Two national polls on voters' attitudes toward transportation policy point to potential usefulness -- and constraints -- of using survey data to inform policy decisions.
The more recent poll was conducted by Transportation for America, a coalition of environmental, smart growth, alternative transportation and public health groups. It found that two-thirds of voters wanted more options besides driving and that 58 percent favor spending more on public transportation services. In fact, 51 percent were willing to have their taxes increased to improve mass transit. The telephone survey contacted 800 registered voters between Feb. 27 and March 2 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.
The other poll was released in April 2008 by the American Highway Users Alliance, which represents motorists, truckers and other groups whose business depends on highways. It found that 93 percent considered it important that their elected representatives support dedicating fuel taxes and other highway user fees solely to road and bridge improvements, and 57 percent supported some increase in fuel taxes to fund highway and bridge projects. That figure rose to 71 percent after respondents heard the economic and safety arguments for an increase. The online survey of 1,000 likely voters was conducted April 4-6, 2008, with an error margin of plus or minus 3.1 percent.
Yet respondents to the T4 America poll listed roads second to rail as being neglected in federal spending -- and they put sidewalks and bike paths last. Similarly, roughly 80 percent of respondents to the Highway Users' poll considered bike and pedestrian paths a local government responsibility and major highways and bridges a federal responsibility (although a majority said funding urban light rail and trolley transit is the states' job). And both polls clearly indicate that voters will pay more for a transportation system that better meets their needs.
While polls of voter attitudes like these can give lawmakers valuable information in writing the next surface transportation law, they can also present a confusing and even contradictory picture. What kinds of policy reforms might this polling data suggest be considered in the reauthorization debate? How helpful can polls be in the policy-making process, if they belong there at all? What other public opinion polls about transportation are out there that you think would add to the debate?