Study finds that linking increased transportation tax to environmental or other specific benefits increases American’s support for higher transportation taxes
24 June 2011
A national phone survey by the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) found that a majority of Americans would support higher taxes for transportation, under certain conditions. The survey results show that 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.
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, the findings suggest. Linking a transportation tax to environmental benefits can strongly increase support. As an example, support for the mileage tax rose significantly when a flat-rate tax was converted to a tax with a rate that varied according to the vehicle’s pollution level.
The 24% support for a $0.10 per gallon gas tax hike with no information given rose to 45% if the incremental revenue was to be spent on reducing global warming and 48% if the revenue was to be spent on reducing local air pollution.
As another example, 62% of respondents would support a gas tax increase of $0.10 per gallon to improve road maintenance. However, support levels dropped to 24% 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.
This survey is the second year of a project to assess how public support for federal transportation taxes may change over time; most of the questions asked are identical to ones included in a 2010 survey.
Comparing the results from 2010 and 2011 shows that American public opinion about the taxes polled has changed little in the past year. The 2011 survey found Americans just as willing to support tax increases for transportation as they were in 2010.
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 $0.01 per mile and a $0.10 per gallon gas-tax increase with no additional information given. All variants of these base cases increased the level of support significantly.
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The survey was conducted because policy makers are investigating possible methods for raising new revenues for transportation. Revenues currently available from state and federal gas taxes have fallen significantly over the past decades, especially in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars per mile traveled.
Taxes are levied on a per-gallon basis rather than per dollar spent. With more fuel-efficient vehicles, less revenue is generated per gallon. At the same time, the US transportation system requires critical and expensive system upgrades. We wanted to explore what funding options Americans might support in a time when new taxes are generally unpopular.—Dr. Hilary Nixon, co-author
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 and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University conducted the national, random-digit-dial telephone survey of 1,519 adults from 1 March to 6 April 2011, on behalf of MTI's National Transportation Finance Center. Interviews were conducted in either English or Spanish, and respondents were reached on both land-line and cell phone numbers.
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