One fact seems indisputable: Americans have come to hate taxes and any suggestion by a politician to raise them is tantamount to political suicide. The problem is that public infrastructure requires funding – and lots of it. Critics of this disparity would argue that a lack of political will to raise fuel taxes has left roads, bridges and tunnels across America crumbling in recent decades.

A new survey conducted by HNTB Corporation suggests that Americans would prefer to pay tolls or let their roads crumble rather than pay higher fuel taxes. While this may well be a valid survey, it's important to note that HNTB is an infrastructure firm that supplies toll collecting equipment, among other things.

In any case, the study's findings note that "when given a choice between new roads funded by an increased gas tax, by new tolls or no new roads at all, Americans prefer tolls (41 percent) or no new roads at all (41 percent) over increased gas taxes (18 percent)." Further, "A strong majority of Americans (84 percent) feel tolls should be considered project-by-project or as a primary source of transportation revenue. Only a small minority (16 percent) say tolls should never be used."

In the old days, toll booths were a pain because every car had to stop and pay. The advent of affordable radio frequency transponder systems like EZ-Pass now allows commuters to drive toll roads and pay automatically without stopping – or even thinking about how much money using such systems costs them. Of course, this type of toll collecting raises other issues including invasion of privacy concerns, since the operators know where specific cars are at certain points in time. There's also the possibility of account hacking or errors where someone could end up charging their driving to other accounts.

What do you think about tolls? Check out the full press release after the jump for more of the study's findings, then drop your fellow readers a line in Comments.

[Source: HNTB Corporation | Image: Wikimedia Commons]
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HNTB's latest America THINKS survey illustrates how tolls can pave the way to much-needed U.S. transportation funding

KANSAS CITY, Mo., July 22 /PRNewswire/ -- Despite a growing awareness that America's aging network of highways, bridges and tunnels is in failing health, huge roadblocks are preventing Congressional action on a new national transportation bill: the lack of adequate funding sources and consensus on a vision that helps plan, prioritize and pay for U.S. infrastructure.

A new America THINKS survey from HNTB Corporation suggests the answer may lie in a modern version of a solution that financed this country's roads and bridges prior to the advent of a national gas tax more than 50 years ago: tolling.

"Decades of underinvestment have left the U.S. transportation system in a losing battle against time, population growth, weather and wear," said Jack Finn, HNTB national director of toll services. "There is no such thing as a free road. Tolling is a proven source of alternative funding, already used in a variety of locations across the country. Its primary appeal - as a user fee - means those who use the road pay for the road."

According to the survey, most Americans support tolls on roads and bridges to generate transportation revenue, especially those that save them drive time. And when it comes to construction, Americans prefer a focus on fixing existing infrastructure than building new facilities.

Change on the horizon

Fuel taxes have been the primary source of transportation revenue at the state and federal level since the inception of the Interstate Highway System. The federal gas tax, now set at 18.4 cents per gallon, was last increased in 1993. A combination of inflation, changing driving habits - due in part to higher gas prices - and better fuel economy in modern automobiles has robbed the tax of much of its purchasing power.

While the Highway Trust Fund is nearly broke - needing infusions from the general treasury totaling more than $15 billion during the last two years - increasing the gas tax has been a political non-starter.

In fact, when given a choice between new roads funded by an increased gas tax, by new tolls or no new roads at all, Americans prefer tolls (41 percent) or no new roads at all (41 percent) over increased gas taxes (18 percent).

"Doing nothing is not an option," Finn said. "Many state and local governments are seriously considering an expansion of tolling, with support across the political spectrum."

Many Americans ready for more tolls

A strong majority of Americans (84 percent) feel tolls should be considered project-by-project or as a primary source of transportation revenue. Only a small minority (16 percent) say tolls should never be used.

"Tolling is about giving people choices, which adds to its appeal," Finn said. "Historically toll roads have been constructed where there also are non-toll alternatives. People decide whether to pay for a congestion-free ride or not."

