Survey: Idahoans weigh in on 2014's biggest non-legislative issue

About half of Idaho voters are ready to discuss transportation funding; three in four say a fair and equitable tax structure should be a priority  

By Dave Carlson / AAA Idaho
Jan. 21, 2014

BOISE – Road funding proposals may not get a hearing during the 2014 Legislature, but a new AAA Idaho survey suggests a conversation with taxpayers may be just what the doctor ordered.

Conducted the third week in December, AAA's statewide poll of 404 voters includes some expected and not-so-predictable perspectives about how best state and local communities can pay for an aging road and bridges infrastructure.

Arguably, the most direct verdict is that Idahoans are amenable to paying more if all highway users pay a share proportionate to the costs they impose on state and local roads and bridges.

"The survey shows there are some funding ideas with little or no traction and others that might hold some promise," said AAA Idaho President Jim Manion. "We encourage elected officials to review the results to see what taxpaying constituents are really saying."

Commissioned by AAA Idaho and conducted by Riley Research Associates, the survey indicates Idahoans are equally split—47 percent for and 47 percent against—when it comes to new or higher fees and taxes to maintain the preserve state and local roads and bridges.

That response could be viewed as a glass half empty or half full, AAA says.

"We understand elected officials may be hesitant to take on the $262 million annual funding shortage in an election year, but we hope there's room to listen now instead of just kicking the can down the road," Manion said.

The automobile organization said the survey is not intended to promote particular solutions. It tests multiple funding mechanisms, with a variety of questions designed to get an accurate, more complete sense of what taxpayers think.

While less than half the respondents indicate support in the initial funding question, for instance, in a subsequent question 71 percent say they would be willing to pay additional amounts ranging from under $5 up to $30 a month for roads and bridges where they live.

The last time lawmakers took up the issue in 2009, a registration fee proposal from the governor's office targeted the owners of cars and light trucks with most of an eventual $60 million tab, while giving trucks in the 60,000-lb to 129,000-lb weight classes a near free pass, AAA said.

Anti-tax sentiment that year, along with an economy reeling from the effects of the Great Recession, was enough to kill the gas tax and registration fee proposals.

AAA's December survey explored voter sentiment on a variety of funding options, including user fees and taxes, automotive sales tax receipts, and notions as diverse as registration fees based on actual miles of travel and temporary increases in the sales tax to pay for transportation projects.

The survey shows that more Idahoans oppose a 5-cent gas tax increase (52%) than support it (42%). That option historically gets the most attention from elected officials, due to its potential to raise cash quickly and easily.

"Would Idahoans view that option differently if they had a better idea of the actual impact on their own pocketbooks?" Manion asked. It's possible they would, he says.

The out-of-pocket expense of a 5-cent state gas tax increase for a car that gets 20 miles per gallon and puts 12,000 miles on the odometer would be $2.50 per month, or $30 a year.

According to the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD), a 5-cent gas and special fuels tax increase would raise an additional $45 million annually.

That may not solve the a problem characterized as a $262 million annual shortage by the Governor's 2010 transportation funding task force, AAA says, but it's a start.

Given a choice, more Idahoans—61 percent—said they would prefer a $10 annual increase in passenger registration fees, compared to a five-cent gas tax increase (22 percent).

Another question sought respondents' top preference among five options covered elsewhere in the survey. Here's how Idahoans responded: raising passenger vehicle registration fees by $10 (46%); using general fund sales tax revenue receipts from the purchase of tires and other auto merchandise (21%); raising fuel taxes by 5 cents per gallon (12%); increasing the state sales tax by 1 percent for a defined period of time to be spent on transportation (8%); removing the state tax exemption for gasoline sales with proceeds to transportation (5%); no response (9%).

On a stand-alone basis, the strongest performing of fund options considered was use of sales tax receipts on tires and automotive products. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents (64%) support this idea. Legislators have considered that notion previously.

Weakest of the transportation options (24% favoring, 69% opposed) was the suggestion to eliminate the current sales tax exemption on gasoline, with proceeds to be spent on transportation. The idea was floated in a funding bill printed at the end of the 2013 legislative session.

