Rebates for Driving Less: a Nonstructural Alternative to Expanding the Capacity of Highways
by Michael T. Neuman (August, 2004)

Madison, Wisconsin is on the verge of having to make a long term decision about its future. Should it expand the capacity of its highways and freeways leading into the city to accommodate more commuter traffic into the city? Or should it say "enough already", and demand the county and state reduce automobile commuting traffic into Madison, thereby relieving the burden of "too much" motor vehicle traffic, which most similar or larger sized cities in the U.S. already experience.

Presently, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) plans to use $210 million of public tax revenues to expand the capacity of Verona Road on Madison's west side into a major freeway development, and to add two more lanes on to the West Beltline. The Verona Road freeway will be designed to accommodate more than twice the number of vehicles that currently use Verona Road today.

The additional two lanes on the West Beltline between Todd Drive and Mineral Point Road will channel still more traffic onto the Beltline. Where are all these tens of thousands of additional motor vehicles going once they get there? The South Beltline traffic flow in the morning is already way beyond its capacity, and Madison's arterials which channel traffic into the downtown area and the University area (via Midvale Boulevard; University Avenue; Monroe Street; Regent Street) are all operating at congested levels now. They will all have no alternative but to become even more congested.

How will the additional motor vehicle traffic affect the quality of living in Madison? Starting with the project area, the Verona Road/Freeway and West Beltine highway expansion will surely mean more air pollution, road dust and noise pollution for areas closest to the more heavily used freeway. The high density, low-income neighborhood of Allied Drive, home to numerous minority populations, will become increasingly polluted by the increasing traffic levels on both sides of this area. Other residences, places of business and land paralleling the Verona Road Freeway, West Beltline and Madison's west side arterials will similarly become more polluted, because of the tens of thousands more motor vehicles passing by.

Motor vehicle highway use has already increased dramatically in Dane County over the past decade. The DOT estimates that the number of motor vehicle miles traveled per year (VMT) in Dane County in 2003 was 4.8 billion, up from 3.0 billion VMT in 1990 (a 60% increase). In contrast, Dane County's population grew by 22% during that same time period, which means Dane County not only has more drivers, but its drivers are driving significantly more miles than ever before.

Most of the growth in automotive travel in Madison has happened on the highways that surround and feed into Madison. The number of vehicles traveling on state highways that run through Madison rose from about 225,000 to about 255,000 per day between 1995 and 2000 (14% increase). Similarly, the number of vehicles using arterial streets in Madison rose between 1995 and 2000 from about 130,000 to about 145,000 per day (11% increase). Meanwhile, Madison's resident population went from 199,518 to 208,054 residents (4.3% increase).

A study report released by the Sierra Club last month documents many of the known health hazards for people who live near heavily traveled highways. The study reports on numerous scientific studies in published medical journals that disclose substantial evidence linking heavy motor vehicle traffic with a wide range of human health ailments, especially in children and adults more sensitive to air pollutants. The evidence includes higher hospitalization rates for asthmatics living near busy roads, an increased prevalence of childhood leukemia and other forms of cancer, and a higher incidence of heart attacks and strokes in populations that live near heavily traveled roads. (See

The problem of asthma has reached almost epidemic levels in the U.S. population, growing 160 percent among pre-school children during the 15 year period from 1980 to 1994, and 75 percent in the total population. According to statistics kept by the Madison Metropolitan School District, the number of students with asthma tripled from 1987 to 2002, from about 3 percent of the population to about 9 percent of the population. See

Air pollution is especially threatening to young people because a child is more, active and with greater activity there's more air intake and more exposure, according to John Hausbeck, environmental epidemiologist with the City of Madison's Department of Public Health. "There is reason to believe a child would be exposed to more pollutants than adults in a similar site."

The highest incidence of asthma cases is found among low-income and African-American toddlers, according to a recent report by the Harvard Medical School: "Inside the Greenhouse: The Impacts of CO2 and Climate Change on Public Health in the Inner City."

