NEW YORK — Soaring fuel prices and other economic strains have led Americans to cut back sharply on driving, which is changing where they go and how they get there and jeopardizing the federal fund for highway construction and repairs.
Americans drove 9.6 billion fewer miles in May 2008 than in May 2007, according to federal data released Monday. The 3.7 percent decline was the third-largest monthly drop in the 66 years the Department of Transportation has been collecting the data.
The May decline also is the seventh monthly drop in a row. Since November 2007, Americans have driven 40.5 billion fewer miles compared to the same period a year earlier.
"People are choosing to drive less in the ways that they can," said Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration.
They're cutting the number of car trips they take, and they're walking, taking carpools and, sometimes, simply staying home instead.
Bob Mckenzie, a spokesman for the Nevada Department of Transportation, said driving is down throughout the state, especially at the borders where tourists usually stream to destinations like Las Vegas.
Volume at the eastbound crossing on I-15, which Southern California residents travel to get to Las Vegas is down 6 percent, he said.
And May's drop came in a month when traffic usually rises due to the Memorial Day holiday and the start of the summer vacation season.
But routine driving accounts for much of the decline.
Drivers turn to mass transit
In New Jersey, for example, drivers who've gotten out of their cars seem to be showing up on mass transit, where ridership is up 3 percent to 5 percent this year, said state transportation commissioner Kris Kolluri, who also runs New Jersey Transit.
Kolluri, who expects that surge to continue the rest of the fiscal year, said the system plans to add more double-decker trains to cope with the increase because it can't send more trains through the single tunnel under the Hudson River into New York.
"We are at capacity," Kolluri said.
But it's not all bad news in metropolitan areas.
"At least people who can't drive have an option," Kolluri said.
Yet the biggest declines are occurring in parts of the country where people don't have easy alternatives to driving, such as the central states, Hecox said.
Americans in those regions might be taking a harder hit from a variety of economic woes, such as the slumping housing market and soaring cost of food, Hecox said.
As a result of the drop, the federal highway trust fund — which relies on per-gallon taxes that don't rise with the price of fuel — faces a multibillion dollar shortfall next year, down from a surplus of more than $10 billion just three years ago.
No one expects traffic volume to bounce back anytime soon, if ever.
Gas tax not enough
But the drop was not unforeseen. In February, the Bush administration forecast a $3.2 billion shortfall in the trust fund for fiscal year 2009.
On Monday, transportation officials revised that number to $3.1 billion, despite logging a $1.5 billion decline in receipts.
"We've been spending more slowly than we contemplated when we put the budget together," explained Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters.
Peters said in a statement Monday that the drop in driving miles demonstrates that the federal gas tax is no longer sufficient to finance the nation's transportation infrastructure.
She plans on Tuesday to propose policies that will include a "more focused federal role" and a movement away from the gas tax.
"We must embrace more sustainable funding sources for highways and bridges through more sustainable and effective ways such as congestion pricing and private activity bonds," Peters said.
The highway trust fund gets 18.4 cents per gallon from gasoline sales and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel sales.
Up to the next president
Last week, the House approved by a veto-proof margin an $8 billion infusion into the highway trust fund for the fiscal year beginning in October.
Reps. Jerry Lewis of California and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, top Republicans on the appropriations and budget committees, have criticized the bill for redirecting funds from the general Treasury that should be used for other priorities.
The White House also opposes the move.
"It will absolutely increase the deficit," Peters said.
There may not be time for the Bush Administration to do much more, however, she said.
"Ultimately, the next president, the next administration, the next Congress will decide what to do," Peters said.
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