Another sign of a better economy? Americans rack up the miles faster than ever

Construction on the Capital Beltway, Interstate 495, at Tysons Corner, Va., in April 2012.
Construction on the Capital Beltway, Interstate 495, at Tysons Corner, Va., in April 2012. McClatchy

U.S. drivers set a record for miles driven the first nine months of the year, likely the result of lower gasoline prices and an improving economy.

Americans drove 2.4 trillion miles this year through September, according to the Federal Highway Administration, an increase over the 2.35 trillion miles they drove in the first nine months of 2015.

According to AAA, U.S. drivers paid the second-lowest price for gasoline over Thanksgiving weekend since 2008, an average $2.13 a gallon.

And Friday, the Labor Department said the national unemployment rate had fallen to 4.6 percent, the lowest since 2007.

Only last year did Americans drive more miles than they did before the Great Recession, a total of 3.1 trillion, and this year’s 12-month number is projected to exceed that.

The new numbers come at a time of increasing consensus on U.S. infrastructure needs.

A year ago, Congress approved the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act, a $305 billion, five-year authorization for U.S. infrastructure.

President-elect Donald Trump has proposed an ambitious $1 trillion, 10-year infrastructure plan. It isn’t yet clear how the proposal would be paid for, nor whether the Republican-majority House of Representatives and Senate would support it.

Until a decade ago, federal gasoline taxes supported programs to build and maintain roads, bridges and transit systems. But the per-gallon tax on gasoline has been stuck at the same level, 18.4 cents a gallon, since 1993. In the meantime, cars and trucks have become more fuel-efficient, and the cost of construction materials has risen.

Miles driven by cars, trucks and buses increased in all regions of the country, though like the economic recovery of the past several years, not evenly.

The 13-state Western region, including California, Washington and Idaho, posted the biggest gain in miles driven, at 5.5 percent.

The 12-state north-central region, encompassing much of the economically struggling Rust Belt, posted the lowest increase, at 1.6 percent.

Idaho posted the largest year-on-year increase in miles driven among the 50 states, at 5.7 percent.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis