Changing Transportation Trends and Misplaced Priorities

Keeping in line with the rest of the nation, Wisconsinites are driving less each year. For the first time in history, vehicle miles driven have fallen for nearly a decade. Data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation shows that VMT in the state hit a peak in 2004, and has since flattened out. The average Wisconsinite drove 500 fewer miles in 2011 than in 2004.1

In addition, two of Wisconsin’s largest urbanized areas are showing the greatest decreases in per-capita driving in the country. In a new report released by US Public Interest Research Group,Milwaukee and Madison ranked two and three respectively, in terms of greatest VMT reduction per-capita in the country between 2006 and 2011.2
National data shows that young people are delaying applying for a license and fewer young people overall are opting to even get one. Let’s look at the change in how many young people held drivers licenses in the last two national censuses in Wisconsin. Between 2000 and 2010, the total number of young people (16-34 year olds) in Wisconsin increased by two percent.3 In 2000, 81% of all people in the age group held a valid driver’s license. In 2010, that number decreased to 79% – a decrease of over two percent.

Cities which have invested in bicycling infrastructure are seeing substantial ridership improvement. For example, Madison has had an 88% increase in bicycle commuters over the last eight years, since the city released a plan to achieve a platinum rating for biking.4 Sheboygan County reported a 43% increase in daily non-recreational biking trips in just one year since the creation of a federally funded pilot program which aimed to connect the county’s bike and pedestrian network with schools, businesses and other destinations.5 Milwaukee County has seen bicycle use up 107% over the last ten years.6 The 2010 American Community Survey showed that .75% of all Wisconsin commuters use bicycles to get to work, which is 50% greater than the national average.7


Spending decisions made by the state on the transportation system do not reflect these demographic changes. The state continues to fund highway expansion at the expense of almost all else – which is creating a one-dimensional transportation network that is detrimental to the health and vitality of many Wisconsin communities.

In the 2013 legislative session, the state authorized nearly half a billion dollars in funding for the Southwestern Wisconsin Freeway Megaprojects – while those regions are seeing some of the greatest driving declines in the state as shown in the graphic below.8

The final cost of the projects is still unknown and the state could end up spending over $7 billion at the time of completion.9 In addition, these are up-front costs and do not include associated maintenance and rehabilitation costs.trans18.2

In 2011, Wisconsin cut transit funding by 10% – about $15 million, forcing transit operators to cut several routes and even putting some in danger of completely shutting down, while at the same time spending $1.9 billion on widening 35 miles of Interstate 94 from the Illinois border to Milwaukee by one lane in each direction and reconstructing interchanges.10

WisDOT has proposed double decking 2.85 miles of I-94 through the historic Story Hill neighborhood in Milwaukee at a staggering cost of nearly $2 billion dollars – in spite of stiff opposition from area residents and local Milwaukee officials who are concerned about the cost and negative impacts to the neighborhood.11


WisDOT has also been reducing the amount reimbursed to local communities for their transportation networks. Reimbursements to local communities have gone down by 20% over the last decade.12 This has forced local communities to increase property taxes to pay for routine maintenance and preservation work – and in some cases leaving local roads in dangerous driving conditions.13

1. USPIRG and Frontier Group, “Transportation and the New Generation”, 2012
2. USPIRG and Frontier Group, “Transportation in Transition”, 2013
3. Anandanarayanan, Ashwat, “Transportation Trends – Why Wisconsin is No Exception”, 2013
4. American Community Survey, 2012
5. USDOT, FHWA, “Report to the U.S. Congress on the Outcomes of the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program SAFETEA-LU Section 1807”, 2012
6. USPIRG and Frontier Group, “Transportation in Transition”, 2013
7. USPIRG and Frontier Group, “Transportation in Transition”, 2013
8. 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, “Exceeding the Limit”, 2003
9. Mulvany, Lydia, “I-94 Expansion Plan riles Milwaukee residents, city leaders, 2013
10. Mulvany, Lydia, “I-94 Expansion Plan riles Milwaukee residents, city leaders, 2013
11. Mulvany, Lydia, “I-94 Expansion Plan riles Milwaukee residents, city leaders, 2013
12. WisDOT “Transportation Budget Trends”, 2013
13. Green Bay Press Gazette, “ State Transportation Funding Hints at Bumpy Road Ahead”, 2012