Asked where they would be willing to spend more money to support long-term transportation improvements in their area, Americans ranked tolling ahead of other options, with nearly four in 10 (39 percent) choosing additional road and bridge tolls versus additional public transportation fees (29 percent), vehicle registration fees (23 percent), sales taxes (20 percent), gas taxes (18 percent), income taxes (11 percent) or property taxes (9 percent).

In addition, nearly half (47 percent) of Americans believe the most important function of a toll facility is to generate transportation revenue, versus reducing congestion (25 percent) or providing a higher level of customer service (13 percent).

Improve what's already out there

Finn said qualitative research among many of HNTB's transportation clients shows a strong appetite for insights into the power of tolling. "Many states without legislation to support tolling have a keen interest in advancing such initiatives and understanding the benefits," he said.

Most Americans would support tolls that fund improvements for either the road on which it's paid (53 percent) or other existing roadways (45 percent) - far fewer (18 percent) would want these toll revenues to be devoted to new construction.

"Throughout the country, there's an overwhelming sentiment that it's important to concentrate on infrastructure that already exists rather than building from scratch," Finn said.

The fairest of them all

As public support builds, tolls might be less about where the money goes and more about benefits to drivers. More than two in three (68 percent) Americans don't really think about tolls without considering convenience - they would be willing to pay a higher toll fare if it saved them time on the road.

Among the different types of tolling, a slight majority (52 percent) think it is acceptable to be charged a toll to use a high-occupancy toll lane, where drivers pay a toll to travel in a congestion-free lane versus adjacent, traditional free lanes. Other options were less popular, with approximately three in 10 (30 percent) accepting tolls to drive on an uncongested roadway or to cross a state border (24 percent).

In fact, HOT lanes are the most popular form of tolling, with about half (51 percent) of Americans believing they are worthwhile - more than road and bridge tolls managed by local or state governments (37 percent), those managed by private companies (21 percent) or even congestion pricing (20 percent).

Experience with HOT lanes also may be a factor, with nearly six in 10 (57 percent) Westerners and 55 percent of Southerners thinking HOT lanes are worthwhile tolls, compared to 47 percent of Midwesterners and 40 percent of Northeasterners. Southern California was the first region to implement the managed lanes concept nearly 15 years ago, and additional facilities are under construction in that state and elsewhere, including Georgia and Virginia.

Current U.S. toll users pleased to pay

Seventy-six percent of Americans who drive on roads and bridges with tolls say they are satisfied with most of the tolling systems they use.

But despite this general satisfaction, 61 percent of drivers admit they have purposely avoided a road or bridge with tolls at least once.

Unfortunately, the reason for such avoidance sometimes comes from some snap judgments about tolls - 43 percent feel that tolls are generally too costly, and another 24 percent view most toll plazas as high-traffic areas.

"Technology now allows us to use video cameras and transponders to conduct transactions at highway speeds," Finn said. "We're generating revenue, reducing congestion and saving time. There's no need to slow down and throw change in a bucket; just keep driving."

And for nearly three in five (57 percent) Americans, the future of tolling would ideally be a combination of cash and electronic collection on local roads and bridges.

About the survey

HNTB's America THINKS survey polled a random nationwide sample of 1,005 Americans between June 25 and July 1, 2010. It was conducted by Kelton Research, which used an e-mail invitation and online survey. Quotas were set to ensure reliable and accurate representation of the total U.S. population ages 18 and over. The margin of error is +/- 3.1 percent.

About HNTB

HNTB Corporation is an employee-owned infrastructure firm serving federal, state, municipal, military and private clients. With nearly a century of service, HNTB has the insight to understand the life cycle of infrastructure and the perspective to solve the most complex technical, financial and operational challenges. Professionals nationwide provide award-winning planning, design, program management and construction management services. For more information, visit www.hntb.com.