From the Beltway to Bertha, it's taken for granted that American voters want to spend more not just to repair but to "improve" roads and bridges, meaning expensive new and expanded highways. It's assumed their only objection is that they don't want to have to pay higher gas taxes. There's only one problem: Like the mythical American love affair with cars, there's little evidence of an American craving for new highways.
Following in the footsteps of Massachusetts voters last fall, Michigan voters recently rejected a gas tax increase. This reaction from Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MI), who pushed the tax hike referendum, caught my eye:
"While voters didn't support this particular proposal, we know they want action taken to maintain and improve our roads and bridges," Snyder said.
We hear that spoken as fact from politicians and political commentators all the time, but how do we know that? Is that really true? And what if it's not?...
Raising the gas tax is a very good idea, yet it's also extremely unpopular. This is always interpreted as anti-tax fervor, or that there's something unique about the gas tax that voters don't want that raised but they'd be more tolerant of some other tax hike to fund roads, because voters are dumb, I guess? The result is commentators and Democrats (who understandably want the local, union jobs that road-building bring) begging Republicans to support some, any way to dramatically expand highway construction.
Most polling isn't helpful in that it just asks if voters want to raise the gas tax to fund transportation projects, but doesn't ask whether funding more transportation projects is itself a worthy goal.
Here's what some polling can tell us:
- A 2014 YouGov/Huffington Post poll found fewer voters wanted to spend more (45%) on roads and bridges than wanted to spend the same (31%) or less (15%). That's not exactly a mandate for saying "we know they want action taken," is it?
- A Smart Growth America poll back in 2007 found voters supportive of spending more on road repair, but strongly opposed to spending more on new roads. This is a key point because states spend most of their transportation money on building new roads.
- A poll [PDF] ahead of the Michigan referendum showed the biggest chunk of voters didn't want their taxes raised and others didn't like the complex referendum proposal. But at least 1 in 5 voters didn't want to spend the money spent at all, calling it wasteful government spending.
If Congress did nothing to address the issue of existing gas tax revenues failing to meet our road and bridge budget, what would that look like? We'd still have lots of money for road repair - the gas tax wouldn't go away and billions would still be coming in.
We'd need to build fewer brand new megaprojects like the Seattle fustercluck and focus on repairing existing ones. If those polls are right, that's actually much more in line with public sentiment than our Big New Project status quo.
Would it be a traffic nightmare if we stopped expanding roads? As Joseph Stromberg reports at Vox, transportation researchers say no:
The main reason, Turner has found, is simple - adding road capacity spurs people to drive more miles, either by taking more trips by car or taking longer trips than they otherwise would have.
Maybe instead of spending more money on roads and bridges whether voters like it or not, politicians and pundits should try listening to them instead?
Miles Grant is a progressive blogger and environmental communicator, writing about everything from global warming to smart growth to organic beer. Read more at TheGreenMiles.com and follow him on Twitter at: @MilesGrant. Miles lives with his wife and daughter in Fairhaven, MA.