Steve Hiniker is quoted in this article by Robert Mentzer, wausaudailyhearld.com Is Wisconsin building roads for traffic that won’t ever be there?
We’re driving less. So why does Wisconsin keep spending more and more on roads — and not just to maintain the infrastructure we have but actually to build new, wider highways?
This is the question being put to policymakers by Bruce Speight, director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, and Steve Hiniker, executive director of the environmental advocacy group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.
“We want a
reprioritization of the transportation fund,” Speight said in a recent phone interview. “Right now we are squandering billions of dollars on highway expansion projects we don’t need.”
The particular projects Speight and Hiniker have in their sights are the big, expensive expansions of Wisconsin’s most trafficked roads in the southeastern part of the state. That’s a corridor that is used by a relatively small slice of the state’s overall population, but it gets a disproportionate share of the state’s transportation budget.
The state’s transportation budget is out of control when it comes to new highway construction, say directors of an environmental advocacy group and a consumer watchdog. (Photo: Gannett Wisconsin Media file photo )
Why? Well, there is a short answer and a long answer. The short answer: Highway construction has a lot of political clout. Road builders lobby and write big checks to Madison politicians.
The longer answer is a bit more nuanced, and it’s the one I prefer. Political clout, yes. Campaign cash, sure. But then, also, this: It is simply hard for people whose entire professional lives have been based on the always-correct assumption that people will drive more and more to perceive that we may be on the verge of an actual sea change.
Millennials don’t drive as much as their parents did, and they consistently say biking and public transportation are priorities for them. Meanwhile, the baby boom generation is quickly approaching retirement age, and with it likely an awful lot fewer commuting hours.
Hiniker showed me a 1000 Friends study that found that the state Department of Transportation since 2000
consistently overshot its traffic estimates. Where it projected traffic growth of 0.75 percent on Milwaukee’s Interstate 94 corridor from 2000 to 2012, the actual change was negative 0.88 percent. Not less growth. Less traffic, period.
“We saw growth rates sometimes exceeding 3 percent (in DOT estimates) — in one case, 12 percent a year,” Hiniker said. “We took their projections and plotted them against actual trends and found a gross mismatch.
“We’re not saying ‘Scrap all these projects,'” Hiniker said. “The problem is that (the DOT) has used the same kind of assumptions for them that were used in the 1960s to the 1990s. They’re in complete denial that there has been a change in traffic growth.”
Many or most of the conditions that drove the rise of the automobile, Hiniker notes, will not be repeated. It’s not just the coming of age of the baby boomers but also the spread of two-working-parent homes, which by necessity often became two-car homes. It was the proliferation of urban sprawl. All those things have played out. That growth isn’t going to continue.
Spending on new highway construction leaves less for local road maintenance.(Photo: Gannett Wisconsin Media file photo)
I drive a car, and though I have a pleasantly short commute that does not involve any highways, most days I drive to work. Most people in Wisconsin use the roads, and most probably have a broad category of “road spending” in their minds. That’s all wrong, Speight and Hiniker say. Local roads, county roads, state and interstate highways all have distinct sources of funding. And highway construction actually cuts
against maintenance for local roads.
Those potholes on your commute? Blame the Interstate 94 corridor in Milwaukee.
Look, roads are important to business; lots and lots of goods travel by truck. Good roads are important to the state’s tourism industry. And even those of us who don’t travel the state all the time still have an expectation that doing so will be relatively safe and convenient. That’s all fine.
But as taxpayers, we should be skeptical of any part of the state budget that grows and grows, and we should especially be skeptical of data estimates provided by people who are not unbiased observers.
“When your job depends on letting contracts to build more highways, and you have a political system that rewards itself with campaign donations every time you build a highway,” Hiniker said, “there’s a strong incentive to build these roads.”
Even if there’s not a strong need.
Robert Mentzer is regional opinion editor for Gannett Central Wisconsin Media. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, 715-845-0604; on Twitter: @robertmentzer .