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Tolling Points

U.S. Highways Enter a Growth Phase

By: 
Bill Cramer

A news release last week from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) contains good news for anyone who depends on traffic and revenue forecasts to anticipate future income.

It all boils down to a single keyword: GROWTH.

By just about any measure, the agency says, reports of declining traffic volumes are greatly exaggerated. And to its credit, FHWA draws a clear connection from surging consumer demand to the need to adequately fund highway infrastructure.

“Americans drove 261.7 billion vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) in March of this year, which is the most ever driven in March,” the release states. “The increase in travel on America’s roads underscores the need for greater investment in transportation infrastructure.”

Traffic Keeps On Growing
FHWA reports that:

  • Americans drove 720.1 billion VMT in the first three months of 2015, beating the previous record of 705.7 billion set in 2006.
  • Passenger vehicle, bus, and truck travel for the quarter grew 3.9% between 2014 and 2015.
  • VMT more than doubled, from 345.5 billion, from the first quarter of 1982 to 2015.
  • Results for March 2015 were 3.4% higher than March 2014, and 1.8% higher than February 2015.
  • In a bloc of 13 western states, including Alaska and Hawaii, VMT grew for the 18th consecutive month, with a gain of 5.3% over the previous month.
  • Montana, South Dakota, and Hawaii posted the largest year-over-year gains in monthly VMT, with 9.5%, 9.0%, and 8.2%.

“The new figures reaffirm the trends identified in Beyond Traffic, a report issued earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which projects a 43% increase in commercial truck shipments and population growth of 70 million by 2045,” FHWA reports. “Increased gridlock nationwide can be expected unless changes are made in the near-term.”

The Dollars to Do the Job
FHWA’s numbers have important implications for tolling agencies. They reinforce the need to anticipate and fund future infrastructure growth. And they balance some of the recent data suggesting a continuing drop in traffic volumes.

A single cluster of data, even a consistent, powerful cluster like this one, is no guarantee of long-term results. If FHWA’s findings are to any extent a reflection of lower gas prices, their durability depends on energy analysts being right when they predict that $60-per-barrel oil is the new normal.

But even if that’s the case, the decline in the gas tax brought about by higher fuel efficiency and the rise of electric and alternate vehicles means that higher volumes will just result in more wear in tear on the road—not necessarily in the dollars to keep highways reliable and safe.

In many states and regions, those dots will only be connected with tolls or road user charges that generate a reliable revenue stream to pay for the quality mobility drivers need and expect. This data should serve as another measure as Congress focuses on the next long-term surface transportation bill.

Please feel free to share this blog post with your elected officials at all levels of government. Together, as an industry, we can keep Moving America Forward.

To read the FHWA's release click here.

Click here for a snapshot of the discussion at IBTTA’s Washington Briefing, March 30-31, 2015 in Washington, DC.

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