Kansans driving less, and in more fuel-efficient cars

06/19/2012 12:00 AM

06/19/2012 9:02 AM

People are driving less in Wichita, Sedgwick County and Kansas, reflected in traffic counts and in a directive to the Kansas Department of Transportation to study the long-term feasibility of relying on motor fuel taxes to fund the state’s highways.

When people drive less, they buy less fuel, which certainly has affected KDOT, its spokeswoman said.

“It’s an issue that all states are aware of as well as motor fuel taxes are going down,” said Sally Lunsford, director of public affairs for KDOT. “And of course, they are the primary mechanism for funding our state highway system, so it’s a concern.”

Lunsford said motor fuel taxes are flat because people are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles but also because people are driving less.

Traffic counts are down in Wichita and Sedgwick County, although only slightly, probably no more than 2 to 3 percent, traffic engineers say. The economy is likely a major factor in the decrease.

“People are not making discretionary trips as much,” said county traffic engineer Mark Borst. Instead, they are combining errands, he thinks. “The necessary trips — the grocery store, school, work — I think that’s all what it was. It’s the discretionary trips. It’s just like the dollar. The discretionary dollar is not there as much.”

The number of miles driven each day in Sedgwick County was down last year from 2010, state records show. The transportation department shows 11,988,353 miles driven each day in 2011 compared with 12,387,707 five years before in 2006. In 2010, the number of miles driven each day in the county was 12,029,363.

Statewide, the number of miles driven each day last year was 82,250,374 compared with 83,137,912 in 2006. In 2010, the number of miles driven each day in Kansas was 81,916,438.

Traffic counts usually increase — even if only slightly — year to year, Borst said.

“For the most part, traffic goes up a little bit because theoretically our population goes up,” he said.

Borst and public works director David Spears noticed that traffic in the county was down slightly, when they began looking at the impact of traffic to and from the state-owned Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane.

While traffic is up on county portions of roads such as Hydraulic and Broadway that lead to the casino, “countywide overall you’ll see a little bit of a decline,” Borst said. “Hydraulic is up, that makes sense. Broadway is up, that makes sense.”

But as for traffic counts being down on other roads, “I didn’t expect to see that,” he said.

The city of Wichita also has seen a decline in traffic counts.

For example, the intersection with the most traffic last year was Kellogg and Webb with 58,295 vehicles a day passing through it. In 2007, 59,912 vehicles passed through the east-side intersection.

The city’s 10 busiest intersections change over the years. Work on the Kellogg flyover has changed traffic patterns.

Traffic counts for the top 10 intersections last year totaled 480,953 compared with 508,994 in 2007, data from the city shows.

“We’ve seen that, yes,” city traffic engineer Paul Gunzelman said about a slight decline in traffic. “To be honest, we think a part of it is that maybe the counters we had before weren’t as accurate.”

But he also agreed with Borst that “people are maybe combining trips. I think KDOT has seen the same trend.”

Gunzelman said the city tries to measure traffic at least once every two years. It tries not to track traffic during construction projects.

The county measures traffic every two years as well, in even-numbered years.

Turnpike increase

The Kansas Turnpike Authority has seen passenger traffic go up slightly, said president and CEO Michael Johnston.

“Our organic growth of this year is in the 1 to 2 percent range,” Johnston said. “In recent times, we’ve had some years when we had declines. 2008 declined from 2007, for example. Our traffic has recovered substantially from the pre-recession level with the exception of commercial traffic. We’ve only seen about half of that come back.”

He said passenger traffic this year looks to be “slightly better” than last year. The Mulvane casino is a factor, he said.

“The casino adds about 2 to 3 percent additional traffic on a daily average basis, so it is significant,” he said of overall Turnpike traffic.

Leif Holliday, a traffic and field operations engineer for KDOT, said traffic statewide in 2007 dropped back to where it had been five to eight years before.

“Traffic has grown just a little bit every year, usually 1 to 3 percent annually,” he said. “At that point, it plummeted.”

Traffic last year wasn’t quite back to where it had been, he said.

Jeannine Koranda, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Revenue, said that motor fuel taxes “have been flat for a number of years, and the expectation is they will remain so as fuel costs continue to rise and motor vehicles become more fuel-efficient.”

Wichita resident Karen Cundiff lives on the city’s west side. Her children go to school on the east side, and she works downtown.

“That’s why I have a Prius,” she said while getting fuel Friday for her hybrid vehicle near Douglas and Hillside. Her Toyota Prius gets 46 to 48 miles per gallon, she said. She got it at the end of 2010.

She said she also tries to be cognizant of where she needs to go to combine trips but admits she drives “a lot.”

Lunsford, the KDOT spokeswoman, noted that House Bill 2455, which will go into effect July 1, was in direct response to the trend.

The law directs KDOT to engage the public and stakeholders “about the long-term feasibility of relying on the motor fuel tax as the primary mechanism of funding the state’s highway maintenance and construction program.”

The department is to report what it finds and make recommendations to the governor and Legislature by Jan. 1, 2014.

Motor fuel taxes are “a biggie for us,” Lunsford said. “We’re looking at what other states are considering.”

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