Thursday, December 18, 2008

"The nation may be wasting scarce transportation dollars on unneeded roads."

American drivers might be tapped out


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

There may be a limit to how much Americans will drive, and they may have reached it, a new report says.

(Brookings Institution)

Volatile gas prices got top billing for curtailing traffic on U.S. roads since last year, but the trend to drive less actually began emerging years ago when gas was still cheap, says "The Road Less Traveled," released Tuesday by the Brookings Institution.

Driving fever began cooling in 2004 and dropped in 2007, the report says.

And the historic drop, the fourth since World War II, was buffered by population growth. Miles driven per person reached a plateau years sooner, after the tech bubble burst in 2000, and slid down after 2005.

The average San Antonian, traveling 17.7 miles a day on major highways in 2006, bucked the trend and is king of the road in large Texas cities.

Driving per capita in San Antonio went up 12.9 percent from 2002 to 2006, but dipped 0.8 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth, dropped 5.2 percent in Houston and dived 12.3 percent in Austin.

There are many reasons for an overall downturn, according to the Brookings report and others.

Baby Boomers now nestling into retirement don't commute as much, women entering the workforce has leveled off after several decades, and urban living with access to public transit has been rebounding the past 20 years.

Then there are rickety gas prices, which peaked above $4 a gallon last summer and then plunged. Where they go next, no one knows for sure.

And now there's the sluggish economy, which looks to be digging in for a long siege.

The Brookings report warns that government agencies may still be flying high with assumptions that traffic growth can't be tamed with current revenues. But for five years, through 2006, increases in U.S. road lanes outpaced driving.

"The nation may be wasting scarce transportation dollars dollars on unneeded roads," the report says.

On the other hand, less driving further strangles gas taxes that already lag more than a decade behind inflation.

Then again, less motoring is good for the environment.

Taken together, the nation is at a pivotal point.

"Policy opportunities are unprecedented," the report concludes.


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