Madison is at the forefront of the quiet revolution in car use and vehicle technologies that is fundamentally changing transportation needs, infrastructure investments and traditional financing structures. Madison is third among the nation’s 100 largest cities for declining driving miles per person (18 percent decrease), and Milwaukee is second (21 percent decrease) from 2006 to 2011, according to the WISPIRG Foundation.
As driving patterns change and gas tax revenues decline, Wisconsin should prioritize smart investments in transit and rail, which are gaining passengers, and “fix it first” when it comes to highways and bridges.
Let’s start by advancing long-delayed higher-speed passenger rail connecting Madison to Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis, and the suburbs and “exurbs” in between. Modern high-speed rail can improve mobility, create jobs, spur economic growth and opportunity, and reduce pollution. Gov. Scott Walker should reconsider his rejection of passenger rail upgrades. Those fast trains could have already been whisking people from Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago.
There’s less driving and less transportation funding. People are driving less with fewer cars that are more fuel-efficient and thus use less gas. There's more transit use and biking as more people move into cities. The combined impacts: lower gas tax revenues. Future mobility and transportation efficiency requires recognizing these changes and adjusting planning to fit the new reality.
Who’s driving less? Car ownership is expensive, moderate-income people are squeezed, and vehicle miles traveled are declining. People under age 35 drive fewer miles annually than in 1990. Nationally, the average annual vehicle miles traveled by 16–34-year-olds dropped 23 percent over 2007–2011, according to the National Household Travel Survey. Younger people are using transit options and saving money on car use.
My 22-year-old son and his friends don’t own cars, didn’t get drivers’ licenses until after high school, use public transit and ride bikes. They share or rent cars when needed. They’d rather spend disposable income on new tech devices.
Lifestyle and cultural changes. Bikes are cool. The growing “sharing economy” is attractive. Traffic congestion is frustrating and boring. Biking and walking are healthier.
Economics matters. Buying, owning and driving a car is expensive. Gas prices are still high, and parking costs are rising. Insurance is pricy. The $75 annual Wisconsin state registration fee adds to car-owning costs.
Cleaner cars and less driving mean lower gas tax revenues. The average fuel economy of new cars is now 25 mpg, up by about 5 mpg since 2007. Federal standards require a fleet-wide average for new cars of 35 mpg in 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025. Cleaner, more efficient cars save us money at the gas pump, reduce carbon pollution and improve national security by cutting foreign oil imports. More fuel efficiency and less driving, combined with technological innovations in hybrid and all-electric vehicles, mean lower gas tax revenues.
The Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission projects a growing transportation funding shortfall, but the voting public doesn’t support raising gas taxes. The reality: fewer dollars for bridges, highways, rail, roads and local transit. We need to prioritize more than ever.
Prioritize transit, rail and fixing it first. Improving transit is a vital need for Madison, Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities. The commission recommended legislation to allow regional transportation authorities to raise funds through a one-half-cent maximum sales tax, with voter approval, for transportation purposes. This could be an important step forward.
Amtrak is achieving record-high ridership. Let’s modernize rail service from Madison to Milwaukee and Minneapolis and to the Chicago-hubbed Midwest higher-speed rail network. Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Illinois’ Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn are moving high-speed rail forward. Speeds are already faster, tracks and crossings are being upgraded, and new intermodal train stations are attracting riders and serving as development hubs. New locomotive engines will be built in Indiana, and 130 modern new railcars are being built in Illinois. That’s good for jobs, good for economic growth, and good for our environment. Wisconsin is “missing this train.” It’s time for Wisconsin to reverse course and get on board.
Howard A. Learner is executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, an environmental and economic development advocacy organization with offices in Madison and Chicago. HLearner@elpc.org