Research Rest-Stop | How does the public feel about higher taxes for transportation?

The transportation funding crisis has recently made the news (see here and here), although it is not a recent phenomenon.  For the past several decades, revenues from both the state and federal gas taxes have declined in relation to inflation, while transportation infrastructure continues to age and major upgrades become increasingly pressing (MTI, 2014). Faced with failing infrastructure, governments are forced to seek new means of funding transportation. The question is how?

The Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI), based in San Jose,  recently published research investigating public support for increased taxes to fund transportation. Researchers surveyed the public’s reaction to three tax scenarios: (1) raising the federal gas tax rate, (2) creating a new mileage tax, and (3) creating a new federal sales tax. They surveyed 1,503 randomly chosen individuals nationwide in spring 2014 to test public support for the three tax options.

In general, the researchers found that a majority of people would support higher taxes for transportation. There are, however, some conditions. Respondents favored a gas tax increase over all other options, but only if they believed that revenues would be used for projects related to transportation maintenance, safety, and improvements such as upgrading to a newer technology. A gas tax to fund transportation improvements with environmental benefits, such as addressing local air pollution and global warming, was also well supported. When a gas tax increase was proposed without a clear purpose or with implications to driver’s annual costs explicitly cited in the survey questionnaire, researchers saw support for the tax decrease. In addition, a phased tax increase received more support than a one-time increase when no other information about tax purposes was provided to survey respondents.

MTI researchers found that in response to a proposed mileage tax, respondents much preferred variable rates tied to a vehicle’s pollution level over a flat-rate. In fact, a flat rate mileage tax was the least supported option of all. Interestingly, support for a new federal sales tax fell in the middle.

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The Mineta researchers also investigated whether certain characteristics made individuals more likely to support higher transportation taxes.  They found that people who use transit and consider transportation as a key priority are more likely to support higher transportation taxes.

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The study also suggests that the demographic subgroups most likely to support higher transportation taxes are Asians/Asian-Americans and blacks/African-Americans, registered Democratic voters, youths (18 to 24 years).

Additionally, the research explored public opinion on three options, shown below, for funding expansions and improvements specifically to public transit.

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Research revealed that not all respondents were familiar with how transit is funded. In fact, only half of them were aware that fares do not cover the full costs of running public transit.

During the five years that MTI has been conducting this annual survey, it has found that support levels have not changed much. Public support for transportation taxes has generally risen slightly, with the largest boost in support for a variable-rate mileage tax.

Key implications of the study are that the basic concept of a gas tax increase or a mileage tax is not popular, but that modifying tax structures and linking taxes to safety and environment benefits can increase support. MTI highlights the fact that respondents of the youngest age group (18-24 year old) were much more supportive of any transportation tax option. They suggest that if this is reflective of a generational shift, rather than views at different life-stages, increased taxes for transportation could receive more public support in the future.

MTI’s questionnaire asked about support for tax proposals described in only general terms. Therefore, the results cannot indicate support for or against any specific proposal that may be put forward to fund transportation. The research instead indicates the public’s likely preferences and patterns of support vary in relation to how new taxes are both structured and how their benefits are described and “framed” in public debate. For more details about the research findings, visit here.

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Measuring the Impact of Public Transportation Access and Funding Decisions on Public Health

Public transportation operators must frequently make decisions on how to much service to run, where to run it, what amenities to offer, and how to set fares.  In a time of limited budgets, these decisions usually involve difficult trade-offs.  Alameda County, home to Oakland, California, has had transit service cuts and fare increases in recent years, so the Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) wanted to study how these decisions impact public health.  ACPHD believes that documenting these impacts will encourage local leaders to give them serious consideration when setting budgets and developing service plans.

Over the past year, ACPHD partnered with several other agencies and non-profits to conduct surveys and focus groups asking local bus riders about their health circumstances, access to work, activities, and appointments, and the effects of service cuts and fare increases on their daily lives.  Beyond asking directly about access to health care, healthy foods, or recreation, ACPHD investigated other key factors that help a person stay healthy.  For example, after recent cuts to bus services, 28% of those interviewed reported a major increase in commute time of 30 minutes or more, and another 19% reported a similar lengthening of the time it takes to get to school.  Long commutes have been linked to increased stress and less time for sleep and exercise.  They can also limit the number of hours a person can work, reducing the ability to afford basic needs for maintaining good health.  For some riders, fare increases also meant less spending on food, social activities, and health care visits, all factors important for good health.

Many residents in Alameda County do not have access to a car, and prior studies had shown that lower-income people and people of color in their region rely heavily on bus services in particular.  These groups also face higher health burdens and live in areas with fewer health-promoting resources.  Philadelphia is similar to Alameda County in that over 35% of Philadelphia households do not have any vehicles available, and only half of workers travel to work by car, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  Both of these measures indicate that our residents share many of the concerns about quality bus service as those examined by Alameda County.

However, SEPTA faces a $38 million deficit in the operating budget for the coming fiscal year, expected to grow to $160 million by 2018.  Additionally, an economic analysis of SEPTA published last month highlights just a $304 million capital budget available in 2013 for a capital needs backlog of $4.7 billion.  This illustrates the difficult decision-making context SEPTA must navigate to provide public mobility while maintaining affordable fares and constrained budgets.  Looking west at the Pittsburgh Port Authority, similar budget shortfalls required a 35% service cut in early 2011, scaled back to 15% only after an emergency fund transfer.  Another budget gap was looming in 2012, threatening to raise fares while eliminating 46 bus routes and ending most other service at 10 p.m.  While the cuts were later temporarily delayed with emergency funding, these actions would have seriously reduced the access to jobs, social connection, and affordability of basic needs that ACPHD identified as factors for maintaining public health.

The farmers’ market at the Frankford Transportation Center in Northeast Philadelphia will reopen for the 2013 season in just a few weeks. Image courtesy of septa.org

Still, SEPTA has managed to support some of the public health goals identified by the ACPHD such as protecting job access by operating overnight service on key bus routes that accommodate non-traditional hours.  It has also partnered with organizations to host farmers markets at major SEPTA hubs including the Olney and Frankford Transportation Centers, increasing access to fresh produce options that are accessible without a car.  An additional 38 farmers’ markets can be found at or near other SEPTA stations and routes.

The Food Trust, which organizes many of these markets, has additional information on Philadelphia farmer’s markets: http://thefoodtrust.org/farmers-markets

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