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How to Pay for Road Repairs a Tough Question to Answer



A majority of Americans think the economic benefits of good transportation outweigh the cost to taxpayers, but they can't agree on how to pay for new highways or repairs of old ones, according to a new Associated Press-GfKpoll.Six in 10 people surveyed said the cost of good highways, railroads and airports is justified by their benefits.

Among those who drive places multiple times per week, 62 percent say the benefits outweigh the costs. Among those who drive less than once a week or not at all, 55 percent say the costs are worthwhile.
 
The results come as no major surprise to Steve Pacer at the AAA of Western and Central New York.

"From a policy point of view, increasing that might be the most effective way and it may make the most sense, but as we see, some agree and some disagree, it's a personal preference," says Steve Pacer of AAA of Central and Western New York.

AAA recently conducted a national poll Pacer says nearly mirrors the AP/gfk findings.

"It's almost split half and half that some are willing to pay higher taxes, some are not willing to pay to fund highways and bridges," says Pacer. The AAA poll finds 52 percent are willing to pay higher gasoline taxes if that went to better roads, bridges and mass transit systems.

"Locally, we have heard from people on the opposite end of the spectrum who don't want to pay another penny toward any sort of tax toward road funding," notes Pacer.

The problem may be in trust.

"They might be willing to spend a little more but they want to make sure it goes to make better road conditions, and that's where people are debating where and how they feel," says Pacer.

Pacer calls it a double edged sword. "It's going to be an uphill battle for any politician who wants to propose this," says Pacer.
 

A majority of Americans bristle at the most commonly proposed ideas from public officials and industry. For example, 58 percent oppose raising federal gasoline taxes to fund transportation projects such as the repair, replacement or expansion of roads and bridges. Only 14 percent support an increase. And by a better than 2-to-1 margin, Americans oppose having private companies pay for the construction of new roads and bridges in exchange for the right to charge tolls. Moving to a usage tax based on how many miles a vehicle drives also draws more opposition than support — 40 percent oppose it, while 20 percent support it.

Support for shifting more responsibility for paying for such projects to state and local government is a tepid 30 percent.

Small wonder then that Congress has kept federal highway and transit programs teetering on the edge of insolvency for years, unable to find a politically acceptable long-term source of funds. The public can't make up its mind on how to pay for them either.

"Congress is actually reflecting what people want," said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a transportation think tank. "People want to have a federal (transportation) program and they don't want to pay for it."

Last week, Congress cobbled together $10.8 billion to keep transportation aid flowing to states by changing how employers fund worker pension programs, extending customs user fees and transferring money from a fund to repair leaking underground fuel storage tanks. The money was needed to make up a shortfall between aid promised to states and revenue raised by the federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax and the 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax, which haven't been increased in more than 20 years.

It's the fifth time in the last six years that Congress has patched a hole in the federal Highway Trust Fund that pays for highway and transit aid. Each time it gets more difficult for lawmakers to find the money without increasing the federal budget deficit. Critics described the pension funding changes used this time as budget gimmicks that would cost the government more in the long run and undermine employee pension programs.

The latest patch cleared Congress about three hours before midnight last Thursday, the day before the Transportation Department said it would begin cutting back aid payments to states. The current fix is only expected to cover the revenue gap through next May, when Congress will be back where it started unless lawmakers act sooner.

Gasoline pumpThe most direct solution would be to raise fuel taxes. That's what three blue-ribbon federal commissions have recommended. But opposition to a gas tax increase cuts across party lines, although Republicans are more apt to oppose an increase, 70 percent, than Democrats, 52 percent.

"Every time we turn around there's another tax, and our gas taxes are so high now," said James Lane, 52, of Henry County in rural south-central Virginia, who described himself as leaning toward the GOP.

Lane favors allowing companies to pay for the construction of new or expanded roads and bridges in exchange for the right impose tolls on motorists, often for many decades. There have been projects like that in Virginia, but since those roads are in more populated areas of the state where he doesn't drive it makes sense to have the people who use them pay for them, he said.

But Michael Murphy, 63, a data services contractor who lives near San Antonio, Texas, where a high-speed public-private toll road is scheduled to open this fall, said he'd rather see gas taxes increased than tolls imposed on drivers

. Roads benefit everyone, even if indirectly, so it's only fair that everyone who drives pays something toward their cost, he said.

AP Photo

A majority of those surveyed, 56 percent, say traffic in the area where they live has gotten worse in the last five years. Only 6 percent say traffic has improved in their area, and 33 percent that it's stayed about the same.

Thirty-five percent say the quality of the roads and bridges where they live is getting worse, while 25 percent think their roads and bridges are improving. About 4 in 10 say their local roads and bridges are neither improving nor getting worse.The AP-GfK Poll was conducted July 24-28 using KnowledgePanel, GfK's probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,044 adults. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents, larger for subgroups.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and were later interviewed online.

People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.


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