Study: Americans have no idea what they're talking about, might hate selves

Gas tax protesters in Boston. Photo from .

Gas tax protesters in Boston. Photo from

The Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) just released year four of its ongoing study, and it’s got some interesting findings on what Americans know about transportation funding in the United States and, regardless of what they know, what they think about it. It’s laboriously (but informatively) titled “What do Americans Think About Federal Tax Options to Support Public Transit, Highways, and Local Streets and Roads?” The biggest takeaway, as far as I can tell, is that people have no damn clue how the hell transportation funding works in this country, and their opinions about how it should be funded are often completely contrary to their own self-interest.

Here’s the justification for the study, found in the introduction:

Over the past several decades, the transportation revenues available from state and federal gas taxes have fallen significantly, especially in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars per mile traveled. At the same time, the transportation system requires critical—and expensive—system upgrades. Among other needs, a large portion of the national highway system needs major rehabilitation, and there is growing desire at all levels of government to substantially upgrade and expand infrastructure to support public transit, walking, and bicycling, modes that have been relatively neglected in the past 50 years.
This dilemma of growing needs and shrinking revenues can be resolved in only two ways: either the nation must dramatically lower its goals for system preservation and enhancement, or new revenues must be raised. If the latter is to happen, legislators must be convinced that increasing taxes or fees is politically feasible. One portion of the political calculus that legislators make when deciding whether or not to raise new revenues is, of course, considering likely public support for—or opposition to—raising different kinds of taxes.

Fair enough. It’s probably helpful to have some idea of what proposals a politician or other public official could make without ending his or her career, otherwise we might never get anything done. It’s taken as axiomatic at this point that attempting to raise gas taxes is political suicide, so we want to know what alternatives might be palatable to the American public, and whether gas taxes are really as anathema as they’re often portrayed.

Let’s look at what they found.

“Gas taxes are the worst, unless they’re actually going to be used for something. (Really, anything is fine.)”

When poll respondents were asked how they felt about a ten-cent gas tax increase (from 18 cents to 28 cents per gallon), support was abysmal at just 23%. However, support increased when a use was specified for the additional funds, and every suggested use received greater than 50% support:

Blue bars represent percentage sums of "strongly support" and "somewhat support." Adapted from MTI report.

Blue bars represent percentage sums of "strongly support" and "somewhat support." Adapted from MTI report.

This encompasses basically every possible use of gas taxes, including some that are arguably illegal under current law, but Americans support it all when you actually tell them what it’s for. Most people, of course, aren't aware that the Highway Trust Fund has been a net recipient of tens of billions of dollars over the last several years (or that there is a thing called the Highway Trust Fund, probably). But really, what do people think gas taxes are currently spent on? Medicare?

“Yes, fares cover the full cost of transit service, I’m certain. Final answer.”

MTI wanted to assess the average American’s knowledge of how transit is funded, and they started with the following question:

“When people ride public transit, they pay a fare. This money is used to pay for the service. Do you think that the money collected from public transit fares in general covers the full cost of the service?”

The correct answer is no, and the amount covered by fares is usually quite low, around 20-40%. The most transit-oriented cities (SF, Chicago, NYC, D.C., etc.) get up into the 50s and 60s. Fifty-five percent of people got this right, and another 15 percent said they didn't know, but a shocking proportion of people—30 percent!!!—said that yes, transit fares do cover the full cost of the service. It's not a big deal that people don't know the truth, really, but if you don't know why can't you just say so!?

Given that this is completely untrue, and has been for basically as long as anyone’s been alive, I’m not sure what to think of it. On the one hand, maybe these people are genuinely misinformed and thought they had good reason to believe what they said. That would be unfortunate. On the other hand maybe they really didn't know, and rather than admit it they gave the answer they felt was most likely or fit their ideology best. That would be even worse.

Bonus fact: people who drive cars that get 39+ miles per gallon were about twice as likely as those driving lower-mileage cars to think/say that fares covered the full cost of transit. I have no idea what that to make of that.

“Congress should raise bus fares. They can do that, right?”

Respondents were asked if they supported some gas tax revenue being used to support transit and—good news!—every subgroup of people expressed majority support (even Republicans!). They were then asked how, if Congress decided that public transit spending should increase, they should go about funding it: by increasing the gas tax, cutting other programs, or… increasing transit fares?*

Two things. First, I’m once again unsure of whether this is unconstitutional or not. Second, even if it’s not technically against the law, it’s a matter that the federal government currently doesn't meddle in—it’s up to the regional or municipal transit organization to set fares, at least in most places. (Despite this, the study found the greatest support among those good ol' local-control Republicans.) I’m gonna give America a pass on this one though, since you've gotta answer the question as given. Mineta gets the fault here. Stupid question, Mineta.

*And just to be clear, they do phrase the summary as “Three Ways Congress Could Pay for Expanding and Improving Public Transportation,” so they do actually mean Congress would raise the fares.

“Sure, I hate taxes, but you know what I really hate? Myself.”

Delving further into the question of which of the three transit-funding options provided were preferred by respondents, MTI looked at the subgroups that were most supportive of each option. I’m going to reprint that below, and I’m going to underline the groups lobbying against their own self-interest or ideology:

  • Those most likely to prefer raising the federal gas tax were respondents who fell into one any one of the following subgroups: white or black/African American, living in households with annual incomes of $100,001 or more, drove vehicles in the two least-fuel-efficient categories, or either had not taken transit in the last 30 days or were living in communities with no transit service.
  • Those most likely to prefer reducing spending on other government programs were respondents who fell into any one of the following subgroups: Asian/Asian American, not of Hispanic or Latino descent or origin, or living in households with the lowest annual income.
  • Those most likely to prefer raising transit fares were respondents who fell into one any one of the following subgroups: Democrat, drove the most fuel-efficient vehicles, or had taken transit within the last 30 days.

Every single choice is full of subgroups that make no sense whatsoever! What are people driving the least fuel-efficient vehicles doing preferring gas taxes? Same story with people who don’t uses transit or don’t have access to it, i.e., the people most likely to drive. Are these people just super altruistic, or is it some kind of climate guilt?

And although this isn't really a new thing, we have the poorest people advocating for reduced spending on government programs, even though they’re the ones most likely to be served by them. Maybe they’re those median Americans who think 25% of the government's money goes to foreign aid.

As for raising transit fares, Democrats' support just seems like it’s contrary to the ideology of the party, but what I’m most interested in is these self-hating transit riders. What’s their deal?