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After Years Of Growth, New Govt Model Says Driving Is Leveling Off

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Flicker-CDOT
/
used with permission
Congestion on interstate 70 near Floyd Hill, Colorado

Are we driving less? When it comes to the Federal Highway Administration's forecasts, the government seems to think so. After years of predicting that driving would only be increasing, the latest forecast of vehicle miles traveled is projecting that total miles driven by the average American will remain essentially flat for the foreseeable future.

With that estimation, CoPIRG, a consumer advocacy group, said the agency is quietly acknowledging that the driving boom is now over.

Danny Katz, the executive director of CoPIRG, said the highway administration's Miles Driven Forecast is often used by states when developing major transportation projects, and the new lower benchmark is important for future transportation plans not just in Colorado but across the country.

"Any state government, any local entity would want to make sure that as they're thinking about the transportation plan and infrastructure for the next 30,40,50 years; that they're using data and analysis to back up what they think is going to be warranted," said Katz.

New analysis by the group shows the highway administration has lowered its nationwide driving forecast by 24 to 44 percent.

He notes that his group has seen inaccurate inflated forecasts from the highway administration for years.

Data compiled by CoPIRG has shown that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) have started to decrease across the Front Range over the last decade as Millennials and Baby Boomers alike have left their keys at home to instead walk, bike or take public transportation to work and play.

Colorado Department of Transportation Spokeswoman Amy Ford said her agency is seeing a similar trend. But while projected driving miles are leveling off in Colorado, Ford said they're still matching pace with the steady increase in population Colorado is expected to see over the next 25 years.

"For 2040 what we are projecting is approximately 47 percent growth in our population statewide," Ford said. "And we anticipate that we will also have an increase of vehicle miles traveled, the amount of miles that people put on our roads and our highways, by 47 percent."

Historically, Ford explained, the VMT has usually exceeded population growth projections, and traffic models took that difference into account with higher forecasts.

"But we are seeing a little bit more of a leveling off now," said Ford. "So what you see in both our projections is that they are about the same now. But the big take away from this as you look into 2040 is Colorado is growing."

With that growth comes more people trying to get around on existing roads. Take the state's notorious ski traffic as an example. CDOT is finding innovative ways to manage traffic congestion without adding travel lanes, including new metering at ski resort on-ramps that keep traffic flowing during high peak travel along the I-70 mountain corridor.

The agency's new Bustang statewide bus system will also be unveiled later in 2015 and hopes to remove additional vehicles off the state's main interstate highways.

Massive construction projects are still on the books, however, including the expansion and lowering of I-70 in North Denver through the Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea neighborhoods.

Ford adds that while some projects may still build additional travel lanes, they'll not be general purpose. They'll be High Occupancy Toll lanes (CDOT calls them Express Lanes) where drivers pay a toll with a sliding scale based on demand and congestion.

"So a project like a T-Rex Project, where we simply added free general purpose lanes, you'll likely not see that in the metro area anymore," Ford said. "That's why projects like I-70 East propose new Express Lanes and why projects we're looking at for the I-25 corridor going up to Fort Collins also propose Express Lanes. They combat congestion but also give choice."

Ford said the agency is working on a complete statewide transportation plan, which will analyze the latest transportation and growth data through 2040. It's scheduled to release its latest plan in the summer of 2015.

CoPIRG's Katz said the new, more accurate model from the federal government is important since recent analysis shows the highway administration’s forecasts have overstated projections 61 times in a row, and inflated forecasts can be used to justify new wider highways.

The new forecast, according to Katz, shows precious funding should no longer be spent on new widening projects, but on repairing the state's bridges and existing roadways.

"This forecast is really, as the national forecast, it really does carry a lot of weight not only for national policy decisions but for state and local policy decisions," Katz said. "So the fact that they're finally getting it right after 61 over shots over the last few years, they're finally catching on that there's this slowdown that will be significant, and that should mean we're spending our transportation dollars as wisely as possible."

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