American Public May Support Higher Gas Taxes If….

Policymakers at the state and federal levels are struggling to find revenues to fund transportation projects, and a national survey of 1,519 adults produced by San Jose University’s Mineta Transportation Institute might provide some insight into strategy. (Although we believe that reducing government spending in other places would be a better place to start.) According to the survey:

“Research results show that 62 percent of respondents would support a gas tax increase of 10 cents per gallon to improve road maintenance. However, support levels dropped to just 24 percent if the revenues were to be used more generally to maintain and improve the transportation system. For tax options where the revenues were to be spent for undefined transportation purposes, support levels varied considerably by what kind of tax would be imposed, with a sales tax much more popular than either a gas tax increase or a new mileage tax.

“We also found that the very low support levels for a one-time gas tax increase or a new mileage tax can be raised by modifying how the tax is structured and the way it is described,” said Dr. Agrawal. “Dedicating the revenue to purposes popular with the public, spreading out the increase over several years, and providing information about how much the increase will cost drivers annually are all options for improving support levels.”

Linking a transportation tax to environmental benefits can strongly increase support, the survey revealed. For example, support for the mileage tax rose significantly when the flat-rate tax was converted to a tax with a rate that varied according to the vehicle’s pollution level.

This is consistent with other surveys and studies that have shown the general public is skeptical (cynical?) of proposals to raise taxes without a clear idea of where the money will go. The public simply doesn’t trust public officials to have the discretion to spend the money wisely, perhaps jaded by bridges and trains to nowhere.

Nevertheless, the specifics of the results of the survey appear to be quite informative and telling:

The poll also asked respondents about their priorities for government spending on transportation in their states. Close to two-thirds of respondents felt that governments should make it a high priority to maintain streets, roads, and highways, and more than half said the same about reducing accidents and improving safety. Also, almost half of respondents placed a high priority on reducing traffic congestion and expanding public transit service.

The survey compared public support for alternative versions of the mileage and gas taxes. The “base” cases tested against alternatives were a flat-rate mileage tax of one cent per mile and a 10-cents per gallon gas tax increase with no additional information given. All variants of these base cases increased the level of support significantly. For example, varying the mileage tax by the vehicle’s pollution level increased support by 14 percentage points. For the gas tax, dedicating the tax proceeds to maintaining streets, roads, and highways increased support by 38 percentage points over support for the base case version.

Notably, even congestion relief still makes it to the top of the priority list. The key is to convince the public the money will actually go to their priorities and not a someone else’s.