New Report Finds Expensive Highway Projects Might Be Unnecessary

Media Contacts

Questions State’s Big Spending on Highways In Light Of Reduced Wisconsin Driving

WISPIRG Foundation

Madison, WI¬¬— A new report from the WISPIRG Foundation finds that usage of seven recently completed highways has not developed as projected, and questions whether building massive and costly new highways is the best way to spend Wisconsin’s scarce transportation resources. The report, Road Overkill: Wisconsin Spends Big on Questionable Highways Even as Driving Declines, also finds that Wisconsinites are driving less per capita today than we did in 1997, further raising doubts as to whether expensive new highways are the best investments for Wisconsin’s transportation future. 

“Wisconsin taxpayers should not be footing the bill for highways that aren’t needed, especially when other urgent transportation priorities like local road repair and transit are being shortchanged,” said Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Director.  “Especially in light of reduced levels of driving, these findings suggest the need to reconsider whether highway expansions are the best use of our scarce transportation dollars.”

The average Wisconsinite now drives about as much in a year as he or she did in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s administration, and total vehicle travel has fallen by 3 percent since 2004. Just last week, WISPIRG Foundation released a separate report, A New Direction, which found that the average number of miles driven by Americans has declined eight years in a row and the slowdown in driving is likely to continue. One reason could be a generational driving shift: As baby boomers leave the workforce they are driving less, while the millenials joining the workforce are more driving-averse, and more likely to commute by public transportation.

Road Overkill finds that traffic counts on six recently completed Wisconsin highway projects, and on one still partially under construction, are below state projections. These numbers reflect the ongoing trend toward reduced driving in Wisconsin and nationwide. 

WISPIRG’s analysis reviewed both the projections and actual traffic counts for these projects, which represent more than $1 billion in taxpayer investment. It found that usage is consistently failing to reach the levels that were projected.  For example:

•    U.S. Highway 151 between Dickeyville and Belmont – In 1999, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WISDOT) forecast that traffic on this stretch of road would increase by 60 percent by 2025. This forecast was used to justify the $100 million conversion of the two-lane road to a four-lane divided expressway. Eleven years later, traffic volumes had risen only a quarter to a third of those levels. Traffic volume would need to grow signifi¬cantly faster in the next 12 years than it did in the last 11 in order to meet projected 2025 traffic levels.
•    Burlington Bypass – The $118 million, four-lane Burlington Bypass in Racine County presently accommodates 33 to 36 percent less traffic than forecast, and handles traffic numbers small enough that the previous two-lane road would be suitable.
•    State Highway 26 from Janesville to Watertown – WisDOT expects an increase in traffic of 85 to 300 percent on this stretch of highway between 1998 and 2028, justify¬ing an expansion of the road that will cost an estimated $433 million. Though construction is underway along much of the route, traffic volumes on completed portions are not meeting projections: at one location in 2010, the number of cars was 21 percent below what was expected in 2008. For traffic levels to reach their projected highs by 2028, volumes would need to increase a further 77 percent or more.

“If Wisconsinites are driving less, the state shouldn’t put more money into new expansion projects. Legislators should spend more time on making a budget that makes good sense – not one that maximizes road builder contributions to their campaigns,” said Steve Hiniker, Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.

Despite these findings and evidence showing that Wisconsinites are driving less, Wisconsin is planning to spend big on highway expansion projects while squeezing funding for other forms of transportation.  The 2011-2013 biennial budget appropriated $1.2 billion for highway construction projects, and the executive budget proposal being debated right now proposes over $3 billion in highway spending.  Meanwhile, funding for local roads, transit, and other modes of transportation are being cut and state leaders have approved borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for highway projects, some of which might be wasteful and unnecessary.

“Wisconsinites are choosing to walk, bike, take transit, and otherwise limit the amount of driving they are doing,” said Elizabeth Ward of the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club.  “Our budget needs to reflect these values, not the values of the campaign donors.  Instead of increasing highway spending, Wisconsin needs to be increasing aids to transit systems and local roads that create pedestrian infrastructure and increase safety.”

To protect the public purse and ensure Wisconsinites get transportation infrastructure that meets the needs of the 21st century, the report recommends that state leaders and officials:
•    Revisit traffic growth projections for proposed highway expansion projects in light of recent trends in driving and scale back or cancel projects that are no longer justified, 
•    Adopt a “fix it first” approach to the state’s highway infrastructure by addressing pressing road maintenance needs across Wisconsin, and
•    Respond to the 21st-century needs of Wisconsinites by shifting some funding from highway expansion projects toward increased support of public transportation, local road repair, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

“Extravagant highway spending is on cruise control in Wisconsin right now and we can’t afford that. State leaders need to get control of this runaway spending and make sure taxpayers dollars are being invested wisely, not wastefully,” concluded Speight. 

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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. 

1000 Friends of Wisconsin advocates and promotes uses of land, water and air that shape healthy communities where people want to live, work, and play.

The Sierra Club – John Muir Chapter is Wisconsin’s voice for the nation’s oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. We are made up of 15,000 members and supporters statewide working to expand clean energy, move beyond oil, and protect Wisconsin’s land and water resources.