I was talking with a friend about how with gas prices so low, this would be a good time to phase in a slight increase in the federal gas tax—stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993—when he pointed out that the idea polls terribly. So I looked into that and found that the story is slightly more nuanced.
Just to remind you—and I’ve been going on about this for a while—it is through this tax that we fund the Highway Trust Fund, which is slated to go broke (again) in May. The HTF funds repairs and improvements to our highways, roads, bridges, and mass transit systems. So think of the gas tax as a user fee, and think of those of us who consume those resources yet oppose an increase in a tax that hasn’t even been adjusted for inflation over 20 years as magical thinkers.
But if either the President or members of Congress were to support even an inflation adjustment, they’d be on the wrong side of the people, right? Recent surveys of Georgia, New Jersey, and Utah residents do in fact find, as my friend suggested, that substantial majorities opposed gas tax increases. That doesn’t surprise me because, all else equal, people would rather pay less at the pump.
But all else isn’t quite equal. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Transportation have examined the question of how framing this question influences participant responses. Though only around 20 percent of survey respondents typically supported a 10-cent increase in the federal gas tax when told it would fund general improvements and maintenance for the transportation system, the number jumped to 50 percent in 2013 when participants heard the funds would be used to combat global warming (and note that as a tax on carbon, a federal gas tax is legitimately viewed in this light); 67 percent supported a tax that would specifically target road maintenance projects.
So perhaps the issue can be framed in a way—a legitimate way—to make it go down easier. And perhaps phasing in something like this bipartisan proposal from Senators Bob Corker and Chris Murphy—an extra six cents per gallon a year over two years (before indexing it to inflation)—would be virtually impossible for most people to even notice. And perhaps sometimes policy makers should do the right thing even if it doesn’t poll well.
I’d like to see this poll result: do you believe people should pay for things they consume? Bottom line: we want transportation infrastructure, we must pay for it.