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Surveys Show Americans Prefer Tolls Over Tax Increases

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The latest Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey asked six questions about transportation policy. The most newsworthy results came from the question about Interstate modernization. The question read as follows: “To pay for repairing and expanding Interstate highways, would you rather raise the gas tax or pay tolls when you drive on them?” Some 58% selected “pay tolls,” compared with 32% choosing “raise gas tax,” with the rest undecided or refused.

Because the Reason Foundation’s transportation policy research favors toll financing, a few critics implied that the result must reflect some sort of bias. But like all the previous public opinion surveys carried out by Reason-Rupe (funded by the Rupe Foundation), the survey was conducted by a respected polling firm, in this case Princeton Survey Research Associates. They interviewed 1,000 adults, 500 by cell phone and 500 by landlines August 6-10, 2014. The poll’s margin of sampling error is +/-3.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The full poll results are online at

Other transportation results were that 46% of respondents favor greater infrastructure investment (vs. 21% saying less and 30% saying about the same), 73% think the government spends existing transportation money inefficiently, and 58% think the top priority should be highways (vs. 38% mass transit and 5% bicycle lanes and trails).

The tolling results are consistent with the findings of a series of “America THINKS” surveys on transportation carried out on behalf of HNTB Corporation in recent years. In the latest of these, released last month, on the question of paying for new roads, 46% of respondents preferred tolling compared with 25% for a gas tax increase and 28% saying don’t build new roads. Tolling was also the most popular option when people were asked about spending more for long-term transportation improvements. And 74% of respondents said they would choose to use priced managed lanes for certain trips, if such lanes were available to them.

These recent results are broadly in line with the findings of a 2008 Transportation Research Board synthesis report, on whose oversight panel I sat. It reviewed 10 years of survey research data on transportation funding related to tolling and road pricing. Its broad conclusion was that “the public favors tolls if the alternative is taxes,” as lead researcher Johanna Zmud summarized the report, Compilation of Public Opinion Data on Tolls and Road Pricing (NCHRP Synthesis 377, Transportation Research Board, 2008).

My explanation for these findings is as follows. Given general public opinion that government spends existing transportation money inefficiently, when people are asked to pay higher taxes (especially to the federal government), the only thing they can be sure of is that they will pay more; they are very skeptical that any of the new money will be spent on something that makes their own travel better. But if they support toll financing of new projects, they understand that they will only pay more if (1) a project is built that they could actually use, and (2) the toll represents a good value.

The trucking industry’s anti-tolls group—Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates—tried to cast doubt on the validity of the Reason-Rupe toll findings by pointing out that the same respondents opposed the option of replacing the gas tax with a mileage-based user fee (MBUF). The implication was that respondents should not be taken seriously, since they did not understand that a per-mile charge is essentially a toll.

But that is risible, because the national media have equated mileage-based user fees with Big Brother tracking where and when everyone drives, via a mandated GPS box in every vehicle. Until the transportation community dispels that very misleading idea, survey respondents will continue to oppose MBUFs while supporting tolling over tax increases.

(This article first ran in Surface Transportation Innovation, August issue.)

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