Americans would support a higher gas tax if told how the money would be spent

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CC BY 2.0 David Wilson

Would you support a higher gas tax if it meant that the additional money would be spent on improving transportation energy efficiency and repairing roads and bridges?

If so, you're not alone, according to the results of a new study from Michigan State University (MSU), which found that US voters would be in favor of a gas tax increase of at least 50 cents per gallon if they knew how the extra revenue would be used.

Rising gas prices, for any reason, tend to be an unwelcome change for most drivers, especially when the economy is stagnant, as our auto-centric nation relies on single-party vehicles for most of our transportation needs, and any increase in transport expenses means a decrease in the amount of money able to be spent on other needs. And while earlier studies found that 80-90% of Americans were willing to pay more for vehicles and for electricity that was sourced from renewable energy, they also found that about 70% opposed higher gas and electricity taxes, and that increases in gas taxes are "consistently the least popular option for reducing use of fossil fuels."

However, two MSU sociologists, Stan Kaplowitz, and Aaron M. McCright, conducted a study, consisting of eight surveys polling about 3000 total participants, which found that an increase in gas taxes would be acceptable if certain conditions were met, including being used to repair bridges and roads, improve energy efficiency, or be refunded to all taxpayers equally.

Specifically, the MSU study found that most people supported a 20 cent per gallon tax increase to repair roads and bridges, as well as the following:

  • On average, people would accept (i.e., support or be neutral towards) a gas tax increase of 51 cents per gallon if the proposal was revenue-neutral, meaning any extra revenue would be refunded to taxpayers equally.
  • On average, people would accept a slightly larger increase, 56 cents per gallon, if the proposal directed extra revenue toward energy-efficient transportation.
  • If extra revenue were directed toward road and bridge repairs, and people were also told why current gas tax revenue is inadequate for that purpose, they would accept an average gas tax increase of 53 cents.

"Raising the gas tax is widely considered the most market-friendly solution to reducing fuel consumption, since you’re not restricting people’s choice. If they want to drive more, or use a less fuel-efficient vehicle, they may do so, but they’ve got to pay more. But this also creates an interesting paradox: What works best is also least popular. As we’ve seen, no major politician in 30 years has been willing to touch it, including President Obama." - Stan Kaplowitz

The study was published in the journal Energy Policy: Effects of policy characteristics and justifications on acceptance of a gasoline tax increase

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