A bit of nuance on gas tax polling

January 23rd, 2015 at 6:32 pm

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.

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4 comments in reply to "A bit of nuance on gas tax polling"

  1. Larry Signor says:

    We believe we should pay for the things we consume. Most Americans just don’t trust the present cashiers.

    • Martin Lipka says:

      Got to agree with Larry and most Americans on the cashiers. Certain members refuse to close loopholes on the luxury only enjoyed by mega corporations which is corporate inversions and yet they consume by using heavy vehicles. I know it is an income tax but to just pay a gas tax is unacceptable. Until there is equality again the little guy loses.

  2. Fred Donaldson says:

    Adding a tax to anything means a higher price and price resistance. If gasoline goes to $4 or $5 a gallon many drivers will change habits and decrease quantity of gas sales. The oil companies have a range, where they can get the most money for the most gallons sold, and thus the most profit from the marketplace. They know that additional taxes will increase price and remove some of their pricing flexibility.

    The consumer only sees the final price, and if there is no tax increase prior to reaching the maximum profit point, the oil companies will increase prices and profits until they reach that point. In real capitalism this would not be the case and someone would undercut to gain market share, but in a system with price agreements, adding a tax of moderate sorts will not impact sales, just company profits.

  3. Ben Ross says:

    The gasoline tax was popular when driving was fun, but now driving is a burden. Voters (especially when you ignore those who oppose all taxes no matter what) want more investment in trains while the elites who control transportation policy (especially at the state level) insist that tax increases must go for new highways. That’s the underlying cause of the transportation funding gridlock.