People are Driving Less, but Wisconsin Still Emphasizes Highway Spending
Americans are driving fewer miles than they did ten years ago, reversing a decades-long trend. Given the magnitude of the change and the implications for the future of transportation, state legislators should think about moving away from policies that support expanding highways at the expense of support for communities, schools, and health care.
“The Driving Boom is over,” declares U.S. PIRG, in their new report A New Direction. Americans drove more miles nearly every year between the end of World War II and 2004, according to the report. But after 2004, something unusual happened: Americans began driving less, both on a per capita basis and overall. Young people, especially, are driving fewer miles than their predecessors.
The chart below, taken from the report, shows the recent decline in miles driven, which started before the recession.
This recent New York Times article also describes the decrease in miles driven. The article profiles one professional in Charlotte, North Carolina, who uses his car so infrequently that he occasionally misplaces it.
Is Wisconsin poised to take advantage of the new trends in transportation? Not according to 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, which published an excellent series about how to improve transportation spending in Wisconsin. The increase in total vehicle miles travelled in Wisconsin has been modest since 2001, but there have been very substantial increases in highway spending over the same time period, as shown in the chart below.
Revenues into the Transportation Fund haven’t kept up with the pace of highway spending, meaning that the Legislature has either needed to raise new revenues for the Transportation Fund, or rethink transportation priorities. The state has taken some action to slow highway projects or make other transportation-related cuts, but a large part of its strategy to address the hole in the Transportation Fund has been to shift resources from the General Fund to the Transportation Fund. The result is fewer resources for higher education, local governments, community safety, and other services supported by the General Fund.
The proposed two-year budget enhances highway spending at the expense of other important public services in a number of ways, including:
- Shifting $94 million from the General Fund to the Transportation Fund;
- Moving funding for mass transit, which totals $106 million over two years, from the Transportation Fund to the General Fund; and
- Issuing $200 million of bonds for the reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange, with the debt service to be paid from the General Fund.
The Legislature has continued to emphasize highway spending, even as there is evidence that long-term trends in driving habits have altered in recent years. Unfortunately, the support for highways has come at the expense of other important programs that insure a high quality of life for Wisconsinites.