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Is Raising the Gas Tax Truly Politically Unpalatable?

It's conventional wisdom in Washington that voters won't support a gas tax hike or a vehicle miles traveled fee. A new study suggests that long-held belief is wrong.

As the surface transportation bill nears its expiration next year, you can expect to hear plenty of discussion about how, exactly, the feds will pay for transit and highways in FY 2015 and beyond. The issue, after all, is poised to be a salient one.

Last year, when Congress passed the two-year highway and transit bill, it relied on some accounting tricks to maintain level funding. But accounting wizardry won't work when the bill expires next year. At some point in 2015, the Highway Trust Fund will no longer have the funding it needs to meet all of its obligations, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, so that leaves few options for federal lawmakers. They'll either have to bail out the Highway Trust Fund yet again -- an idea that wasn't viewed favorably in the Republican-controlled House last year -- or find a way to increase revenue, which essentially means raising taxes.

Many transportation advocates have argued that it's high time for federal lawmakers to do the latter. But that's easier said than done. Ideas like increasing the gas tax, indexing it to inflation or switching to a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee haven't gained much traction with lawmakers.

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Indeed, the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn't been increased since 1993. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that increasing the gas tax is unpopular with voters and thus politically unpalatable. And you can't blame lawmakers for taking that view. A new Gallup poll released today finds that two-thirds of Americans would vote against a hypothetical state gas tax increase.

A VMT fee -- often decried as a "driving tax" -- is seen as even more of a political hot potato. At a time when gas prices are high and many Americans are still reeling in the wake of the recession, the idea of increasing the cost of driving is seen as a political loser. But maybe it shouldn't be.

Asha Weinstein Agrawal, chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at San Jose State University in California, has spent years tracking public opinion about gas taxes and other instruments used to pay for transportation infrastructure. Her latest annual survey, now in its third iteration, asks respondents to indicate their opinion on 11 hypothetical federal tax options for paying for transportation, including variations of a gas tax hike, a mileage fee and a national sales tax.

Earlier this year, she presented her findings at the Transportation Research Board, the field's annual mega-conference in Washington, D.C. Her survey found that 58 percent of Americans say they would support a 10-cent increase in the gas tax in order to maintain streets, roads and highways, and 54 percent say they would support the same tax if it were used to reduce accidents and improve safety.

"I'd argue that it doesn't seem like the public is as opposed to these taxes as our elected officials and a lot of the pundits might say," says Agrawal, who also serves as director of the National Transportation Finance Center at the school's federally supported Mineta Transportation Institute.

While the results may run counter to the conventional thinking in Washington, they do underscore a tenant that most policymakers are well aware of: When voters know what they're getting in exchange for a tax hike, they're more likely to support it.

Agrawal's experience exploring the intersection between public opinion and transportation funding began as part of a project she did for the California Department of Transportation that included polling data on various funding proposals. In the course of her research, she discovered Californians would be more likely to support various revenue options if they had a "green" angle attached to them. She applied that thinking to the idea of federal taxes and realized people would actually support paying more for transportation if they got more details.

Meanwhile, the opposite trends holds true too: Vague plans don't tend to get as much buy-in. In the latest study, when voters were asked whether they simply supported a 10-cent gas tax increase to support transportation -- without any further details about where the funds would go -- support was a paltry 20 percent. "What this means to me is, if we want to have a tax that's politically acceptable, we need think carefully about what it's used for and how it's described and framed," Agrawal says. "We shouldn't just write off all taxes."

Agrawal's results also found surprising support for a VMT fee. While the fee is the favored policy remedy of many who study transportation finance, it's often viewed as even more politically unpalatable than a gas tax hike, in part because of the assumption that Americans wouldn't want the government knowing their driving tendencies. "The general wisdom has been [that VMT fees] are terribly unpopular, that there's no way we can go there," Agrawal says. While the survey did find low support for a 1 cent-per-mile VMT fee -- just 21 percent were in favor of it -- the support grew to 41 percent when it was pitched as an average 1 cent-per-mile fee that would vary depending on how much pollution a driver's car produced. "To me, the fact that a mileage tax could be tolerable to about half the population is quite striking and goes against the conventional wisdom," she says.

Another interesting tidbit from the study: Americans don't necessarily know much about how transportation funding works. This year, a new component of the questionnaire was added to help gain insight on Americans' attitudes and knowledge of transit. Only 42 percent of those surveyed knew that the federal government helps pay for transit. That's striking, since in many cases the feds pick up half or more of a local transit project's capital costs. The lesson for the feds may be that if they want Americans to support federal transportation taxes, they need to do a better job educating Americans on how projects get funded.

Agrawal's survey is worth paying attention to for a few reasons. She has a big sample -- around 1,500 respondents -- and she's been doing it for three years (the fourth iteration of the annual survey will be released in June). Unlike other surveys that ask about more specific proposals, often based on state legislation, Agrawal's report covers a range of policy solutions, giving it broader applicability. Over time, support of each of those proposals has remained about the same, which suggests her numbers are pretty reliable.

Agrawal concedes the survey likely won't be revolutionary to anyone who knows transportation policy well. "They realize the public is not so opposed [to transportation taxes], and that the gridlock is in Washington," Agrawal says. Adding, "they haven't necessarily seen the evidence." Perhaps it's time to pass her survey to the men and women in Congress?

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Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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