Public Wants Toll Money to Reduce Congestion

A survey out by HNTB (August 9, 2011) provides an interesting and more nuanced perspective on how policymakers should think about public perceptions of tolling and toll revenue. Many politicians refuse to consider adding tolls to existing highways, believing that the political backlash would effectively sink their career. The HNTB survey of 1,000 Americans in May, 2011, however, discovered that the American public is primarily interested in raising money to reduce congestion, apparently regardless of whether the purpose is for new construction or fixing current road infrastructure.

While raising new money for roads is unpopular regardless of how the question is asked, previous HNTB research showed that tolls were preferable to increasing taxes to pay for roads and highways. A survey from July 22, 2010 found:

Asked where they would be willing to spend more money to support long-term transportation improvements in their area, Americans ranked tolling ahead of other options, with nearly four in 10 (39 percent) choosing additional road and bridge tolls versus additional public transportation fees (29 percent), vehicle registration fees (23 percent), sales taxes (20 percent), gas taxes (18 percent), income taxes (11 percent) or property taxes (9 percent).

So, the surveyors asked another, more nuanced question this time around: If tolls were used to raise new funds, how should toll money be used? Forty-two percent said tolls should be used to reduce congestion, 29 percent said tolls should be used to improve existing highways, 15 percent said tolls should be used to build new highways, and 15 percent said tolls should be used to maintain existing highways. This is slightly different from the previous 2010 survey which found that 47 percent believed tolls should be used primarily to raise transportation revenue and just 25 percent thought the revenue should be used for congestion reduction.

This suggests that traffic congestion is becoming a hot topic once again, and an increasing share of the American public is willing to find revenue to fund it as long as its dedicated to their priorities.

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.