Collaboration in Civic Spheres

State survey: more Washingtonians see transportation problems than a year ago, but they’re iffy on paying for fixes

by February 14th, 2013

Across Washington, just 64 percent of regional respondents say the condition of their surface transportation system rated a “C” grade or better in 2012, versus 70 percent in 2011, according to key results of a major survey presented this week to the state senate transportation committee by the state transportation commission. And just 53 percent felt their area was getting its fair share of state transportation funding in 2012, versus 60 percent in 2011.

With baseline annual state transportation system maintenance needs identified in the survey at $2.1 billion, 51 percent of the 7,897 respondents across the state’s 14 different Regional Transportation Planning Organization (RTPO) jurisdictions said they’d support new revenues such as higher taxes, fees or tolls, versus 59 percent in 2011. But questioned more closely on what they’d really be willing to pay, and in what form, responses were quite mixed, showing that state lawmakers and local and regional officials may have a tough sales job ahead.

The survey was conducted in December 2012 for the commission by EMC Research. It was not based on a strictly scientific sample, but on responses from statewide stakeholders who signed up in advance at the commission’s web site to be mailed a survey. However, the findings were weighted by region, and by demographic and voter data to try to present a more accurate picture of what may fly and what may not if as expected this year’s transportation spending package must ultimately be approved at the ballot box in the fall.

Almost 13,400 people clicked on the survey link when they got the email and 7,897 completed it before the December 20, 2012 deadline. The survey on public perceptions and willingness to pay for fixes is especially timely. On the one hand, the state has publicly and repeatedly in the last few years acknowledged that the by-the-gallon gas tax will not be a sustainable funding mechanism due to ever-improvng vehicle fuel efficiency and a relative leveling off of vehicle miles travelled. On the other hand, disrepair and congestion have grown with usage in recent decades, wreaking more and more bumps, damage and delays, while transit is increasingly pinched for money as well in the recession.

How survey respondents felt about paying more, depended on how the questions were framed. Compared to the slim majority in the 2012 survey who expressed general willingness to support new revenues to support surface transportation in the state, far fewer raised their hands when the “ask” mentioned their own wallets, unless the monthly cost was low.

From 2012 Voice of Washington Panel Transportation Survey, Washington State Transportation Commission/EMC Research

One-third said they’d support a vehicle license fee boost of $30 per year but a quarter or less backed a five-cent-per gallon gas tax hike, or a motor vehicle excise tax of .7 percent. When the ask was about what would constitute tolerable monthly cost hikes in transportation taxes or fees, the answer was somewhat brighter: six of ten said yes to $7.50 or more, versus almost half for $15, and almost a third for $30.

When queried what would be good sources for future funding generally, respondents were more expansive. Two-thirds replied they’d approve some sort of vehicle emissions fee, 54 percent okayed electronic tolling, 39 percent supported the controversial idea of a vehicle mileage tax (now under study by the state), 31 percent liked adding the local sales tax to gas purchases on top of the gas tax, and one quarter were favorable toward a special property tax for state and local transportation projects.

Public Data Ferret’s Washington State+Transportation archive

On tolling, which is growing across the greater Seattle region through electronic systems, 36 percent of statewide respondents said they’d want associated revenues to be used only to improve the highways on which they were collected. But 38 percent took a somewhat broader view that tolling dollars should be used in the corridor collected not only for road and bridge fixes but also for transit. Another 18 percent favored an even more expansive approach, where tolling revenues collected in one place would be used for any other surface transportation project statewide.

Washington cities and legislators have been in ongoing discussions in recent months over a transportation spending package to emerge from the current session in Olympia, scheduled to end in April. It may include an increase in the gas tax and among other provisions could bump from $20 to $40 the annual vehicle license renewal fee which local “transportation benefit districts” formed by cities or counties can charge drivers without a public vote, to supplement their transportation funding pools.

Though federal transportation funds to the states are still part of the mix, they are in sharp decline. The state legislature will also be asked this session by the transportation commission and the Washington State Department of Transportation to fund a next phase of study on the concept of the vehicle mileage tax, for $1.6 million over the 2013-2015 budget period, according to another presentation to lawmakers this week (p. 18). A preliminary study found it to be conceptually feasible, but it would be at least 10 years before it would be implemented, if at all.

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