Also unpopular (66% opposed, 29% favoring) was an idea to increase Idaho's sales tax from the current rate of 6 percent to 7 percent, for a defined period of time. It, too, was suggested as a funding option in a bill drafted last session.

Currently, passenger vehicle registration fees are based on the age of the vehicle. AAA and others believe a more efficient fee structure based on miles of travel would be a fairer way to determine registration fees. But a majority of respondents (54%) favor retaining the current system; 34 percent support a vehicle miles traveled formula; 12 percent have no clear preference.

The survey data, including cross tabs that break down responses related to geographic region, respondent age, political party affiliation and other demographics, are included in a survey analysis AAA has already shared with a few key officials, including the governor's office.

"Whether we act this year or next, this information carries weight to help elected officials better understand constituent concerns," Manion said.

Idahoans want fair funding

A significant number of Idaho voters (73%) support a tax and fee structure that accounts for the costs each type of vehicle imposes on the infrastructure.

A 2010 Highway Cost Allocation Study (HCAS) conducted at the request of the Idaho Transportation Department for the Governor's Task Force on Modernizing Transportation Funding revealed that long-haul interstate trucks are underpaying their share of the costs they impose, while cars and Idaho-based trucks are overpaying their share.

The study confirmed the gap between what passenger vehicles and interstate trucks pay for the roads and bridges has widened in the past dozen years.

"Fixing the funding problem means accounting for the weight and miles trucks put on the system," says Dave Carlson, public affairs director for AAA Idaho. "It's significant and it makes sense that Idahoans expect a user pay system should be transparent, accountable and fair to the people who use it."

Seven in ten Idahoans (72%) support a graduated fee that includes weight and distance components to more accurately assess the costs imposed by commercial trucks. A tiered registration system for trucks was enacted by the Idaho Legislature in 2000. Several studies have concluded that fee structure has resulted in the loss of millions of dollars of road revenues and is inefficient in properly charging heavy trucks for their road use.

To survey, or not to survey

Gov. Butch Otter told members of the Associated General Contractors (AGC) in December that a show of public support for increasing revenue for roads and bridges would be a prerequisite to any serious action on the topic during the 2014 session.

This AAA legislative survey was scheduled months in advance of the Governor's remarks, and was in the final proofing stages when Otter made his December remarks.

"We opted to support the governor's efforts for a more comprehensive poll, but AAA decided to complete its own survey to ask questions we felt were important to the discussion," Carlson said.

In September, AAA Idaho launched its Better Roads, Fair Funding statewide initiative, ( hoping to lay important groundwork and to determine the sentiments of Idaho taxpayers.

Based on the initiative's communication efforts and growing supporter list during period, AAA determined there was significant, if not overwhelming support for a conversation on the issue.

Other topics in the survey

Nine in ten respondents (91%) support legislative action to ban talking and texting on electronic devices for novice drivers 18 and younger. That's a two-percent increase from the results of the same survey question posed a year ago.

HB 155, legislation supported by AAA a year ago, received a nod from the House Transportation Committee, but the bill was pulled from floor consideration later in the session.

"There may have been confusion about the purpose of that legislation a year ago, falling on the heels of a texting ban that had passed just a year earlier," Carlson said.

Higher crash risks involving teen drivers was addressed by a question to determine whether Idahoans support raising the entry age for driver training.

Sixty-three percent of Idahoans support raising the age above the current 14-year, six-month minimum, which is among the nation's lowest.

Download Idaho survey:recap on transportation funding (PDF)

Downloard Idaho survey: teen driving safety (PDF)

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ABOUT THE SURVEY: The survey was conducted by Riley Research Associates, a nationally recognized public opinion research company in Portland, Ore. The survey includes 404 telephone interviews from a representative sample of Idaho voters, conducted the third week of December. Respondents represent all 44 Idaho counties. This scientific survey is representative of Idaho's likely voting public, qualified as those having voted in some or all of the past four elections. The sampling error associated with this survey is +/-5% at the 95% confidence level. That means if the survey was repeated 100 times, in 95 of those cases, the question/responses would not vary more than the sampling error.

Published 1-24-14