Recent VMT trends changing DOT investments

By Bill Holloway
Oregon is set to save an estimated $6.2 million by scaling back part of a Eugene area interchange expansion project on Interstate 5. The first three phases of the I-5/Randy Papé Beltline Interchange project have proceeded as planned but the final phase is being scaled back based on the recommendations of two government advisory boards and a 2011 traffic study that forecast 20 percent lower traffic on the facility than was estimated in its environmental study. According to Frannie Brindle, area manager at the Oregon Department of Transportation, the forecast was revised as a result of lower than expected job and population growth and the opening of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Parkway, which provides a parallel route for some travelers.
SSTI has previously noted the disparity between declining per capita vehicle miles traveled and the forecasts of continually climbing VMT used by transportation agencies. Transportation agencies have typically written off declining travel trends as driven by gas prices or the economic downturn and have not seen it as indicative of a long term change. As state and local transportation revenues continue to fall short of needs, rightsizing projects has become even more important.
Oregon lawmakers will have to decide what to do with any savings gleaned by downsizing the I-5 project. However, local government officials in the area, quoted by the Register Guard, are already proposing uses for the extra funds despite the fact that it will be 2016 or 2017 before the project is complete and any surplus is redirected.
As the US approaches a decade of declining per capita VMT, the allure of potential savings from downscaling projects predicated on steadily increasing travel demand may lead other states to review their projects against updated travel forecasts.
Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.