Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How to get to “green taxes” for transportation

Having recently spent a few days meeting with several thousand of my friends and colleagues in transportation (otherwise known as the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board), I wanted to share a few nuggets of information I picked up.
There is a lot of discussion these days in climate change circles about the benefits of “green taxes” (e.g., carbon taxes) for promoting desired behaviors while raising funds for governmental activities.  And of course in transportation circles there is always talk about the need for more money.  So it is not surprising that people in the overlap of those circles are looking into green taxes for transportation.
So, you might ask, what percentage of the American public would support, for instance, a 10-cent increase in the gas tax, with the revenue “dedicated to transportation projects to reduce global warning”?  The answer is 54 percent. 
This question is part of an ongoing survey research project which folks at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University have been carrying out for seven years.  (The report can be found here.)
Despite the noise you hear about Americans hating taxes, the research shows that a majority of Americans support gas tax increases when they are dedicated to transportation goals.  The gas tax option gaining the highest support – 78 percent – is for a 10-cent increase with revenue “spent on projects to maintain streets, roads, and highways.”  And support for gas tax increases has been generally trending up during the seven years for most of the options presented!
A follow-up piece of research  (to be published) dug into the data collected over all seven years of survey data to inquire whether there are any demographic characteristics associated with support for green taxes (the “dedicated to global warning” and two related ones).  The specific research question was whether support for green taxes was related more to “place” (urban vs. rural) or “people” – other identifiers.  The short answer is “people.”  The results showed that “it may not matter as much where you live as who you are.  No matter where you live, you are likely to support transportation taxes if you are younger, female, Hispanic, and identify as a Democrat.”
And one more research update on taxes from TRB: California has had a remarkable history of successful local sales tax referendums for transportation.  These Local Option Sales Taxes (LOSTs!) now generate $4 Billion a year for transportation.  In the 40 years since this phenomenon got started, approval rates have been well over 50 percent.  And under the rules, a two-thirds supermajority is required for adoption!  Thanks to grad students at UCLA we now have a much better understanding of how these things work (to be published).  The main takeaways (my interpretation):
·      People will support taxing themselves for transportation when the objectives are clear (and popular),
·      Approval rates go up over time when the local jurisdiction (counties in California) delivers on the previous program,
·      As a matter of practical politics, the mix of projects in successful referendums is tailored to meet local needs (and aspirations), and of course geographical balance,
·      People are willing to invest much more in transit, even in places where current transit usage is small,
·      Bus transit tends to be a drag on the likelihood of success relative to fixed-guideway, and
·      “Maintenance” is a much better draw than “operations.”

Bottom line: There is a broad reservoir of potential public support for “green” taxes that benefit clean transportation.

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