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COMPILATION OF PUBLIC OPINION DATA ON TOLLS AND ROAD PRICING SUMMARY Traffic congestion is perceived as one of the most pressing problems in high density or high growth areas today. Addressing this issue generally involves some type of improvement in roadway infrastructure or capacity. In recent years there has been a significant and wide- spread interest in the use of flat tolls, variable tolls, and other forms of road pricing, as a source of funding, a means to manage congestion, and a way to provide additional traveler options. This increase in interest and use is occurring in many states and regions that have had little prior experience with road pricing, as well as in areas that have well-established tolling programs. Prior empirical research in transportation indicates that public acceptance of tolls and road pricing is low--in spite of the perception of traffic problems as serious. These prior studies did not have the broad set and more recent data that are compiled and presented in this synthesis. Our study indicates that in the aggregate there is a clear majority support for tolling and road pricing. A number of factors influence public opinion including the type of pricing, the use of tolling revenues, and any clarifying information that is presented when opinions are being solicited. These findings are based on a quantitative analysis of the survey data presented in this report. We acknowledge that our sample of surveys is small and that it was not randomly generated. At the same time, great care was taken in the development of our sample of public opinion data. We sampled for diversity by including a broad range of public opinion studies and used snowball sampling techniques to uncover rare or hard-to-find research studies. Although certainly not exhaustive, this synthesis provides a broad perspective on public opinions across the United States and internationally. It was based on a thorough review of the published literature, a scan of national and international media stories on the topic, and con- tact with organizations with interest in or experience with tolling programs and road pricing. The focus was on breadth of information to provide an empirical review of the state of public opinion on this topic, without regard to positions on the issue. This synthesis annotates 110 data points. Data points are defined as a poll, survey, or focus group that captured public opinion. These data span the geography of the United States, and countries outside of the United States, as well as types of road pricing, including traditional tolling, express toll lanes, high-occupancy toll lanes, cordon tolling and area charging, and publicprivate partnerships. The synthesis also touches on tax-related initiatives. In the majority of cases presented here, measured public opinion tended to support rather than oppose charging for the use of roads. In this report, nearly half of the polls or surveys were characterized as having "high" validity. We found public support for tolling in most of these high validity studies. This finding adds credence to the somewhat contradictory finding of majority support for tolling and road pricing. Popular discourse would have one believe that the public is opposed to tolling and road pricing. This perception often stems from the political nature of given communities and their various interest groups, which can obscure the majority opinion on complex subject matters such as tolling and road pricing. Rather than stimulate discussion, the transformation of pricing into a political issue has in some communities resulted in policies that possess superficial
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2 majority appeal but fail to address the real issues of how to deal with transportation infra- structure financing or congestion management. Our results highlight an apparent disconnect between political perceptions of the public attitude toward tolling and actual public opinions. The application of tolling programs and pricing policies largely depend on the willingness of public officials and policy makers to do so. Although interest in pricing has grown among these groups, there remains considerable uncertainty and misunderstanding among them about the overall public opinion on charging for the use of roads. One reason for this uncertainty is the consideration of public, rather than of opinion, when identifying the public's opinions about road pricing and tolling programs. Instead of a well- defined, distinct public, many publics exist--and the state of public opinion depends on-- which particular public has been polled or surveyed. Each of these distinct subgroups may hold different opinions of road pricing and tolling programs. This synthesis uncovered differences in opinion measures when the public is defined as users or potential users, registered voters, or general public. In addition, the rapid growth of opinion polling since the mid-1930s has meant that the public is polled from many different angles--from questioning randomly selected respondents in telephone interviews to tallying the numbers of self-selected respondents who call in or click a response button on a web page. Regardless of how collection is done, poll results are widely regarded as an accurate gauge of public opinion. Although the quality of scientific research is typically controlled through the process of publication and replication, poll results are often published and quoted without critical scrutiny. This situation leads to seemingly disparate or often conflicting poll results. This synthesis determined that poll results differed based on the sponsor of the research, whether an agency with tolling or pricing authority, the media, or an independent institution. Although there are many potential sources of error, surveys that are done according to sound scientific methods can provide highly accurate insights into public opinions. Data in this synthesis were analyzed qualitatively to extract eight broad themes in public opinion results. These eight themes were consistent regardless of the public polled, the type of road pricing project, region of the United States, or other potentially discriminating factors. 1. The public wants to see the value. When a concrete benefit is linked to the idea of tolling or charging for road usage (e.g., reducing congestion on a specific highly con- gested facility) as opposed to tolling in the abstract, public support is higher. It is impor- tant to articulate benefits as they pertain to individuals, to communities, and to society as a whole. 2. The public wants to react to tangible and specific examples. When public opinion is measured in the context of a specific project as opposed to a general principle, the level of support is higher. In the former context, road pricing is perceived of as a "choice" rather than as punishment. This is the likely reason that low-income individuals gener- ally support tolling and road pricing. Regardless of their economic circumstances, they appreciate having the choice of paying to use uncongested lanes or roadways. 3. The public cares about the use of revenues. Use of tolling revenues is a key determinant to the acceptance or rejection of tolling and road pricing. Revenues should be linked to specific uses not to specific agencies. Support tends to be higher when revenues are used for highway infrastructure, public transit improvements, or more rapidly completing necessary construction. 4. The public learns from experience. Support from a majority of citizens often cannot be expected from the outset. When the opportunity to use a tolled facility already exists, public support is higher than when it is simply a possibility for the future. Building sup- port is a long-term, continuous process that should not stop after implementation.
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3 5. The public uses knowledge and available information. When opinion is informed by objective explanation of the conditions and mechanics of tolling and its pros and cons, public support is higher than when there is no context for how tolling works. This fac- tor may explain why members of the public may express negative opinions about tolling or road pricing as theoretical constructs but will use a priced facility when it opens. 6. The public believes in equity but wants fairness. Public opposition of tolling is higher where there is perceived unfairness. This aspect relates to why having an alternative cost- free route is so important or why support is generally higher for tolling new facilities than for tolling existing facilities. The public needs to be reassured that the government is not treating them unfairly. In terms of equity, there is general agreement that deci- sions to use or not use a priced facility revolve around people's needs and preferences. Everyone, regardless of who they are or where they live, benefits from having a choice. 7. The public wants simplicity. When the mechanics of tolling or other user fee programs are simple and clear and therefore easy to understand, public support is higher than in situations where there is a high level of complexity in how pricing should be applied. Opposition is generally lower for the simplest proposals and increases as proposals become more complex. 8. The public favors tolls over taxes. Although there are isolated instances of groups pre- ferring tax increases over tolling, most individuals prefer tolling over taxes. With toll revenues, the public is more assured of getting their fair share, because revenues are gen- erated and applied locally. Also, tolling represents freedom of choice; only users pay. These themes can be thought of as lessons learned in garnering support for or raising oppo- sition to tolling and road pricing initiatives. Anticipated audiences for the final synthesis report include public officials, experts, and advocates on either side of the tolling and road pricing issue, as well as public relations, public education, or marketing professionals.