DALLAS - A significant majority of Americans would support increases in the federal gasoline tax if the revenues are spent on highway projects, according to the latest nationwide poll in a multi-year series of studies by a transportation think tank.
The June 2014 report by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University in California summarized the results from the fifth year of a public opinion poll. The survey found that 69% supported a 10 cent increase in the 18.4 cent per gallon federal gasoline tax if the revenues are dedicated to road maintenance.
Support for a gas tax increase fell to 51% if the aim of the higher tax is to reduce global warming and dwindled to 25% if the additional revenues are used for general, unspecified transportation system improvements, said Asha Weinstein Agrawal, principal investigator for the polling effort and director of MTI's National Transportation Finance Center.
The generally accepted belief that Americans would not support any kind of new transportation tax or tax increase does not reflect reality, Agrawal said.
"The results from all five years of this survey have shown that people will support new or increased taxes under certain conditions," she said. "For example, they prefer that the funds are specified for particular purposes, such as transportation infrastructure maintenance, safety enhancements, and addressing environmental issues."
Over the past several decades, the MTI study said, revenues from state and federal gas taxes have fallen significantly, especially in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars per mile traveled. At the same time, a large portion of the interstate highway system requires extensive and expensive repairs and upgrades.
"This dilemma of growing needs and shrinking revenues can be resolved in only two ways," the study synopsis said. "Either the nation must dramatically lower its goals for system preservation and enhancement, or new revenues must be raised.
"If the latter is to happen, legislators must be convinced that increasing taxes or fees is politically feasible," the study said.
Eleven specific tax options were tested in the telephone survey involving 1,503 respondents, including variations on raising the federal gas tax rate, creating a new mileage tax, and creating a new federal sales tax.
A federal sales tax dedicated to transportation was more popular than an increase in federal gas and diesel taxes if those polled were told only what type of tax would be levied rather than where the money would go, Agrawal said.
Almost 49% said they would support an 0.5% federal sales tax dedicated to unspecified transportation needs, MTI said, while only 25% favor a gas tax hike under the same condition and 19% support a flat road fee of 1 cent per mile traveled.
Almost two-thirds of the respondents agreed that current gas tax revenues could help fund transit projects, but most did not support an increase in taxes or fares to improve public transit systems.
Results of the MTI survey track those of a similar poll released earlier this month by AAA that said 52% of voters surveyed were willing to pay up to an additional $10 per month of federal gasoline tax to improve roads, bridges, and mass transit systems. The average American motorist currently pays $8 per month in federal fuel taxes, AAA said.
Several congressmen have proposed increases in federal gas and diesel taxes to bolster the rapidly depleting Highway Trust. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that each 1 cent of the gasoline tax generates about $1.5 billion a year.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said he will push for a 12 cent per gallon increase in the fuel taxes when the Senate Finance Committee meets next week to consider stop-gap legislation aimed at keeping the highway fund solvent through December 2014. The higher rate would be phased in over three years, said Carper, a member of the Finance Committee and chairman of the transportation subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Senators Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., have proposed a 12 cent per gallon increase in federal fuel taxes over two years that would generate an additional $18 billion in the first full year and $164 billion over 10 years.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., has introduced a bill in the House raising the federal gasoline tax by 15 cents per gallon, phased in over three years.