For the last seven years, researchers at the Mineta Transportation Institute have asked Americans what they think about the gas tax and other sources of funding for transportation. The results have been fairly consistent: Americans dislike the idea of hiking the gas tax by even a dime a gallon and dislike some of the widely discussed alternatives (like VMT fees) even more, but are willing to soften their opposition when the hike is tied to a specific transportation outcome.
But the real fun starts, as in many surveys on transportation policy these days, when you dig into the crosstabs. A closer look at who supports various tax options shines a light on the political stalemate that, among other challenges, is hampering America’s ability to adopt a 21st century approach to transportation.
Transportation has historically (and inaccurately) been described as operating on a “user fee” model of finance. Drivers pay a gas tax that varies in rough proportion to how much they drive. Revenues from the gas tax and other fees on drivers are directed toward building and fixing roads. In reality, nearly half of the funds used for roads come from sources other than highway users, with the proportion of non-user funding increasing over time.
The political problem at the heart of the user fee model is that the very people who have the most to gain from bigger or better highways – heavy drivers – are also those with the most to lose from increasing the gas tax that pays for those improvements. The result is that heavy drivers have a strong incentive as political actors to get someone – anyone – else to pay for the roads.
The Mineta survey results show this dynamic in action. The people who are most supportive of a 10-cent increase in the gas tax aren’t those who use the roads the most, but rather those who use them the least. Across all but one of the 10 funding alternatives polled by the Mineta Institute, those who drove the most miles were significantly less likely to support a tax or fee increase than those who drove little.
Support for 10 Cent Increase in Gas Tax, By Number of Miles Driven
The sole exception was the only funding option polled by the institute where payments did not correlate with highway use: a theoretical 0.5% national sales tax. 55% of heavy drivers, and 56% of all drivers, favored the sales tax; making the sales tax far more popular across all respondents than either a 10-cent gas tax (31%) or a flat-rate mileage fee (23%).
The sales tax also tended to be more broadly supported by those making less than $50,000 per year (59%), than those making $50,000-$100,000 (56%), or $100,000 and up (50%) – a paradoxical result given the regressive nature of sales taxes. Indeed, low-income people were more likely to support nearly all of the transportation funding options polled by the institute than high-income people (though the differences in support were not always statistically significant.)
Meanwhile, young people aged 18 to 24 were statistically more likely to support every tax option for transportation than older people, with the gap especially wide on options that dedicate gas tax revenue to environmental causes.
An incredible 84% of 18-to-24 year-olds supported a 10-cent gas tax increase with revenues dedicated to projects that reduce global warming, compared with 56% of 25-to-54 year-olds and 44% of those 55 years and up.
Support for 10 Cent Increase in Gas Tax Dedicated to Reducing Global Warming
All of this tells us a few things about the politics of transportation finance, circa 2016:
1) Those who benefit most from the highway investments made possible by the gas tax are the least willing to support them financially. This fact alone goes a long way toward explaining the longstanding political stalemate on transportation.
2) Increasing general taxes (e.g. the sales tax) to pay for transportation is more acceptable to most Americans than increasing highway “user fees” … even among those who would be most negatively affected by the switch, such as lower-income households and those who rarely or never drive.
3) Young Americans are broadly supportive of the kind of carbon tax-and-reinvest program for transportation that has been pioneered in California. The support of Millennials won’t be enough to make such a program – which can make an important contribution toward the development of a zero-carbon transportation system – pass muster in Congress, but it should be enough to reassure state governments who might want to follow California’s lead.
The latest survey results underscore the fact that the public neither understands nor is committed to the creation of a “user fee” system of transportation funding in the United States. The American people are far less concerned about whether the ledger of transportation income and outflows achieves balance than with achieving the results they seek: a safe, well-maintained and environmentally sustainable transportation system. The transportation finance system that gets us to that goal will likely look very different from the one that has led us to our current state of misinvestment and political stalemate.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.