Study: State taxpayers on the hook for $1 billion in useless highway projects due to faulty data

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation will waste up to $1 billion on unneeded highway expansions if it continues to rely on inaccurate, outdated highway-use projections, concluded a comprehensive traffic study by a nonpartisan watchdog group. 

WisDOT’s traffic projections are one of the most salient factors considered in approving construction projects and obtaining matching federal dollars. But they are calculated years in advance, and the state is currently experiencing zero growth in the number of vehicle miles driven, according to the group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which monitors land use in the state. 

The group’s study found that much of the data WisDOT used as the basis for more than $3 billion worth of projects contained in the state’s current biennial budget was collected a decade ago.

The group’s researchers compared traffic projections on which 11 upcoming major highway projects are based with today’s vehicle use of those highways. They found that recent traffic counts on all of the projects are unlikely to come close to the projections offered by WisDOT.

In fact, vehicle use on highways earmarked for multimillion-dollar expansion projects has actually fallen in some cases, according to the study.

“For example, WisDOT is projecting a 23-percent increase in traffic on I–94 near (Miller’s Park) by 2040,” Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends, said in a prepared statement. “However, actual traffic counts show that traffic has actually decreased by 8 percent along that stretch of highway. Present trends show that the DOT projections will never be achieved.” 

The situation is much the same on the I–43 corridor between Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties and I-94 in Milwaukee County, where expansion work has already caused horrendous traffic delays. WisDOT projected annual traffic growth of 1.4 percent on I-43 and 0.75 percent on I-94. But the two corridors have experienced declining traffic use — a reduction of 1.5 percent annually on I-43 and 0.88 percent annually on I-94.

Those declines in highway use reflect a statewide pattern of declining vehicle miles driven. Following the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1960s, traffic skyrocketed. But in recent years, vehicle miles driven have flattened out.

Between 1981 and 1991, miles driven in Wisconsin grew by a rate of 35 percent. In contrast, the growth rate from 2003 to 2013 was zero.

Hiniker said his group is not calling for a moratorium in highway construction, but rather a method of planning that’s based on current usage and updated projections. In some cases, he said, the state is planning projects based on data that projects volumes that are 100 times greater than actual traffic usage.

“Once a project is approved based on traffic projections, (WisDOT) never revisits (the numbers),” Hiniker said. “(WisDOT) says, ‘It was authorized, we have to build it.’ We’re saying, ‘If you know trends have changed, go back and reevaluate it.’ We’re asking WisDOT to change the way they plan projects. We want to make sure they’re not wasting money.”

Relative to the previous trends, Wisconsin has experienced a 27 percent decline in miles driven over the past decade, according to 1000 Friends. If the growth rate of previous decades had continued, Wisconsinites would currently drive an average of 11,300 miles annually instead of the current average of 9,400.

The difference between previous growth rates in highway usages and actual highway use over the past decade is stark: If previous rates of increase had continued, Wisconsinites would have driven 16 billion more miles than they did in 2013. That’s because the average Wisconsinite drives 500 fewer miles per year today than in 2004.

Diverted funds

Critics such as 1000 Friends and conservationists say lawmakers must stop wasting money on unneeded highway expansions at a time when the state faces a budget deficit, an inadequate workforce due to massive cuts in education (the most of any state in the nation) and underfunded police and fire departments.

Perhaps most troubling to Wisconsin’s cities, WisDOT diverts money that would otherwise go to maintaining heavily trafficked city roads to build and expand underutilized highways.

While conservative Wisconsin voters are furious over paying taxes that support government spending on food stamps, they’re unaware of the taxpayer money that’s wasted on needless highway spending — most of which goes to politically connected roadbuilders who contribute large sums to both Republican and Democratic officeholders. 

In the fiscal year 2011, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provided about $1.1 billion in food benefits to a monthly average of 801,073 people in Wisconsin. That’s only slightly more than the amount of money Wisconsin will waste on unneeded highway projects over the next two years if WisDOT continues to use inaccurate highway use projections.

Drivers assume that various automobile fees and taxes they pay at the pump cover the cost of local road repairs. But by the time that money winds its way through the labyrinthine process of transportation funding, there’s very little left to fix the neighborhood pothole that threw your car out of alignment in April.

Last year, TRIP, a nonprofit organization that researches surface transportation issues, released a report estimating that “unacceptably rough” roads cost a total of $80 billion nationwide, with the average urban driver faced with $377 a year in repairs.

The only way Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities can obtain increased funding for road repairs is by raising property taxes. But politics and the state’s lagging economy make that option a non-starter. Instead, cities must choose between filling in van-eating sinkholes and maintaining adequate police and fire departments, according to city halls across the state.

During the 1980s, local municipalities asked the Legislature for permission to raise their own money to pay for road resurfacing and other such infrastructure repairs, according to Hiniker. But lawmakers at the time said no, instead promising to reimburse cities and towns for 85 percent of such costs through the state’s segregated Transportation Fund. 

That percentage of reimbursement has steadily declined over the past decade. Now it’s only about 12 percent, Hiniker estimated. It’s hard to tease out the actual figure, because WisDOT categorizes work involved in many new construction projects as repairs, even if the “repairs” are made to roads in good condition.

For instance, the expansion of I-94 from Milwaukee to Kenosha cost $2.2 billion, but only $200 million of that traffic nightmare of a project was classified as new construction. All the rest of the cost fell into the category of repair and maintenance, because it was used for such work as widening existing overpasses in order to widen the road.

Slighting cities

WisDOT uses a shared-revenue formula that’s almost impenetrably complicated and gives sprawling rural areas a funding advantage over heavily trafficked urban locations, according to Hiniker. Dennis Yaccarino, a budget analyst for the City of Milwaukee, told WiG last spring that the formula slights Wisconsin cities, particularly Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay.

Transit analysts believe huge political contributions made by road builders play a central role in maintaining a planning process that favors large, expensive highway projects over small ones. But it’s nearly impossible to figure out how much the state’s two dozen or so road builders, each of whom is said to have an unofficial “turf,” give to lawmakers in each election cycle. That’s partly due to rules that allow for unlimited anonymous donations to third-party campaign activity and partly due to the time-honored practice of bundling donations or making them under the names of friends or family members.

Hiniker hopes that shedding light on WisDOT’s faulty, politically motivated method of planning highway projects will bring about change. This is more important now than ever, he said, due to dwindling revenue and rapidly changing demographics. Many young people favor mass transit, he said, while seniors lose their ability to drive safely.

Wisconsin is one of the nation’s grayest states, and it’s projected to become much grayer.

“There are new projection numbers that show the population increase in 2040 is going to be about 800,000 people in Wisconsin — and almost 95 percent of them will be over 65,” Hiniker said. “The working-age population is not projected to change at all. So where are all the drivers who are projected to be driving?”