Survey results issued this week by transportation firm HNTB Corp. spotlights misperceptions about transportation finance.
The report appears to validate some market participants' concerns that a long-term surface transportation reauthorization will be tough to sell to the public, especially after enactment of the $787 billion stimulus package, which will provide states and localities with transportation funding.
The nationwide poll of about 1,000 people of voting age was conducted online by a public opinion research firm during the last week of January, almost three weeks before President Obama signed the stimulus package into law yesterday.
About 60% of respondents said they were either not very confident or not at all confident that the taxes they were paying were being used well to build roads in their areas. And almost half of people surveyed said they believed state governments should bear the most responsibility for planning and funding transportation projects - instead of the federal or city governments. The report on the survey said that "while the general public is ready for sacrifice, misinformation, mistrust, and a lack of vision could threaten long-term transportation funding."
The finding comes as Congress must draft new legislation to replace the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU, which expires Sept. 30. Lobbying groups are pushing for the reauthorization to redesign how highways, bridges, transit, and rail are funded.
The current highway trust fund is currently supported almost entirely by gasoline and diesel fuel taxes and provides highway funding allocations to state transportation departments based on a formula. The fund ran dry late last year and, although Congress provided it with more money, it is expected to run dry again before the end of the fiscal year.
The group urged political leaders to educate the public on a looming transportation finance crisis that lawmakers are struggling to fix while traditional methods of revenue become less reliable.
Just last week, Congress voted to dedicate about 3.5% of the total $787 billion stimulus package to highway funding. While lawmakers lauded its ability to create jobs in various infrastructure sectors, HNTB spokesman John O'Connell said the large price tag could result in "public fatigue" and lost momentum heading into the reauthorization of the nation's transportation funding bill.
"As an average citizen, I might think, 'Didn't I just pay for this?' " O'Connell said.
But transportation stakeholders and lawmakers could rally support for additional funding.
"The stimulus bill, while it adds money for infrastructure, I don't think it will necessarily get in the way of reauthorization or expansions of investment if we can make a compelling case," said Jack Basso, director of management and business development for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "The public's fatigued with people spending money on things they don't need."
When asked specifically about infrastructure spending in the economic stimulus package, about 60% of those that responded to the HNTB survey said highway and bridge maintenance and construction was most important to them, followed by public transit and airport improvements - corresponding with spending levels given to each of the sectors in the stimulus plan.
At the same time, almost half of those surveyed said they thought gas tax revenues would be sufficient to properly maintain roads and bridges, suggesting limited support for major changes to federal highway funding laws. Advocates of new transportation funding sources such as tolling and public-private partnerships have said the gas tax provides insufficient revenues for highway funding, especially when rising construction materials costs are taken into account.
One in five of those polled in the HNTB survey said they do not support tolling, congestion pricing, increased gas tax or new user fees - indicating resistance to the idea of more private investment or user-fee based revenues that lawmakers may attempt to write into the next transportation authorization.
The poll also concluded that more than 40% of people think it takes five years or less to design and build a major infrastructure project, when an airport runway can take up to 20 years, O'Connell said.
"While the general public is ready for sacrifice, we must address misinformation, mistrust and a lack of vision," said Paul Yarossi, president of HNTB Holdings Ltd. "A long-term formula for success must include multiple modes of transportation with multiple forms of funding."
In a broader assessment of public opinion on transportation funding, the survey's results corroborated a report issued last month by the group Building America's Future. Both surveys showed an overwhelming majority of Americans are concerned about the nation's infrastructure.
Attitudes toward highway funding varied at the regional level, however. Northeastern residents were more likely than the national average to believe that federal and state gas taxes are not enough to maintain their roads and bridges, and more Midwesterners than the national average said U.S. roads are in worse condition than elsewhere in the world. Those on the West Coast looked more favorably than average on public transit, and those in the South were more satisfied than average with their roadways.