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Tolling Points

The Giant Begins to Stir

By: 
Bill Cramer

It would be a bit premature to conclude from the latest Pew Research poll that the public opinion giant is waking up to the urgency of the transportation infrastructure crisis.

But the poll, released early this week ahead of President Obama’s State of the Union Address, contains an unmistakeable message: infrastructure matters, and the number of Americans concerned about the state of the country’s roads, bridges, and public transit is growing.

30% More Americans Are Concerned

In the mid-January poll, transportation placed 17th on a list of 20 policy priorities, tied with “dealing with moral breakdown,” and ahead of climate change and global trade. But here’s the hidden gem: In a year of declining public expectations on most issues, surface infrastructure showed by far the largest increase in priority, at 9%.

In 2013, 30% of Americans listed roads, bridges, and transit as a top priority for the President and Congress. In 2014, that total increased to 39%.
The year-over-year change represented 30% growth in the level of public concern.

Across all the pluses and minuses for the 20 topics, Pew reported a net change of -31 in the percentage of participants who identified specific items as policy priorities, with 14 out of 20 topics receiving less importance or showing no change since 2013. For the most part, Americans in 2014 expect less of their governments. Roads, bridges, and transit are the big exception to the rule.

The Cornerstone for Other Priorities

The Pew Center poll also showed that this year’s transportation reauthorization will be a cornerstone if governments hope to deliver on voters’ top two policy priorities.

For the 80% of respondents who identified a strong economy as a top priority and the 74% who listed job creation, the need for a strong, competitive business sector is a given. And as House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) pointed out in mid-January, “transportation is a critical part of how the supply chain functions, how raw materials get to factories, how finished products get to markets, and how food gets from farms to our kitchens.”

So when you connect the dots: voters want jobs and economic development, a strong economy depends on transportation infrastructure, our transportation system needs a wider range of funding options, and tolling is one of the leading tools in the transportation funding toolbox. From past research, we know that voters prefer not to pay higher gas taxes, but they want a strong economy, job opportunities, and safe, efficient roads. And given the choice between raising gas taxes and charging user fees, such as tolls, voters prefer tolls. All of which points to the continuing effort that is needed to educate elected officials and the general public on the range of available funding options to solve our nation’s infrastructure crisis.

More and more Americans are beginning to understand that surface transportation is a top policy priority. The giant is beginning to stir, and when it takes its first steps, tolling is ready as a proven, powerful funding option.

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