May 8, 2001
By Christopher Ziemann, Madison
In 1999, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation came up with a state highway plan, “Translinks 21,” to expand the highway capacity of Wisconsin until the year 2020. Over the course of the next couple decades, WisDOT is going to need $20.4 billion, but it will only receive $15.3 billion from existing tax sources. They claim that this new money must come from somewhere, either from other programs, deficit spending, or more taxes. Let’s take a look at some facts about highway construction and car-related issues.
First of all, vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) per year in Wisconsin totaled 50,273 million, whereas the national average was only 47,199 million. Traffic volumes have increased 60% since 1982 in Wisconsin. Practically every study done in the last ten years shows that the construction of a new highway actually increases traffic by about 50%.
According to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, as much as 69% of the growth in driving was due to urban sprawl. These factors include the same people driving farther and more often, usually abandoning other modes like biking, walking, and transit. The average two-car family spends over 1,400 hours – about 2 months – in traffic, and over $10,000 a year on their cars and related costs every year.
In Wisconsin, 4,000 people go to the emergency room because of smog alone. Vehicle-related air pollution is also linked to over 150,000 asthma attacks and contributes to greenhouse gases.
More highways, and the urban sprawl that inevitably results from them, lead to serious problems with surface - and groundwater quality. This comes from the runoff carrying toxic minerals, pesticides, sediments and trash into our lakes, rivers and groundwater. This can also contribute to flash floods.
The effects of the DOT’s state highway plan will possibly lead to greater budgetary problems in the future. Not only does the current forecast not provide the necessary funds, but does not consider the future financial strains of maintaining the system.
A greater dependence on automobiles also forces local governments to raise property taxes. To relieve congestion, cities need to widen roads and even construct new ones. State funding covers very little of the cost of local roads, most comes from property taxes. But also with more roads, less land is available for buildings that pay property taxes, resulting in a lower tax base.
More time in traffic, higher auto expenses, higher property taxes, more air and water pollution, longer work hours and lower wages all add up to a lower quality of life.
The companies that actually build roads and highways contributed over $600,000 in campaign funds to our state elected officials in 1997 and 1998. They also spent over 1,300 hours lobbying. History has proven that campaign contributions and lobbying play a very big role in public policy decisions.
The Transportation Enhancement Act of the 21 st Century (TEA-21) provides flexibility in the use of some transportation funds to be used for alternatives like rail, bicycle and pedestrian projects, etc. Wisconsin used only 26% of these funds (ranking 49 th in the country), and only 1% for anything but highways.
What WisDOT is ultimately telling us is that there is no alternative to highways. This is a myth.
Christopher Ziemann is the Transportation Outreach Coordinator at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), a research and policy center at UW-Madison.
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