Wisconsin has better solutions than just building bigger highways

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Bruce Speight
Monday, January 13, 2014

Wisconsin's transportation system is in trouble. Roads and bridges are aging, and maintenance needs are increasing. Funding for public transit has been slashed as demand for transit rises.

For many, including the Gazette Editorial Board, the solution is to find more money (more or higher taxes or both) to build bigger highways.

I propose two different solutions. First, let's cut wasteful spending. Second, let's re-evaluate our plan to make sure our priorities reflect how we want to get around, today and in the future.

Let's start with waste. In 2011, state leaders approved four new major highway projects, which will cost taxpayers roughly $2 billion. WISPIRG, with the assistance of a former career DOT planner, analyzed the official documents for these projects and found unanswered questions, outdated justifying data and insufficient review for all four projects, including the widening of Interstate 90/39 through Janesville.

A May 2013 WISPIRG study of six highway projects recently completed across Wisconsin—totaling over $1 billion in taxpayer investment—revealed that traffic on many new roads is failing to materialize as originally projected by WISDOT.

Gov. Walker campaigned on cutting wasteful spending and bringing accountability to Madison. The state highway budget desperately needs his attention.

As for priorities, over the last several years, Wisconsinites have been providing a powerful reason to re-evaluate our transportation investments: We've been driving less, and taking transit, biking and walking more. Today, the average Wisconsin resident drives fewer miles than in 1997—more than a decade and a half ago.

Highway builders and their allies suggest that, as the economy returns to life, drivers will flood back onto Wisconsin's roads. The only problem is, it hasn't happened. We drove fewer total miles in 2012 than we did in 2003—a time when Wisconsin's population was 4 percent lower and our economy 7 percent smaller.

No age group has experienced a greater change in its driving habits than young people, who have the most to gain or lose from the transportation system we build today. According to the National Household Travel Survey, from 2001 to 2009, the annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by 16- to 34-year-olds decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita, a drop of 23 percent. At the same time, the annual number of miles traveled by 16- to 34-year-year-olds on public transit increased by 40 percent.

There are a number of compelling reasons to believe the economy is not the only factor behind these changes. The decline in driving began years before the Great Recession and has continued despite recovery. Also, even among young people with jobs, per-capita vehicle travel declined by 16 percent.

Throwing more taxpayer money into a budget that is fraught with waste and misplaced priorities is not only bad for taxpayers, it's bad for Wisconsin's future. Through a serious re-evaluation of our needs and travel trends, we might find that the “more money, bigger highways” solution is tired and outdated and that, instead, there's a better way to go.

Bruce Speight is the director of WISPIRG, a statewide, membership-based public interest organization. Readers can contact Speight by email at bspeight@wispirg.org.

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