Americans like transit if they don’t have to pay

PHILADELPHIA — Americans would love to have more public transit.

Unless they have to pay for it.

A survey released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, a Washington environmental-advocacy group that is pro-transit, found Americans favored more local government spending on buses, trains, and light rail by a wide ratio: 68 percent to 25 percent.

But when asked how to pay for improvements in transit and highways, Americans said no to higher gas and sales taxes.

They supported having developers and commercial land owners foot the bill for new rail lines or stations, and they were OK with highway tolls to make users pay.

“They back systems that would require others to pay,” the NRDC researchers reported, “but are leery of a broad-based approach like a sales tax.”

In addition to the survey, the pollsters also conducted focus groups in three metro areas, including the Philadelphia suburbs, and they reported: “The immediate and overwhelmingly negative reaction to a gas tax cannot be overstated.”

“One Philadelphia-area woman burst out, ‘Oh, dear God!’ upon being queried about a gas tax, and the immediate reaction was immediate and negative across all the groups.

“There was a strong sense that the timing for a gas-tax increase is wrong — when the price of gas is already so high and many feel it will go higher.”

The issue is hot in Pennsylvania, where political leaders have been debating for months how to increase funding for roads, bridges, and transit, with Gov. Tom Corbett’s acknowledging the need for more money but adamantly opposing any increase in the state gasoline tax.

Corbett’s own transportation-funding advisory commission last year identified a shortfall of $3.5 billion a year in needed funding as of 2010, growing by about $1 million a day.

So Pennsylvania’s annual transportation-funding gap now stands at about $4.4 billion.

Corbett’s commission recommended the state increase motor-vehicle registration and license fees and raise a component of the gas tax to produce $2.5 billion more a year for highways, bridges, and mass transit.

Rob Perks, transportation-advocacy director for the NRDC, said voters more often supported specific tax increases for specific local projects than general tax increases.

The NRDC survey of 800 likely voters nationwide and 150 likely voters in Bucks and Montgomery Counties found wide support for increasing public transit rather than building more roads to relieve congestion and reduce pollution.

But the survey also found many people resistant to using public transit because they liked driving or because they have found transit inconvenient.

There was a partisan cast to the findings: Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to support an increase in local public-transit spending.

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