Many Americans are not sure how much money we personally pay every month to maintain and improve the roads, bridges and public transit we use. But 75 to 80 percent of us say having safe, efficient and well-maintained transportation infrastructure is at least, if not more, important to our personal livelihood and well-being than good cable, cell phone, internet, water, sewage and household electricity and natural gas services.
Those are key findings of a first-ever national poll conducted to see how valuable Americans think our road and transit network is to the nation, our everyday life, and relative to other modern necessities we routinely rely upon. For the research, a total 1,001 interviews of American adults were conducted over the phone from April 4-8, collected from the Ipsos Public Affairs telephone omnibus survey, TeleNation. It included both randomly selected landline and cell phone interviews, conducted in either English or Spanish depending on the respondent. The data were weighted to reflect Current Population Study statistics on age within gender, U.S. Census Region, market size, education, race and ethnicity.
The poll found we place a high value on good roads and public transit because:
• 8-in-10 of us (78 percent) say driving a motor vehicle is “very” or “extremely” important to our ability to conduct our daily lives. Twenty-one percent (including 34 percent of low income respondents) say the same about using public transportation;
• Nearly 9-in-10 (88 percent) say transportation infrastructure is important to maintaining a strong U.S. economy;
• 83 percent say our transportation network is important in ensuring national defense and emergency response capabilities;
• And no matter where we live—whether rural or urban—71 percent of us agree that growing traffic congestion in U.S. metropolitan areas is making products we buy everywhere more expensive because congestion increases transportation costs for businesses.
Not surprisingly, given the importance we place on transportation assets, 74 percent of us agree that “investing in transportation infrastructure should be a core function of the federal government.”
But here’s the disconnect that explains why many of us are suffering from traffic congestion and the outcomes from less than optimal system upkeep.
The poll revealed that many of us probably have no idea how much we are paying each month in the state and federal gas taxes that are the primary source of funding for road and transit capital investments.
Asked the question how much their household pays each month in gas taxes, 40 percent of respondents say they “don’t know.” In fact, according to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data, the average U.S. household paid $46 per month in gas taxes in 2011—the most current year available.
One-quarter of respondents (24%) estimated they pay more than double that amount, which in some cases is likely an overstatement, as this would involve buying enough gas to fuel a household’s cars for nearly 5,400 miles per month, while federal data show the average household with one or more cars drives just over 2,100 miles per month.
U.S. Commerce Department 2011 data show the average household spends about three-and-a-half times more each month for household electricity and natural gas service ($160) than we pay in state and federal gas taxes. We also pay three-and-a-half time as much monthly, on average, for landline and cell phone service ($161) and nearly two-and-a-half time as much for cable and satellite television, radio and internet access ($124). We pay almost 19 percent a month more, on average, just for internet access.
“Traffic congestion is getting worse every year in most metropolitan areas, wasting our time and money. We still have 65,000 structurally deficient bridges that are being crossed 249 million times every day. Road crashes remain an extremely serious public health problem and cost driver. The reason for that, sadly, is that we are getting what we are paying for,” says Pete Ruane, president of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, which commissioned the research.
“We are under investing in our road and transit infrastructure relative to many other basic services we rely on every day. This research clearly shows there is a disconnect between our perceived value of transportation mobility and our personal investment in the infrastructure that provides it.”
“Transportation infrastructure,” Ruane points out, “is one of the few service platforms necessary to support a dynamic economy, growing population and high quality standard of living that is chronically underfunded because in many states and at the federal level the user fee rate that supports it is left static for decades on end.”
“Americans and our elected representatives can’t simply wish for a 21st century transportation network. We have to pay for it,” he says.
“This research helps bring the transportation investment conversation down to the kitchen table level, rather than talking about trillion dollar needs,” Ruane says. “If system beneficiaries—the public and American businesses—invested in transportation infrastructure in line with what we routinely pay monthly for other necessary services, we would see reduced transportation costs for business, faster commutes, and safer, smarter, more durable roads, bridges and transit.”