Virginians Driving Even Less in 2011

Stalled: Vehicle Miles Traveled

A week ago I questioned a fundamental premise of the argument that Virginia needs to raise taxes in order to build more roads: the fact that Virginians aren’t driving more, they’re driving less. Citing DMV figures, I noted that total Vehicle Miles Driven in the Old Dominion declined in 2009 and 2010. (See “Is Congestion Really Getting Worse?“) What I didn’t know then were the numbers for 2011. As the economic recovery (such as it was) took hold, would Virginians head back to the roads?

The Virginia Department of Transportation thought they would, budgeting a 2.7% increase in motor fuels taxes for the first quarter of the fiscal year. But we found out differently when John Lawson, CFO for the Virginia Department of Transportation, updated the Commonwealth Transportation Board on the department’s financials.  Through September, he reported, motor fuels tax collections have declined 3.2% year to date compared to the same period last year. (In Virginia’s fiscal year, “year to date” covers July, August and September.) The decline for September was even worse — down 4.1%. Ouch!

Fuel tax collections are a function of two things: average gas mileage and vehicle miles driven. While improved gas mileage of the Virginia motor vehicle fleet might have contributed marginally to the dip in tax collections, the driving force (so to speak) was Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).

I asked Lawson if he thought the decline reflected temporary economic conditions or a more profound change in driving patterns. He declined to speculate.  But it’s a question that VDOT officials and state legislators need to start asking. If Virginians are driving less, not more, the justification for many transportation projects gets blown out the exhaust pipe.


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4 responses to “Virginians Driving Even Less in 2011”

  1. here’s some questions that would help us understand.

    1. – how much has the fleet average mileage reduced historically?

    2. – how much has that increase in Fleet MPG resulted in a decrease in gas tax revenues?

    3. – what is the trendline? how much reduction in funding per year are we seeing and is it accelerating?

    we have these discussion of things that affect policy – but it seems that often we end up speculating about the data.

    why not quantify the data that then allows real funding shortfall projections and from that decide policy options?

    I know… I know.. this would be such a novel approach, eh….


  2. Groveton Avatar

    I would not be so fast to dismiss the mileage improvements as trivial. The cash for clunckers program had various high mpg vehicles sold out for months. Even my new pick up truck (full sized, four door) is getting just about 20 mpg.

  3. It is the economy, stupid.

    I will bet that sales tax revenue closely mirrors VMT.

  4. It is an unfounded federal mjankdate. The feds mandate higher cafe standards and the states have to pay for it.

    If higher mpg is the problem, then drivers are paying dollars less at the pump, so they should not mind a few cents more in gas tax.

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