Wisconsin Using Inflated Traffic Projections to Justify Highway Projects

In the 1990s, Wisconsin proposed a bypass for the town of Burlington (population 10,000). The $118 million project was sold as a way to reduce traffic in the center of the city, which includes the junction of four state highways.

Driving is declining in Wisconsin, but the state's highway budget is growing. Image: ##http://www.wispirg.org/reports/wip/road-overkill## WisPIRG Road Overkill##

The 11-mile highway opened in 2010. But traffic never lived up to the projections WisDOT offered to justify it. Today, traffic volumes are 33 to 36 percent below forecasts, reports the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group [PDF]. WisPIRG says that by 2010, WisDOT officials projected about 11,000 cars would travel the road daily, but actual counts in 2011 were between 7,000 and 7,400.

WisPIRG examined seven major highway projects undertaken by the state of Wisconsin over the last two decades at a public cost of more than $1 billion. The group found that WisDOT consistently overstated the case for expanding highways.

On U.S. Highway 41 in Marinette and Oconto counties — which underwent a $180 million expansion, converting a two-lane country road into a four-lane highway with three bypasses — traffic volumes were projected to increase 35 to 71 percent by 2025. But by 2012, actual traffic counts were still below what they were expected to be five years prior, in 2007.

The state completed the $109 million expansion of State Highway 64 in St. Croix in 2006, anticipating traffic volumes would increase 75 to 101 percent on sections of the road by 2016. So far traffic counts have been far below expectations, edging up only 21 and 56 percent, respectively.

Officials from WisPIRG say the faulty projections would be forgivable, given the unexpected reduction in driving that began before the start of the economic downturn. But recent studies, like this month’s report by U.S. PIRG, have found driving continues to dip around the country even as the economy improves. The U.S. PIRG report shows it’s part of a broader cultural trend, set into motion by numerous factors including the changing preferences of young people. The average Wisconsinsite drove fewer miles in 2011 than in 1997. Meanwhile, WisDOT continues to prioritize highway investment over all other modes.

“With transportation needs changing — and with Wisconsin making critical choices about its transportation future — the time has come to reevaluate whether highway expansion projects planned years ago are still a wise investment of public money,” wrote report authors Tom Van Heeke, Tony Dutzik, and Bruce Speight. “It is also time to reevaluate whether other transportation investments that would be sacrificed in the pursuit of even bigger highways — such as improvements in public transportation — might not deliver greater benefits.”

Instead of reducing funding for highway projects as driving slumps, the state of Wisconsin has shifted more resources toward road expansion projects. PIRG reports Wisconsin has dedicated $1.2 billion in its latest budget for highway construction projects. To fund these highway investments the state reduced the amount of gas tax revenue it returns to local governments. The state also slashed state spending on transit by 10 percent, a decision that has been particularly disastrous for Milwaukee, WisPIRG finds. In addition, to pay for the additional highway capacity, Wisconsin raided $160 million from the general fund over the past two years. The new budget proposes pilfering an additional $23 million, from education, healthcare and other important state priorities.

  • Matt Logan

    I’ve been engaging an engineer from SEWRPC about their traffic projections, and they firmly believe the drop is entirely the result of the economy. I pointed out that Wisconsin’s drop in VMT started in 2005, to which the engineer retorted that SE Wisconsin had been losing jobs since 2002. But when I reviewed the BLS data for SE wisconsin, I discovered that the economy was growing until 2008.

    I have also been asking about how self-driving car technology (which has the ability to increase usable capacity) factored into their calculations – I was told that self driving car technology is too far off to involve in planning. Yet, the technology is supposed to be common in 2030, and the traffic projections calling for the Zoo expansion are for the year 2035. Considering that SEWRPC’s projections are for a 10-15% increase by 2035, it wouldn’t take much for new technology to offset that increase.

  • Anonymous

    It isn’t just the Wisconsin DOT navigating the road ahead with its eyes fixated on the rear-view mirror; it is a national problem, though more acute in some states than others.

    Project development processes and funding mechanisms at all regulatory levels are heavily skewed in favor of cranking out highway projects — long after they ceased being the right types of projects to build. The kicker: State DOTs generally have no accountability for living up to the benefits they claim in justifying their investments. They can use with virtual impunity analytical methods that not only lack statistical vigor, but also flat-out violate basic principles of statistics.

    Talk about a crazy train. We need to find a way to disembark.

    We’ve all become familiar with the term “Distracted Driving.” We need a label for distracted planning and investment – the sort of planning for major capital investments that is blind to its surroundings and trajectory, resulting in devastating outcomes that were easily avoided by simply paying attention to what is happening in the world around us.

    Hmmmm… #[insert the label].

  • Ted King

    The lemming wore concrete galoshes that had an asphalt topcoat and yellow stripes.

  • Rich Sodergren

    how about fixing the interstate from at least janesville to the illinois border? that road is down right dangerous especially during bad weather. maybe the congress critters could ask the new sec of trans for some help.

  • Anonymous

    #Mainlining

    Highway-oriented planning and investment strategies that mimic the psychology and consequences of addiction.

    Stop #mainlining our cities with cars. It is time to end the addiction to highway capacity as the primary means for solving urban transportation needs.

  • Matt Logan

    I have spent the last 6 months harping again and again and again on the return on investment angle to our Joint Finance Committee members who just agreed to throw $400 mil from general revenue into Wisconsin highways. I sent them national studies of the declining return on investment in highways. I urged them to ask the WISDOT secretary about the return. I even brought the key graph that showed the return dropping below the return of borrowing the money to one of their public hearings and they were definitely paying attention.

    Not a single one of them asked about the return on investment, or voted “NO” when the item came up for a vote last week. Instead, they boosted funding for road aids, and gave a pittance to transit, then agreed to cut the item that would have added oversight by the Transportation Projects Commission.

  • Anonymous

    Back in the sixties folks knew how to cultivate change. It is an art and skill that appears to have taken a wrong turn through the years. Rather than Power to the People, “project stakeholders” feel disenfranchised and powerless.

  • Anonymous

    I should add that while documenting technical arguments surrounding major capital projects is an important task from regulatory and legal perspectives, technical arguments are largely ineffective in causing meaningful change to project plans and designs. As you’ve experienced, such arguments are typically dismissed or marginalized.

    There are basically three pathways of influence: Technical, legal, and political. If executed well, which do you think is most effective in killing or significantly altering a planned project?

  • Ryan

    I like this analogy a lot. Long ago I began thinking of oil as a drug, as unnecessary as alcohol, coffee, cocain, etc. The advantages to our automobile scaled infrastructure does, however, allow us to decentralize our manufacturing which could be advantageous from a national defense standpoint. The suburban lifestyle also offers more open space per person, less crime, less pollution, which are all nice, but I do think higher density urban density fosters more human interactions, more relationships, stronger communities, and in general a higher level of social and other types of intelligence.

  • Anonymous

    Of course, there is a not so delicate line between discussing merits of the existing highway network and the value of endeavoring to expand highway capacity in urbanized areas, particularly at the expense of desperately needed transit, pedestrian, and cycling infrastructure investments.

    It is time — past time, really — to stop adding highway capacity in a futile effort to “improve safety and solve congestion.” We need to begin constructing a network of viable alternatives to driving — a 21st century urban transportation network.

  • .

    I wonder if the severity of the Vietnam war was a catalyst that got people together to make change, and while they were together they pushed for other revisions as well. From a government control standpoint, perhaps that was a tactical error on their part that they recognized and have been sure not to make again

  • Anonymous

    There’s clearly an unsavory assemblage of tactical elements deployed in conducting many major highway investment studies.

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