Road Overkill

Wisconsin Spends Big on Questionable Highways, Even as Driving Declines

Wisconsin’s transportation system is at a crossroads. The state’s roads and bridges are aging and maintenance needs are increasing. Funding for transit service has been slashed . Yet, the state continues to increase spending on highway expansion projects, despite the fact that driving in Wisconsin is on the decline. Road Overkill looks at seven recent highway expansion projects in Wisconsin and finds that traffic has failed on those highways has failed to materialize as transportation planners expected. Before investing hundreds of millions of dollars in even more highway capacity, Wisconsin officials should review those projects to ensure that they are still worthwhile investments in an era of reduced growth in driving.


Wisconsin’s transportation system is at a crossroads. The state’s roads and bridges are aging and maintenance needs are increasing. Funding for transit service has been slashed at the same time that demand for transit is rising nationally.

Yet, even with limited resources at its disposal – and amid falling gasoline tax revenues – the Walker administration has chosen to invest massive amounts of money in highway expansion. Starting with the 2011-2013 biennial state budget, Wisconsin has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for massive freeway expansion and construction projects while cutting state aid for transit and maintenance of locally owned roads, harming local taxpayers, those who choose not to drive, and the increasing numbers of Wisconsinites who are seeking transportation options.

Highway expansion is often justified based on the idea that traffic volumes can go in only one direction: up. Yet, Wisconsinites are actually driving less per capita now than we did in 1997, raising the question of whether massive new highway projects really make best use of our resources.

A review of six highway projects completed across Wisconsin in the last two decades (and one still partially under construction) reveals that traffic on many new roads is failing to materialize as originally projected by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT). Before Wisconsin invests hundreds of millions of additional dollars in highway expansion projects at the expense of other transportation priorities, the state should conduct a thorough review of the need for highway expansion in light of changing trends in driving.

Wisconsin is planning to spend big on highways while squeezing funding for other forms of transportation.

  • Wisconsin’s 2011-2013 biennial state budget appropriated $1.2 billion for highway construction projects.
  • In addition to increasing funding for highway megaprojects in southeast Wisconsin to $550 million, the 2013-2015 biennial budget proposes an additional $735 million for other major highway expansion projects statewide.
  • To pay for this increased highway spending, both budgets reduced the amount of state-collected gas taxes that flow back to local governments for local streets and roads, leaving the vast majority of costs for local roads – which comprise the biggest part of the road network in the state – to be covered by local taxpayers. 
  • The 2013-2015 biennial budget also seeks to shift funding for transit from the dedicated Transportation Fund to the state’s strapped general fund, freeing up additional funding for highway expansion projects.

Recent highways built across Wisconsin have failed to attract the level of traffic originally projected by WisDOT – a manifestation of the recent trend toward reduced driving in Wisconsin and nationwide. This report highlights seven projects – representing more than $1 billion in taxpayer investment – where traffic counts are not on pace to match projections.

  • U.S. Highway 151 between Dickeyville and Belmont – In 1999, WisDOT forecast that traffic on this stretch of road would increase by 60 percent by 2025. This forecast was used to justify the $100 million conversion of the two-lane road to a four-lane divided expressway. Eleven years later, traffic volumes had risen between 13 and 22 percent.[i] Traffic volume would need to grow significantly faster in the next 12 years than it did in the last 11 in order to meet projected 2025 traffic levels.
  • Interstate 39/U.S. Highway 51/State Highway 29 in Wausau – In 2010, WisDOT christened a new, $309 million six-lane freeway in Wausau shared by Interstate 39, U.S. Highway 51, and State Highway 29. In the year it opened, traffic on the highway was 3.8 percent below the low end of WisDOT’s forecast range for the road’s inaugural year. 
  • Burlington Bypass – The $118 million, four-lane Burlington Bypass in Racine County presently accommodates 33 to 36 percent less traffic than forecast, and handles traffic numbers small enough that a two-lane road would be suitable.
  • State Highway 64, St. Croix County – In 1994, WisDOT predicted an increase in traffic by 2016 of 75 to 101 percent for this highway in St. Croix County. After a $109 million upgrade, by 2012 traffic on the road had increased just 21 to 56 percent. Traffic volumes would need to increase another 28 to 44 percent in the next four years to reach the volumes predicted for 2016. 
  • U.S. Highway 141, Marinette and Oconto counties – The $68 million expansion of U.S. 141 in northeastern Wisconsin was expected to serve a predicted increase in traffic of 35 to 71 percent by 2025 compared with 1995 levels. But by 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, traffic volumes had increased just 3.9 percent at one location.
  • U.S. Highway 41 from Oconto to Peshtigo – This $180 million expansion serves traffic volumes lower than were projected for 2007. Even on busier stretches of the road, the number of cars driving on U.S. 41 has only inched up by 8 to 12 percent. Further increases in traffic of 28 to 40 percent are necessary for WisDOT’s 2027 traffic forecasts to be realized.
  • State Highway 26 from Janesville to Watertown – WisDOT expects an increase in traffic of 85 to 300 percent on this stretch of highway between 1998 and 2028, justifying an expansion of the road that will cost an estimated $433 million. Though construction is underway along much of the route, traffic volumes on completed portions are not meeting projections: at one location in 2010, the number of cars was 21 percent below what was expected in 2008. For traffic levels to reach their predicted highs by 2028, volumes will need to increase a further 77 percent or more.

Figure ES-1. Location of highway construction projects studied in this report



Wisconsinites – like Americans in general – are driving less. The recent, historically unprecedented decline in vehicle travel – coupled with lower-than-anticipated traffic on recently completed roads – calls into question whether massive new investments in highway expansion are justified.

  • The average Wisconsinite now drives about as much in a year as he or she did in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s administration, and total vehicle travel has fallen by 3 percent since 2004. (See Figure ES-2.) The recent trend toward less driving in Wisconsin is consistent with broader national trends.
  • Young people lead the trend toward reduced driving. According to the National Household Travel Survey, between 2001 and 2009 the average number of vehicle-miles traveled by 16- to 34-year-olds nationwide dropped 23 percent.
  • There are strong reasons to believe that stagnation in vehicle travel will continue. Young people are more likely to prefer to live in mixed-use neighborhoods with transit accessibility and close proximity to shopping, dining, schools and work rather than the sprawl-style suburban developments favored by previous generations. Increased gasoline prices are also causing people to drive less. Wisconsin’s recently convened Transportation Finance and Policy Commission concedes that statewide VMT is likely to remain stagnant for the next decade.

Figure ES-2. Total VMT in Wisconsin, 1980-2011


To protect the public purse and ensure Wisconsinites get transportation infrastructure that meets the needs of the 21st century, Wisconsin officials should:

  • Revisit traffic growth projections for proposed highway expansion projects in light of recent trends in driving and scale back or cancel projects that are no longer justified.
  • Adopt a “fix it first” approach to the state’s highway infrastructure by addressing pressing road maintenance needs across Wisconsin.
  • Respond to the 21st-century needs of Wisconsinites by shifting some funding from highway expansion projects toward increased support of public transportation, local road repair, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.


[i] Ranges represent comparisons of measured versus projected traffic volumes at different locations along a segment of highway. See “Methodology” for more detail.


Tom Van Heeke

Policy Analyst

Tony Dutzik

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.