Public Still Favors Transportation User Fees over Tax Increases

Voters in Missouri yesterday rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have imposed a 0.75 percent sales tax to fund transportation, with nearly 60 percent opposing a plan that would have increased annual state road funding by approximately $500 million. User fee advocates and progressive activists strongly opposed the measure, arguing that it was less efficient than direct and indirect user charges, and unfair for low-income urban residents to pay for the road use of wealthier households and businesses. These concerns have merit and supporters of sound transportation policy should applaud Missouri’s voters.

Yesterday also saw the release of new polling data from GfK and the Associated Press on questions related to transportation funding. While it has been noted that the public appears skeptical of the options presented (raise federal fuel excise tax rates, enter into public-private partnerships, devolve federal responsibility to the states, expand tolling), opposition to gas tax increases was the greatest, with 58 percent of respondents saying no. The full results are below:

Here are some ways to pay for transportation projects, such as highway construction, improvements to roads and bridges, and maintenance of public roads. For each, please indicate if you support, oppose or neither support nor oppose it as a way to fund such projects. 

  Support Neither support 
nor oppose
Oppose Refused/
Not answered
1) Raise federal gasoline taxes from their current levels 
of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents 
per gallon of diesel fuel
14 26 58 2
2) Have private companies pay for construction of new 
roads and bridges in exchange for the right to charge 
17 35 46 2
3) Turn the responsibility for paying for such projects 
over to state and local governments
30 46 22 3
4) Replace federal gas and diesel taxes with taxes 
based on how many miles a vehicle is driven
20 37 40 3

In addition, after being told by pollsters that 20 percent of driver tax revenue is currently diverted to mass transit, only about a quarter of respondents supported increasing transit’s share of road user revenue.

These results are not particularly surprising. Previous opinion polling has found that Americans strongly oppose fuel tax increases while being more supportive of enhanced local control and direct user charges, such as tolling. Despite this, most transportation funding debates around the country are mired in debates over gas tax increases non-user charges. Congress just last week bailed out the Highway Trust Fund again with budget gimmicks and general revenue raids, yet still forbids most states from tolling their Interstate segments for reconstruction purposes. CEI has long supported ending this prohibition.

Fortunately, this unsustainable status quo may be breaking down. The president’s surface transportation reauthorization proposal, the GROW AMERICA Act, includes a provision that would allow the secretary of transportation to approve Interstate tolling for reconstruction purposes. While the White House plan has little chance of becoming law, some elements will likely find their way into whatever reauthorization package Congress eventually passes. We hope Congress seriously considers including the president’s tolling provision in its highway bill.

Much of the public is skeptical of new transportation spending. This is completely understandable due to decades of fiscal mismanagement. Policy makers must first restore trust if they expect the public to pony up more of their hard-earned cash. Enhancing transparency of how funds are collected and disbursed, and eliminating trust fund diversions to non-road projects, would go a long way. Allowing states the option to toll their Interstate segments, which would provide drivers with real-time usage prices, and preventing trust fund raids whether from the education lobby or transit lobby appears to be something the broader public can support. The real question is, will the people’s representatives listen to the people?