Trucks at Work

Evaluating transportation valuation

The ongoing debate over the current state of and future strategy for the nation’s transportation infrastructure heated up several thousand degrees over the last week following the notorious I-5 bridge collapse.

Yet while the transportation “experts” continue to wrangle over any number of infrastructure issues (whether or not to beef up funding being the biggest) what’s the perspective of the general public in all of this? Put very succulently: does John Q. Public care very much about transportation infrastructure?

Well, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) decided to find out via 1,001 telephone interviews of American adults at the beginning of April (well before the I-5 bridge collapse, let’s note).

This survey – conducted by TeleNation, a subsidiary of Ipsos Public Affairs – included both randomly selected landline and cell phone interviews, conducted in either English or Spanish depending on the respondent, with the data weighted to reflect current population study statistics on age within gender, U.S. Census region, market size, education, race and ethnicity.

OK, since that’s now out of the way, here are ARTBA’s survey findings:

  • Between 75% to 80% declare that 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.
  • About 8-in-10 respondents (78%) said driving a motor vehicle is "very" or "extremely" important to daily living.
  • However, just 21% (including 34% of self-declared “low income” respondents) say the same about using public transportation;
  • Nearly 9-in-10 (88%) say transportation infrastructure is important to maintaining a strong U.S. economy;
  • Some 74% agreed that "investing in transportation infrastructure should be a core function of the federal government."
  • A further 83% say the U.S. transportation network is important in ensuring national defense and emergency response capabilities;
  • And no matter where they reside—rural or urban—71% of respondents agreed that growing traffic congestion in U.S. metropolitan areas is making products everywhere more expensive because congestion increases transportation costs for businesses.

Yet Pete Ruane, ARTBA’s president, noted a troubling disconnect gleaned from this poll: many of the respondents said they had no idea how much they pay each month in the state and federal gas taxes that are the primary source of funding for road and transit capital investments.

In fact, when asked the question how much their household pays each month in gas taxes, 40% of respondents say they "don't know." What they “don’t know” is that according to the latest data available to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the average U.S. household paid $46 per month in gas taxes in 2011.

Interestingly, 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 what’s pay in state and federal gas taxes, while paying three-and-a-half times as much monthly, on average, for landline and cell phone service ($161) and nearly two-and-a-half times as much for cable and satellite television, radio and internet access ($124).

“We pay almost 19% a month more, on average, just for internet access,” Ruane added. “Yet 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.”

Ruane concludes, based on the monthly household bill comparisons above, that the U.S. is significantly under investing in our road and transit infrastructure relative to many other basic services relied upon by everyone in the U.S. every single day.

“This research clearly shows there’s a disconnect between our perceived value of transportation mobility and our personal investment in the infrastructure that provides it,” he stressed. “Transportation infrastructure 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."

It’s Ruane’s hope, too, that ARTBA’s survey data will help bring the transportation investment conversation down to the kitchen table level, rather than talking about “trillion dollar” needs.

"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,” he emphasized.

Plenty in transportation will no doubt agree and vehemently disagree with ARTBA’s conclusions based on their survey findings. Yet I think that growing “disconnect” in terms of the value Americans place on transportation absent an understanding of what they’re paying to get it is a major stumbling block in the infrastructure debate that needs fixing. 

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