The Harvard Medical School study confirms that serious public health risks are created when children and adults are exposed to even moderate levels of urban air pollution, especially when that exposure takes place during warm temperatures, a condition likely to occur with increasing frequency if the rate of global warming quickens, as predicted.

"African Americans are the most vulnerable and also suffer the most from climate change", concludes a recently published study: "African Americans and Climate Change: An Unequal Burden" (Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc., July 21, 2004).

African American households emit 20 percent less carbon dioxide than white households, states the report. As consumers, African Americans use fewer products that produce carbon emissions, and they use 30 percent less gasoline than whites, per capita, according to the report. Yet because a disproportionately high percentage of African Americans live in poverty, and thus have limited housing options and lack health care or health insurance, or even air conditioning, they are more vulnerable to climate change and air pollution factors because they are less likely to have the resources necessary to mitigate problems that develop from climate change (and pollution).

If changes aren't made in Madison to improve air quality, the city and the surrounding area risk being "non-compliant" for ozone levels, which would result in stricter limits and mandatory testing of auto emissions, plus possibly higher gasoline prices because of the additives that would be needed to cut down on the ozone in the air. Adding capacity to the Madison area highways system, which the plan for a Verona Freeway and expanded West Beltline does, would be counter-productive to achieving improved air quality in Madison and maintaining compliance with the Clean Air Act requirements.

Contrary to assertions of the road building industry and other state highway building advocates, alternatives do exist to building multi-million dollar highway capacity expansions. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recommended the DOT consider transportation demand reduction (TDR) alternatives in its State Highway Plan 2020 back in May 1999. However, the DOT declined to investigate them, and instead recommended the construction of $20 billion highway improvement and expansion plan which has yet to be fully funded.

One of the TDR alternatives DNR recommended be further studied was a program that would offer people monetary incentives if they reduce their annual driving mileage. Instead of spending billions of public dollars (acquired through gasoline taxes and vehicle license fees) to design and construct multimillion dollar highway projects, this alternative would offer those same billions of dollars back to the public as financial incentives (monetary rewards, or "rebates") to drive less, or not at all.

The incentives would be high enough to really encourage people not to drive so much, but instead to carpool more frequently, take transit whenever possible, and walk or bicycle (to work, shop, study, etc.).

This plan might encourage communities in outlying suburban areas of Madison to team up and charter new, less polluting buses (individually or with other communities) which would cary Madison's commuters much more efficiently, rather than the present system of everybody driving separately. Each full bus would take 50 to 60 cars off the highway system and Madison's streets, going both ways; this would reduce the eventual need for the costly major urban highway expansions, and reduce the urban traffic pollution and the greenhouse gas emissions as well as the need for additional maintenance on the expanded highway system.

An example of how the plan would work is provided as follows:

A person voluntarily enrolls in the program by having the odometer of his vehicle read and recorded. After a year goes by, the person has the odometer read again, and if the odometer shows less than 6,000 miles for the preceding year, the person received a $400 check. If the odometer(s) shows less than 4,000 miles, the person receives $800. If the odometer(s) shows less that 2,000 miles, he receives a check for $1,200.

The amounts paid per mileage threshold could be set higher, or lower, based on the overall transportation budget level and the desired results. The main source of funding for the program would be the state highway fund--the portion of the fund that would have otherwise gone into highway expansion projects in Dane County. Once those funds ran out, the program could be phased out completely, as most people in Dane County would not be inclined to go back to their former fuel wasting driving patterns.

The plan would encourage people to choose locations for living that are closer to where they work, shop, and play, rather than choosing their residences at considerable distance from where they normally need to be, as is presently the case for many people who commute long distances to work.

This plan was initially offered as a state plan alternative in 1999, yet there is no reason why the plan could not be used by any county or region, with approval by the state. Adoption and implementation of this plan would help keep Dane County and the south central region's air healthy to breathe; it could significantly reduce the volume of motor vehicle traffic on incoming highways and city streets, thus improving traffic safety; and it would eliminate the need for costly and socially undesirable highway construction and expansion, such as the Verona Road Freeway and the West Beltline Expansion project in Dane County.

Michael T. Neuman