DOT Report on Infrastructure Needs Overstates Future Increases in Driving

$124 Billion Annual Highway Price Tag Assumes Growth in Driving Not Seen in a Decade


Statement by Phineas Baxandall, Ph.D., Senior Analyst at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group on the U.S. Department of Transportation release today, Friday February 28th, of its 2013 Conditions and Performance Report, which provides a baseline for transportation planning and forecasts future highway needs. It estimates a price tag of $123.7 billion to $145.9 billion for annual highway needs.

“The US DOT seems to be stuck in a bizarre time warp.  For nine years in a row Americans have decreased their average driving miles. We haven’t seen an annual increase of even one percent in total vehicle miles since 2004. Yet, US DOT forecasts that total vehicle miles will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030. That doesn’t make sense.

“High estimates of future driving have serious implications. They lead to excessive spending on new and wider highways to accommodate anticipated traffic increases. In the face of scarce transportation funds, overly high driving forecasts translate into too little attention paid to repairing the roads we already have and too little investment in other modes of travel.

“America has huge unmet needs for transportation investment, but we must be smart about those priorities. We shouldn’t assume a return to past travel habits when Americans are persistently driving less and using other forms of transportation more. The number of annual vehicle miles traveled has fallen by seven percent since 2004. On a per-person basis, Americans are currently driving as much as they did back in 1996.

“Contrary to USDOT forecasts, there are strong reasons to believe that driving will not increase rapidly in the future:

  •  The reduction in driving in recent years has been led by younger Americans. People aged 16 to 34 cut their per-person driving miles by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009, with the sharpest reductions seen among the youngest travelers. Millennials are America’s largest generation group and represent the largest component of America’s future travelers.
  • During the coming decades the Census predicts a reduction in the fraction of Americans of prime driving age. Aging Baby Boomers will continue to drive less and Millennials won’t start reaching middle age for several years (See report).
  • While the post-war Driving Boom was fueled by cheap gas, booming suburbs, and a growing portion of the population in the labor force, those trends seem to have run their course. On the contrary, the Congressional Budget Office this week predicted that slow economic growth and declines in labor force participation will persist at least through the next decade.
  • New information technologies have made it easier for people to navigate public transportation and, as well as to stay connected by email or text while safely riding on these modes. Technology has spawned bikesharing and carsharing programs that reduce car ownership and driving (link to report).

“While driving has fallen, public transportation ridership, biking and walking has increased, especially among younger travelers. Americans aged 16 to 34 took 24 percent more bike trips in 2009 than they had in 2001. Similarly, passenger miles traveled per-capita by this group increased by 40 percent between these years.

“USDOT’s forecast is inconsistent with the agency’s own discussion of long-term travel trends. Chapter one of the new report states:

Despite increases in aggregate personal VMT through 2001, a number of indicators point toward saturation in vehicle trips and vehicle miles of travel per person, with the peak of most per-person and per-household statistics occurring in 1995. Several factors could be possible explanations for this apparent saturation, such as the desire to limit the time spent in travel and replacing physical trips with electronic communication or online shopping.

“To be fair, the U.S. Department of Transportation is in a difficult place. They traditionally generate their national driving forecasts by aggregating the forecasts they receive from the fifty states based on projections for particular road segments where local departments seek money for new construction. States have been slow to change their ways. The data has persistently overshot, and change is only beginning to take place in a few states.”

“America needs a frank conversation about our transportation priorities. We need forecasts that take notice of present trends and help us prepare for the future. This doesn’t do that.”

Click here to see a series of U.S. PIRG reports on driving trends.