Driving less could hurt the roads

HOUSTON Staggering numbers show we're driving far fewer miles, due mostly to high fuel costs. It's a big drop and it could have a big impact on all roads.

It makes sense now that gas costs more. We cut back. It's a real trend that is more pronounced than the last gas price spike in the 1970's. There have been seven months in a row of mileage decreases.

We found Lisa Cervantes in the middle of a two and a half hour one way commute on a METRO bus.

"I am not driving, I can barely make it so I am riding METRO," she told us.

The high price of gas forced her out of the car.

"I still own it, but it's parked," she said.

She is one of millions of Americans driving less. For the seventh month in a row, Americans drove fewer miles than the year before. There have been 29.8 billion fewer miles logged since January than the same time period in 2007.

METRO ridership is up 16% this year, but it's not just that, there's evidence we're cutting back on optional trips. Many of us even now drive more fuel efficient cars like the Toyota Prius. It is great for conservation, but believe it or not, it's awful for our highways.

"It is a funding crisis," said HCAG Transportation Planner Pat Waskowiak.

Out of every gallon of gas you buy, 38 and a half cents of it goes to the federal or state government in gas taxes. Most of that money is used to build or maintain our highways. So the less you drive, the less gas you buy and the less money the government has to spend on our roads.

"It's a problem," Cervantes said.

It sure is. Our region is growing, highways were planned to expand, but don't count on that money. The feds are already scaling back telling the state it needs to cut hundreds of millions this year alone.

"In real terms that's $650 million for the State of Texas that we were counting on receiving that we did not get," Waskowiak said.

But fear not, the government will get its money. And if you don't fund roads with the gas tax, you'll fund them with toll roads which is an option that doesn't depend on the gas tax. That is of course unless gas prices drop and drivers start driving more.

Cervantes says she would pick up her keys again if gas prices came down under $3 a gallon, but she is not sure that will ever happen again.

The gas tax shortfalls will bankrupt the federal highway fund next year and the state of Texas isn't doing much better. One of the immediate impacts is the Highway 290 reconstruction. It was going to be a huge project. The hundreds of millions in cut backs will scale that project way back.

Two other ride share programs, NuRide and Vanpooling are also up this year. The programs save millions of miles from being driven on area roads each year.

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