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It turns out, it’s all in how you ask the question.
Exhaustive proof of that is provided in the Mineta Transportation Institute’s fourth annual survey of public opinion about paying additional taxes to support transportation infrastructure. Released in late June, the report includes not only the results of MTI’s latest survey, but also a synopsis of more than 100 gas tax surveys done at the state, local and national level since 2005.
Generally, the surveys reveal a taxpaying public that will support a tax increase if it has a defined purpose that they value. Maintaining the condition of roads and bridges generally wins majority support and support from a wide spectrum of political and socio-economic segments of the population.
The newest MTI survey applies many of the implications of the previous studies to sample public opinion about 11 different transportation tax options, six of which won majority support. The study is intended to help government leaders craft transportation funding programs to win public support.
Researchers asked for public reaction to a 10-cent fuel tax increase with six different questions. When asked simply for their opinion on a 10-cent increase, only 23 percent of Americans approved. At the other end of the spectrum, when the proposition was a 10-cent increase “with revenues spent to maintain streets, roads and highways,” an impressive 67 percent of Americans said they strongly or somewhat supported the tax option.
Support was nearly as strong when the increase was attached to public safety; 62 percent supported a 10-cent increase in which revenues would be spent on projects to reduce accidents and improve safety. When the question stressed investment in “more modern, technology advanced systems,” support topped out at 58 percent, and when it focused on reducing local air pollution, support dropped to 53 percent.
Support for a 5-cent increase in the fuel tax with no defined focus for the revenues was supported by 51 percent, a slim majority. Presumably, support for a nickel increase would rise substantially with a defined benefit, such as investment in road, bridge and highway maintenance.
The study found surprisingly broad public support for transit. Some 80 percent of Americans felt that better transit was important for their states. That support becomes more complex when taxes and spending are introduced to the discussion: less than half of all Americans know of the federal government’s role in funding public transit. Most did not support increasing the fuel tax or transit fares to improve transit, but a significant majority, 64 percent, support spending current fuel tax revenues on transit.
If you want to see stronger government investment in road and bridge infrastructure, make sure your elected leaders and their key staff people see this study. Don’t just send it to them. Send it to them and ask them to discuss the findings with you in the context of your city, state and Congressional district.