Monday, May 18, 2015

Do Voters Really Want to Spend More on Roads?

Spring in New EnglandFollowing in the footsteps of Massachusetts voters last fall, Michigan voters recently rejected a gas tax increase. This reaction from Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MI), who pushed the tax hike referendum, caught my eye:
"While voters didn't support this particular proposal, we know they want action taken to maintain and improve our roads and bridges," Snyder said.
We hear that from politicians and political commentators all the time, but is that really true? And what if it's not?

Raising the gas tax is a very good idea, yet it's also extremely unpopular. This is always interpreted as anti-tax fervor, or that there's something unique about the gas tax that voters don't want that raised but they'd be more tolerant of some other tax hike to fund roads, because voters are dumb, I guess?

As Gov. Snyder said, it's always taken on faith that voters want to spend more on roads and bridges, but don't want to have to pay for it. Most polling isn't helpful in that it just asks if voters want to raise the gas tax to fund transportation projects, but doesn't ask whether funding more transportation projects is itself a worthy goal.

Here's what some polling can tell us:
  • A 2014 YouGov/Huffington Post poll found fewer voters wanted to spend more (45%) on roads and bridges than wanted to spend the same (31%) or less (15%). That's not exactly a mandate for saying "we know they want action taken," is it?
  • A Smart Growth America poll back in 2007 found voters supportive of spending more on road repair, but strongly opposed to spending more on new roads. This is a key point because states spend most of their transportation money on building new roads.
  • poll ahead of the Michigan referendum showed the biggest chunk of voters didn't want their taxes raised and others didn't like the complex referendum proposal. But at least 1 in 5 voters didn't want to spend the money spent at all, calling it wasteful government spending. 
What would it look like if we stopped increasing spending on roads and bridges? In the short term, we'd build fewer brand new or expansion projects, and focus on repairing existing ones. If those polls are right, that's actually much more in line with public sentiment than our Big New Project status quo.
Would it be a traffic nightmare if we stopped expanding roads? Transportation researchers say no:
The Surface Transportation Policy Project and other researchers have found that for every increase in our highway network, half of the new capacity is taken up by "induced demand" -that is, traffic drawn to the road because it's there. Building new roads and adding more lanes draws people who otherwise would not have driven onto the roads. Combined with the delays created by construction and the time it takes to complete a major project, roadbuilding provides almost no relief from traffic delays. And it's incredibly expensive.
Maybe instead of spending more money on roads and bridges whether voters like it or not, politicians and pundits should try listening to them instead?

UPDATE 5/31/15: I joined the BradCast to discuss this topic, you can listen here.
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