Do Americans really favor tolls over fuel taxes?

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I’m not sure what to make of the latest Reason-Rupe poll of 1,000 U.S. adults concerning transportation issues, for it seems to me full of conflicting points of view. Then again, maybe that’s the real finding where this survey is concerned – that we don’t like the way things are in terms of highway funding, but that we remain quite divided on how to go about fixing it.

For starters, let’s just say that making broad assumptions about how some 200 million or so working-age American adults feel about transportation funding seems hard to achieve from a poll based on just 1,000 folks. But maybe that's just me.

Now, in terms of the survey’s findings themselves, Reason-Rupe reported that some 73% of those Americans polled believe the government spends existing transportation funding inefficiently, with just 21% thinking government handles transportation spending competently.

Nevertheless, some 46% of those polled think the federal government needs to spend more money on transportation infrastructure than it does today, with 30 % believing the federal government needs to spend about the same amount while 21% percent want the government to spend less.

But if we truly as a nation want to spend more on transportation infrastructure, where will the money come from? Not from higher fuel taxes, apparently, as Reason-Rupe found that 85% of those it polled are against raising federal fuel taxes.

Mileage-based user fees are often discussed as the future of transportation funding, but 72% of the respondents in the survey said they oppose eliminating the gas tax and replacing it with a fee based on the number of miles driven. Indeed, only 23% of those polled favor replacing fuel taxes with a mileage fee.

Then we get to the controversial issue of highway tolls. When asked about handling specific funding challenges – how to pay for needed roadway and bridge repairs, or how to fund the expansion of existing Interstate highway system – some 58% of those polled said say they'd rather pay for those projects with tolls, while 32% would prefer to pay for them by raising the fuel tax.

Now, Reason-Rupe’s survey doesn’t seem to delve into whether such favoritism for tolls means American’s are A-OK with more toll booths popping up on highways across the U.S. Now, certainly, even if more tolling locations were required in order to beef up transportation-focused monies, electronic tolls and not old-fashion traffic-clogging toll booths might be what gets installed.

In trucking’s case, a preponderance of tolls often convinces many drivers to give up wider, faster-moving highways in favor of narrower local roads simply because no toll booths are located on them. Not necessarily the best economic choice, but then highway tolls don’t always revolve solely around economics when the human urge to reach the end of a journey kick's into high gear.

(I should know, having suffered through many a toll-booth-induced traffic jam at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland for unnumbered years.)

One factoid gleaned from Reason-Rupe’s survey, though does ring very true from where I sit.  When asked to choose their top priority for transportation spending, a majority of those polled chose highways and streets, though a sizeable slice favored public transit for the top slot.

Some 55% want to prioritize highways and streets, 38% believed transit systems should come first, while only a measly 5% put bicycle and walking trails atop the transportation spending priority list.

Those findings, at least, don’t surprise me one bit.

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