As Federal Highway Administration Acknowledges the Driving Boom is Over, Will WISDOT Follow Suit?

Media Contacts

Agency Slashes Forecasts of Future Driving Growth Between 24 and 44 Percent

WISPIRG Foundation

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has quietly acknowledged that the Driving Boom is over, cutting its forecasted driving estimates by between 24 percent and 44 percent.  Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WISDOT) continues to forecast increases in driving that aren’t materializing – a policy that risks wasting billions of taxpayer dollars. WISDOT is also claiming a $680 million shortfall in current transportation funding, a significant portion of which is to accommodate unnecessary expansions of highway capacity. 

After many years of aggressively and inaccurately claiming that Americans would likely begin a new era of increased driving, the Federal Highway Administration’s latest forecast finally recognizes that the Driving Boom has given way to decades of far slower growth. The amount that the average American drove actually declined nearly 9 percent between 2004 and 2014, resulting in about a half trillion fewer total miles driven in 2014 than if driving had continued to increase at earlier rates.

The new forecast is a major departure from the FHWA’s past record of chronically predicting aggressive and inaccurate increases in driving. An analysis of these projections showed that the Department of Transportation (USDOT) had issued 61 driving forecasts in a row that overshot their mark.

The FHWA’s new forecast suggests that driving per-person will essentially remain flat. The benchmark is important because excessively high estimates of future driving are used to justify wasteful spending on new and wider highways. Meanwhile, policymakers pay little attention to repairing existing roads, and don’t invest enough in other, modes of travel.

“The agency plays the vital role of guiding decisions for future infrastructure investment,” said Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Director. “By recognizing changing travel behavior and the preferences of a rising Millennial generation, America can avoid billions in unnecessary spending for additional highway capacity that shouldn’t be a priority.”

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin DOT has continued to project increases in driving that are unlikely to materialize. 

An October 2014 analysis by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin found that traffic projections that led to the authorization of 11 highway expansion projects, which would cost taxpayers more than $1 billion, are significantly greater than recent traffic counts on all 11 projects.  1000 Friends of Wisconsin concluded that all 11 projects are unlikely to come close to projections.  For example, WISDOT is projecting a 23% increase in traffic on I-94 near the Brewers Stadium by 2040, while actual counts show that traffic has decreased by 8% along that stretch of highway from 2000-2012.  Present trends show that the DOT projections will never be achieved.

Wisconsin’s projections seem particularly out of touch considering the fact that the state’s population is projected to grow at half the national average. 

“Gov Walker needs to tell us why he thinks driving per-person in Wisconsin will be growing so much faster than the rest of the country,” added Speight. “At a minimum, we should put the brakes on billion-dollar highway expansions premised on old driving forecasts that Wisconsinites would be paying for over decades.”

The baseline forecast of total driving miles nationally shows an increase of only 0.75 percent annually during the period from 2012 to 2042, with population growth averaging 0.7 percent each year – thus leaving driving miles per-person essentially flat.

According to the FHWA report, “This represents a significant slowdown from the growth in total VMT experienced over the past 30 years, which averaged 2.08% annually.”

Gabe Klein, former Department of Transportation Director of both Chicago (CDOT) and Washington D.C. (DDOT), commented, “I know from experience these forecasts have great importance in shaping debates and policy on every level of transportation funding. USDOT is clearly stating that a broad-based policy of building more road capacity for cars is not fiscally responsible or what the public needs or wants.”

Until now, there had not been a major reconsideration of the FHWA’s past methods, which have chiefly depended on aggregating forecasts issued by states that are seeking federal funding for highway expansion projects.

The significance of the new estimates is apparent by comparing them with the agency’s Conditions and Performance Report to Congress, which estimated that total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) will increase an average of between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030. This raised some eyebrows, because total annual VMT hasn’t increased by even as much as 1 percent in any year since 2004.

Comparing the 20-year estimates of the Conditions and Performance Report with the new 20-year estimates shows the agency has cut its forecasted growth rate between 24 and 44 percent.

The new Federal Highway Administration forecast can be found on its website.

You can view a graphic showing how FHWA forecasts of future driving volume have changed over time and how have compared to actual driving here.

You can read a series of WISPIRG reports about the causes and consequences of changing driving behavior and the importance of official travel forecasts for policy choices here.

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WISPIRG Foundation works to protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public, and offer meaningful opportunities for civic participation.