News comes this week – via transportation consultant and former New Jersey DOT Assistant Commissioner Mark Stout and the Sightline Institute’s Clark Williams-Derry – of two state Departments of Transportation that are acknowledging the likelihood that the number of miles Americans drive will grow far less quickly in the future than it has in the past.
Stout quotes Maryland’s new long-range transportation plan as acknowledging that “a return to strong annual VMT (vehicle-miles traveled) growth is unlikely and per capita VMT in Maryland is actually decreasing.” Williams-Derry points to a revised Oregon Department of Transportation website on seven trends that are contributing to the transportation funding crisis in that state that says the following:
“For six decades after World War II an expanding economy increased the average miles driven per person virtually every year. But in recent years the regular increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has stopped, and VMT growth has slowed or gone negative. While debate about the causes of this continues, research indicates that demographic trends — including Baby Boomers retiring and less driving by the younger generation—has reduced the link between VMT and economic growth. Many experts predict that VMT will grow more slowly going forward, largely due to population growth, reducing the amount of revenue generated by the gas tax.”
The first step to surmounting any challenge, of course, is admitting that one exists. While Maryland and Oregon are to be saluted for recognizing that the post-war Driving Boom has ended, the real challenge will come in translating that newfound awareness into smart policy decisions that allocate taxpayer resources wisely.
On that front, the news from Maryland and Oregon is mildly encouraging. Stout notes that while Maryland’s long-term plan “doesn’t attempt to draw conclusions about what [the recent change in driving trends] means for future policy and investment choices,” it does take some strong steps toward a more balanced and sensible approach for the state’s transportation future. He calls the plan “excellent.”
Williams-Derry points to other examples of the Oregon DOT’s newfound “brutal honesty,” but also notes that the agency continues to pursue dubious, high-priced megaprojects such as the Columbia River Crossing joining Portland and Vancouver, Washington.
There is a difference, we all know, between hearing something and truly grasping its meaning. Maryland and Oregon are clearly “hearing” the news about changing driving trends. But with federal and state DOTs facing impending Highway Trust Fund-mageddon, demand for alternatives to driving continuing to rise, and a growing need for maintenance of the current system, transportation officials nationwide need to show that they’re truly listening – and start acting accordingly.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.