Public Favors Tolling Over Taxes If….

A raging debate exists in the U.S. about whether tolling should become more important in funding transportation infrastructure. Many politicians, including Congressmen and governors, insist the public is opposed to tolling and, its cousin, road pricing. The presumption is that Americans prefer taxes to direct user fees. A synthesis of 110 surveys, polls, and focus groups by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Science (NCHRP Synthesis No. 377), however, finds the opposite: Majorities of Americans consistently support tolling and road pricing over raising taxes. But, their support is conditional. The conclusion from the summary is worth reprinting:

These eight themes were consistent regardless of the public polled, the type of road pricing project, region of the United States, or other potentially discriminating factors.

1. The public wants to see the value. When a concrete benefit is linked to the idea of tolling or charging for road usage (e.g., reducing congestion on a specific highly congested facility) as opposed to tolling in the abstract, public support is higher. It is important to articulate benefits as they pertain to individuals, to communities, and to society as a whole.

2. The public wants to react to tangible and specific examples. When public opinion is measured in the context of a specific project as opposed to a general principle, the level of support is higher. In the former context, road pricing is perceived of as a “choice” rather than as punishment. This is the likely reason that low-income individuals generally support tolling and road pricing. Regardless of their economic circumstances, they appreciate having the choice of paying to use uncongested lanes or roadways.

3. The public cares about the use of revenues. Use of tolling revenues is a key determinant to the acceptance or rejection of tolling and road pricing. Revenues should be linked to specific uses not to specific agencies. Support tends to be higher when revenues are used for highway infrastructure, public transit improvements, or more rapidly completing necessary construction.

4. The public learns from experience. Support from a majority of citizens often cannot be expected from the outset. When the opportunity to use a tolled facility already exists, public support is higher than when it is simply a possibility for the future. Building support is a long-term, continuous process that should not stop after implementation.

5. The public uses knowledge and available information. When opinion is informed by objective explanation of the conditions and mechanics of tolling and its pros and cons, public support is higher than when there is no context for how tolling works. This factor may explain why members of the public may express negative opinions about tolling or road pricing as theoretical constructs but will use a priced facility when it opens.

6. The public believes in equity but wants fairness. Public opposition of tolling is higher where there is perceived unfairness. This aspect relates to why having an alternative costfree route is so important or why support is generally higher for tolling new facilities than for tolling existing facilities. The public needs to be reassured that the government is not treating them unfairly. In terms of equity, there is general agreement that decisions to use or not use a priced facility revolve around people’s needs and preferences. Everyone, regardless of who they are or where they live, benefits from having a choice.

7. The public wants simplicity. When the mechanics of tolling or other user fee programs are simple and clear and therefore easy to understand, public support is higher than in situations where there is a high level of complexity in how pricing should be applied. Opposition is generally lower for the simplest proposals and increases as proposals become more complex.

The public favors tolls over taxes. Although there are isolated instances of groups preferring tax increases over tolling, most individuals prefer tolling over taxes. With toll revenues, the public is more assured of getting their fair share, because revenues are generated and applied locally. Also, tolling represents freedom of choice; only users pay.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.