Bad news or good news?

Daily traffic numbers for local highways indicate people are driving less, doing more shopping online and using buses more. Oregon Department of Transportation officials are alarmed.

If that doesn't make sense to you, join the club. We thought getting people to drive less was a good thing — good for the environment, good for traffic congestion and wear and tear on roads, good for reducing the country's reliance on foreign oil.

But if you're ODOT, which exists to build roads and bridges, that's a bad thing. Bad because people who drive less buy less gas, and people who buy less gas pay less in gas taxes, which go to pay for road projects.

Now it begins to make more sense. ODOT is concerned because its dedicated funding source is threatened.

The overall reduction in driving is partly a result of the economic recession, which appears to be easing, so traffic volumes may edge back up. But cars are getting more and more fuel-efficient, which allows people to drive more but use less gas, which also affects gas-tax collections.

While one local highway is an exception to the trend — Highway 62 traffic volumes continue to rise — that road is scheduled for a major bypass project to reduce congestion. Those dollars are already in the pipeline and the project will proceed. Another local project already in the works will improve the Fern Valley Interchange at Phoenix.

Jackson County residents probably need not be overly concerned about ODOT's funding crunch, at least not for a while. This area has seen a great deal of highway construction spending in recent years.

Among other projects, the North Medford interchange was rebuilt and the South Medford interchange was moved. The latter project wound up costing $90 million, $20 million more than expected, after side projects and rising materials costs were factored in.

It's difficult to work up much sympathy for ODOT. While the rest of the economy was in recession and the rest of state government was slashing budgets, road construction barreled along at full throttle because its funding comes from bonds approved before the downturn, dedicated gas-tax money and federal highway funds.

Perhaps the real message transportation planners should take from the decline in traffic counts is a wake-up call to be more efficient with the dollars they have left. In other words, welcome to the real world.

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