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Wyoming has biggest drop in driving of any state

Sep 9, 2013 - By James Chilton. MCT News Service

With the smallest, most spread-out population in the country, it's no surprise that Wyomingites drive more miles each year than residents of any other state.

But during the last 10 years, Wyomingites have been starting to drive less n a lot less, according to a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

The report, titled "Moving Off the Road," is based on statistics from the Federal Highway Administration.

It finds that, 60 years after the advent of the interstate highway system, Americans' per-capita driving mileage peaked in the mid-2000s and has been falling ever since in in Wyoming and elsewhere.

"When we were first building the interstate highway system and in the years afterward, Americans were increasing their per-capita driving every year," said Phineas Baxandall, the report's author. "But old habits die hard, and what we're doing with this report is making clear how deep the change has been toward declining or stagnant driving since the middle of the last decade."

According to the report, vehicle miles traveled hit a peak in 2004 of about 10,000 miles per person and have been falling steadily since then. Today, the report states, Americans drive about as many miles annually as they did in 1995 -- a drop of about 7.4 percent from the peak.

In fact, per-capita mileage driven has peaked and fallen in all but four states, with Wyoming boasting both the highest per-capita mileage driven and the sharpest drop in the same.

Here, drivers hit their peak mileage in 2003, when the average Wyomingite drove 18,485 miles. By 2011, that total fell to 16,272 miles, a drop of more than 2,200.

"That's bigger than any other state in America's decline," Baxandall said.

He added that the declines in Wyoming and elsewhere should send a message to policymakers that they should focus less on expanding their highways and roads, and more on preservation of what infrastructure already exists.

"The findings for Wyoming are a real opportunity," he said. "If Wyoming is trying to figure out how to build its next round of highways, it can press the reset button and make sure it really needs to build those highways."

It appears the Wyoming Department of Transportation has already taken the hint.

Martin Kidner, the state planning engineer for WYDOT, said the agency has already switched to a "preservation mode" in the last few years, partly due to the decline in traffic and partly due to decreasing budgets.

"The reality is that, because of our funding, I don't have the ability to do a lot of capacity projects," he said. "I'm really trying to take care of the bridges, pavement and safety issues."

That said, Kidner acknowledged the drop-off in statewide traffic has taken pressure off the need to build more capacity projects, though he said certain pockets of the state have been bucking the trend.

"Places where we're building capacity jobs, like south of Jackson, those are being driven by localized traffic increase, and that still is going on in some places," he said. "But overall, it's not like we're going to need to build another interstate in the middle of Wyoming."

But why are motorists driving less than they were before? Baxandall said there are a number of reasons, including more environmental awareness, increases in urban versus suburban populations, and a greater number of employees who telecommute.

"You have countertrends of people shopping online instead of driving to the mall, people connecting via Facebook and teleconferences instead of face to face," he said. "Millennials, in particular, have shown the biggest decreases in driving n the most recent Federal Highway Administration data show people under 35 decreasing their driving by 25 percent between 2001 and 2009."

AAA spokeswoman Kaelyn Kelly said continually high gas prices may also contribute to people driving fewer miles. While gas prices may have fallen from the record highs of 2008, they're still well above where they were a decade ago, and many motorists are now operating on the assumption that cheap gas is never coming back.

"In July of 2008, Wyoming experienced a number of days where the average price of a gallon of gas was above $4," Kelly said. "Having experienced that, I think drivers are more aware, and that is definitely something they take into consideration."

But she noted there's still a cultural component to driving in the West, particularly in spread-out states like Wyoming or Kelly's home state of Montana. For that reason, she said, it's unlikely that per-capita mileage will ever drop to what it is in places like New York, where motorists drive only about 6,500 miles a year.

"The distances out here are so vast that it's kind of a given that people would have to have a car," she said. "Vehicles are a part of our culture, and we really enjoy outdoor recreation. And a lot of times you have to drive out of your city to do that."

For his part, Kidner agreed, noting that many small towns in Wyoming simply can't provide the services residents may require. In those cases, he said, the only thing to do is hop in the car and hit the road.

"I lived in Basin, and I had to travel 30 miles to the nearest movie theater," Kidner said. "So many of these small towns, you have to drive farther to get services.

"To get to a hospital if you're in Pine Bluffs, you've got to go to Cheyenne, and those things require long driving distances."

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Editor's note: James Chilton writes for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle

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