transportation told PolitiFact that there was no way to come up with the cost of the signs.
Why? Because the costs of all construction signs in a construction zone were rolled together. PolitiFact pointed to inquiries in other states by the Associated Press, which uncovered figures that were substantially lower than the $3000 estimate — Michigan estimated a sign costs $400 to $500. Illinois put the amount at $1000 ($300 for the sign and another $700 for labor). Colorado officials put the labor plus materials cost at between $750 and $1,200.
Of course this is small change, but wouldn’t it be useful for a state like Ohio to be able to clearly answer questions about what things cost — even if they’re small things? That would not only lead to useful cost comparisons, but help ensure that debates on spending were based on accurate information.