Rockefeller Foundation survey: Americans rank transportation needs high but don't want to pay the costs

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 7:52 PM

Upkeep of roads, bridges and transit systems is a high priority to an overwhelming margin of Americans, but by an even greater margin they don't want to pay more for it, according to a survey that will be released this week.

With the Obama administration's budget due Monday, House Republicans embarked on an effort to reduce spending by $100 billion and a long-term transportation bill stalled in Congress, 78 percent of those surveyed say private investors should be tapped to rebuild the country's aging infrastructure.

The poll was commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation, which has funded a $66-million transportation initiative, and was conducted this month by Hart Associates.

"Transportation infrastructure affects so many critical issues for the country - economy, social mobility, and energy - and it drives our economic growth," said Nicholas Turner, a managing director of of the Rockefeller Foundation who runs the initiative. "Most people don't realize that transportation is the second-highest expense for most Americans, and the highest for those with the lowest incomes. The promotion of accessible and equitable transportation policies is critical to providing affordable options to all Americans."

The telephone poll of 1,001 registered voters came four months after a bipartisan panel of 80 transportation experts warned that the transportation system was deteriorating so rapidly that it would undermine U.S. ability to compete in a global economy.

Headed by two former transportation secretaries - Norman Y. Mineta and Samuel K. Skinner - the group estimated that an additional $134 billion to $262 billion must be spent per year through 2035 to rebuild and improve the nation's roads, rail systems and air transportation.

Their report said a major increase in the federal gas tax, which has remained unchanged since it went up to 18.4 cents per gallon in 1993, might be the most politically palatable way to boost revenue in the short term. In the long term, however, Americans should expect to pay for each mile they drive, the report said.

The Rockefeller Foundation infrastructure survey found that Americans don't support either as an option to raise revenues, or any other approach that would tax them directly. Seventy-one percent opposed a gas tax increase, 64 percent were against new tolls on existing roads and bridges, and 58 percent said no to paying for each mile they drive.

While 66 percent said they thought spending on infrastructure is important, the same number of those surveyed said the government didn't spend transportation money efficiently.

"People are willing to pay if they have faith they are getting quality," Turner said. "Uncertainty in the poll more reflects a frustration with bridges to nowhere from Congress. The answer is that with clear outcomes and better accountability, people want and support investments in transportation infrastructure."

Almost as many said they would support President Obama's proposal to create a National Infrastructure Bank.

The bank is seen as a way to insulate government investment from the political process, keeping the focus on the most important projects and encouraging investment from the private sector. Approaching transportation from a banker's perspective, advocates say, would emphasize making investments in projects that have demonstrable financial returns.

The partisan split was underscored last week when the Obama administration proposed spending $56 billion over the next six years to develop a high-speed nationwide rail system.

House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.), who has spoken out in favor of high-speed rail in the Northeast corridor, immediately fired back that the projects should be privately financed and operated.

Transportation funding has staggered along with a series of short-term program extensions for almost two years, since the expiration of the last long-term spending plan. The temporary measures have hamstrung state transportation planners, who need confidence in long-range funding before the launch major projects.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week that he expected a new six-year authorization would be approved by Congress this year, but even a proposal with a $300 billion price tag, like the last long-term bill, is likely to face resistance from House Republicans.

But among voters who responded to the poll, 71 percent said they want elected officials to put aside partisan differences and find common ground on transportation.

"The American people across all party lines want to see government work toward common ground to actually create change and move issues forward," Turner said.

The results tell us that almost half of all Americans think our roads and transportation options are inadequate, a staggering number when you think about the fact that transportation is infused into almost every part of American life - from how we get to work, how we access services, how businesses make money, and how we value our homes."

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