Utahns and other U.S. residents are driving less. And it's not necessarily something transportation officials want to see.
Nationally, from November through June, Americans have driven 53.2 billion fewer miles than the same eight-month period a year prior. In June alone, Americans drove 12.2 billion fewer miles than in June 2007 a 4.7 percent decline, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
"Clearly, more Americans chose to stay close to home in June than in previous years," said Transportation Secretary Mary Peters.
Earlier this summer the FHA reported that in Utah, people drove 3.1 percent fewer miles in the first quarter of 2008, compared with the first quarter of 2007.
That decline means less revenue from the motor fuel tax, which helps the Utah Department of Transportation fund day-to-day operations, maintenance and the construction of new roads and infrastructure.
"We have seen a decline in the vehicle miles traveled," said Carlos Braceras, deputy director for UDOT. "The decreased funding coming in from the gas tax has been happening since April."
The drop in fuel-tax revenue is a result of more people driving less, and those driving turning to more fuel-efficient vehicles. Braceras said UDOT is expecting the gas tax to be a reliable source of revenue for another 25 years, and he said it will be some time before the department has to search for alternative ways of generating revenue directly from motorists.
UDOT receives about 15 percent of its funding through federal programs, and the rest of its budget is composed of annual state funds gained through sales tax, gas-tax revenue and a percentage of vehicle registration.
"Our job is to implement programs with the funds we have, and we will deal with the cards dealt to us," said John Njord, executive director for UDOT.
This year the growth that legislators predicted in vehicle miles traveled didn't happen, and as a result the department was down about $10 million or $12 million, Njord said. Because the department operates within the funds allocated, these shortfalls could lead to projects being delayed or halted, he said.
Gas consumption was down nationally, too. The highway administration said motorists consumed 400 million fewer gallons of gasoline and 318 million fewer gallons of diesel in the first quarter of 2008 than in the same period in 2007.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said the decline in driving will mean less money for the highway repairs and construction projects needed to relieve traffic congestion. The Highway Trust Fund, which underwrites the projects, is funded by the federal 18.4-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline and 24.4-cents-a-gallon tax on diesel. Utah's tax is 24 cents a gallon on gasoline.
"We can't afford to continue pinning our transportation network's future to the gas tax," Peters said. "Advances in higher-fuel-efficiency vehicles and alternative fuels are making the gas tax an even less sustainable support for funding roads, bridges and transit systems."
A study released Wednesday by the Utah Foundation showed transportation is nudging upward as a priority for Utah voters, ranking ninth this year compared to ranking 11th in the foundation's 2004 study.
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