In preparation for our events in Madison, WI next week, we invited Steve Hiniker, Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin to write about transportation in Wisconsin and the organization's recent victory against faulty traffic projections.

Transit systems across the country have been at the losing end of a struggle for transportation fund dollars for decades.  Road building lobbyists have used their muscle to get a larger share of the fund for new and expanded roadway projects despite a dramatic downturn in driving habits nationwide.

The result is underfunded transit systems just as transit demand is increasing.  Local roads have suffered from the focus on highway expansion as well.  The highway lobby makes it money on widening roads, not  filling potholes or adding bus routes. 

As politicians of both parties continue to approve projects despite the total lack of need, state departments of transportation go to extreme lengths to justify new highway expansion.

Some transit advocates conclude that the only way to get more money for operating funds is to form an unholy alliance with the roadbuilders and lobby for more money for a bigger transportation fund.

Some transit advocates conclude that the only way to get more money for operating funds is to form an unholy alliance with the roadbuilders and lobby for more money for a bigger transportation fund.  Of course, this is a losing strategy as building more roads means the need for more money for maintaining those roads in the long run – setting the stage for even more taxes for roads in the future.

However, the endless spiral of more roads and more dollars to maintain those roads may be coming to an end – giving transit systems new hope for adequate funding.

Last May, a federal court judge ruled on a lawsuit filed by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin that challenged that state’s DOT traffic projections for a widened 2 lane highway in rural northeast Wisconsin.  The land use group claimed that the traffic projections were wildly inflated.  They questioned how traffic could increase on the highway at a rate several times the projected population growth. 

The Wisconsin DOT responded with essentially, “Trust us, we know what we are doing.”  U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman ruled that the DOT hadn’t demonstrated how they reached the numbers and absent proof, the project would be ineligible for federal highway funds.

The magnitude of the ruling is hard to underestimate.  Faulty traffic projections have been at the heart of virtually every highway project that we’ve looked at in Wisconsin over the past ten years.  This ruling exposes what we have long argued:  DOT’s across the country have been using traffic forecasting models that fail to take into account changing demographics and changing attitudes about driving.  The cost of these unneeded projects is staggering.  We’ve identified several billion dollars of questionable expansion projects in Wisconsin waiting for federal funding.

Not all highway expansion projects are based on faulty projections but a thorough examination of traffic projections for major projects would undoubtedly lead to the cancellation of enough projects to negate the need for hefty tax increases to keep the transportation fund solvent.

Transit advocates and local units of government struggling to find the funds to fix local roads should seize this opportunity by joining forces and putting some sanity into transportation funding.

About Steve Hiniker

Steve became Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin in October 2003, however he has been involved with the organization since its inception and is one of the founding board members. Before 2003, Steve was the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Citizens Utility Board, a non-profit organization that represents the interests of residential utility customers.  Steve has also served as the Environmental Policy Coordinator for the City of Milwaukee

Steve was featured on a Strong Towns podcast earlier this year.