Americans, even in rural areas, overwhelmingly favor expanding public transportation such as rail or bus transit rather than highway construction, which traditionally has received much more funding, according to a recent national poll.
The results should be instructive to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as it drafts its version of a multi-year bill, argued Transportation for America, a coalition of transportation, housing, environmental, and other groups that commissioned the poll and released its results last week.
Transportation for America is pushing for multi-year legislation that would: increase options; create a unified trust fund for rail, freight, highway, transit, and other investments; and give states, regions and cities more direct funding and greater control over project selection, while holding them to a set of measurable goals.
The poll of 800 registered voters, conducted in late February and early March, found that most voters supported twice the current levels of federal funding to be spent on public transportation, which can include rail or bus transit partly financed through issuance of municipal bonds.
“When thinking about federal funding for public transportation, solid majorities clearly indicate they do not feel that current allocations are appropriate,” the polling firms wrote in a memo summarizing the data.
Almost 70% of those polled said their community would benefit from expanded public transportation. More than 80% said the whole nation would benefit from it. But only 19% said they had actually used a bus, ferry, or train during the preceding month, and almost half of those voters who had not used such modes of transportation said they simply have no access to them.
The findings also suggest public support in areas for transportation methods that historically have been more common in metropolitan areas.
Nearly four-fifths of voters polled in rural areas and small towns said the U.S. would benefit from an “expanded and improved public transportation system, such as rail and buses.”
However, voters in rural areas were less likely than those in metro areas to support more public transportation.
Additionally, only 50% of rural voters said more funding should be allocated to public transportation.
Acknowledging that the poll shows a decline over last year in support for public transportation over traditional roads-based spending, David Metz of the Democratic polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, also called FM3, said that voters still want the federal government to change its preference for road-based transportation.
Despite a nearly 10% shift in preference to roads over transit, the poll “still shows an overwhelming sentiment on one side of the equation, which really harmonizes with the rest of the data in saying that voters feel that priorities right now are tilted too far towards roads,” he said.
Jeff Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Smart Growth America, speculated that some of the shift may be due to gas price fluctuations. Gas prices were higher last year when the poll was conducted.
Over the next several weeks, the coalition will be announcing some “imaginative funding resources and ideas that have not been tried before” that would pay for transportation projects, said John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Miss., and president and CEO of Reconnecting America, a pro-transit group.
The poll was jointly conducted by FM3 and the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies.