New Report: Population, Transportation Trends Suggest Wisconsin’s Highway Spending a Folly

Media Contacts

Findings Call into Question Transportation Finance and Policy Commission’s Massive Highway Expansion Recommendations

WISPIRG Foundation

Madison – A new report released today by the WISPIRG Foundation found that Wisconsin’s extravagant highway spending plans are out of touch with Wisconsin’s slow population growth and transportation trends.  The report, Highway Boom, Budget Bust, shows Wisconsin, compared to other states, plans to spend a high percentage of limited transportation funds on new roads and highway expansion projects, despite the fact that Wisconsin’s population growth is projected to grow at a relatively slow pace and its volume of driving is decreasing per-capita.

“As they get started on the next biennial budget, our political leaders need to get our transportation priorities straight,” said Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Director.  “With demand for transit increasing and driving decreasing, we simply shouldn’t be getting ready to spend five times as much on new roads and highways as Minnesota. It’s time to cut unnecessary highway projects and use the savings to repair existing roads and bridges, and to invest in the public transit that Wisconsinites, especially young and elderly residents, are using in record numbers. Precious, finite transportation resources shouldn’t be squandered on the wish list of the highway lobby, especially when urgent needs are unmet.”

Highway Boom, Budget Bust found striking signs that Wisconsin’s transportation spending is off track:

– As a proportion of transportation spending, Wisconsin is getting ready to spend five times as much as Minnesota on new road and highway capacity.

– While some states are projected to have significant population growth, Wisconsin is not.  In fact, Wisconsin’s population is projected to grow at half the national average.  Despite this fact, Wisconsin is 11th in the country in terms of the percentage of planned transportation spending committed to new road capacity, 10 percent above the national average of 19 percent.  

– Wisconsinites are driving less than ever before: The average Wisconsinite drove 500 fewer miles in 2010 than in 2004.

– This trend away from driving is even more pronounced among young people. The average young person (age 16-34) drove 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than the average young person in 2001.  Meanwhile, the travel by young people on public transportation nationally increased exponentially. From 2001 to 2009, the number of passenger-miles on public transit by people ages 16 to 34 increased by 40% nationwide.

Spending heavily to build new roads and increase lane miles is inconsistent with the state’s population and travel trends.  By comparison, Minnesota’s population is projected to increase by 28%, but is planning to spend only 6% of its limited transportation funds on highway expansion.  Michigan’s population is projected to increase by 7.6 percent, but is planning to spend 9 percent on new road capacity.

Meanwhile, urgent transportation needs are being neglected.  Major components of Wisconsin’s transportation system are crumbling and in some cases inadequate.  According to a 2008 report, 43 percent of Wisconsin’s roads were rated as being in “less than good” condition, and 1,142 structurally deficient bridges in Wisconsin stood in need of repair in 2010.  Potholes and cracks line thousands of local streets and roads across the state.  Drivers in Wisconsin pay an average of an extra $281 per year on car repairs due to the poor conditions of our roads and bridges.[1]  In the face of rising gas prices, shrinking transit systems leave Wisconsinites with fewer options for travel.

“Wisconsin is on a highway spending spree compared to most other states, and there is no apparent justification. With crumbling bridges, potholes lining our streets and urgent transit needs, we can’t afford to build highways to nowhere.  The only apparent beneficiaries would be the highway lobby who profit from extravagant highway spending,” concluded Speight.


WISPIRG is a statewide membership-based, non-profit, non-partisan public interest organization that stands up to powerful interests.