National Academies Press: OpenBook

Public Perception of Mileage-Based User Fees (2016)

Chapter: CHAPTER SIX Conclusions: Key Findings and Recommendations for Future Research

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Suggested Citation:"CHAPTER SIX Conclusions: Key Findings and Recommendations for Future Research." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Public Perception of Mileage-Based User Fees. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23401.
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Suggested Citation:"CHAPTER SIX Conclusions: Key Findings and Recommendations for Future Research." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Public Perception of Mileage-Based User Fees. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23401.
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Page 45
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Suggested Citation:"CHAPTER SIX Conclusions: Key Findings and Recommendations for Future Research." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Public Perception of Mileage-Based User Fees. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23401.
×
Page 46
Page 47
Suggested Citation:"CHAPTER SIX Conclusions: Key Findings and Recommendations for Future Research." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Public Perception of Mileage-Based User Fees. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23401.
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Page 47

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42 CHAPTER SIX CONCLUSIONS: KEY FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH Declining real-value fuel tax revenues has led to interest in the viability of mileage-based user fees (MBUFs) as a replacement for fuel tax revenues. This NCHRP synthesis report identifies existing U.S. public opinion research on MBUFs and presents a meta-analysis of the results to assess what the public thinks about these fees. Using three primary sources of information—qualitative research studies, public opinion surveys, and media coverage—the study team iden- tified the primary themes that emerge about public opinion and MBUFs. SUMMARY OF KEY STUDY FINDINGS This chapter summarizes the types and nature of research and media about MBUFs that were identified and presents the key conclusions drawn about public opinion on MBUFs. Chapters three, four, and five presented the findings from analyses of qualitative studies, quantitative studies, and media content, respectively. This summary covers insights that emerge when one considers the findings from all three data sources together. Availability of Research and Media Coverage on MBUF Public Opinion For this report, the study team evaluated qualitative studies, public opinion polls, and published media stories to determine public perceptions of MBUFs. The research identified a mod- est number of qualitative studies about MBUF opinion (12) and a somewhat larger number of surveys (38). Collectively, these works provide reasonably clear evidence about the gen- eral level of support for an MBUF. The qualitative studies and media stories offer strong hints about particular issues that concern the public, though the survey evidence does not make it possible to confirm that the wider public shares the specific concerns discussed in the qualitative research and media sto- ries. Finally, the survey evidence provides evidence about the general support level among some population subgroups of interest (e.g., by age or region of the country). The researchers also collected 359 media stories about MBUFs that were published from 2009 to 2014. These media stories were assessed through a content analysis process to determine how mileage fees themselves, as well as public opinion about mileage fees, were described in the media. The analysis revealed that media stories rarely included the views of members of the public or discussed the nature of public opinion about MBUFs. However, the specific issues discussed provide clues about the topics likely to be of inter- est to the general public. Public Opinion About MBUFs: Key Themes Level of Support for Mileage-Based User Fees All three sources of data analyzed—the qualitative research, surveys, and media stories—suggest that there is not yet majority support among the public for MBUFs. Looking across the 33 surveys that asked very generally about sup- port for the concept of an MBUF (without specifying that the fee would replace the gas tax), mean support was only 24%. Support levels ranged from 8% to 50% and were fairly consistent across a wide range of demographic and socio- economic characteristics. However, the small number of surveys done with pilot program participants suggests that direct experience with an MBUF through participation in a pilot program noticeably increases support for these fees. Support among pilot participants ranged from 37% to 71%. All the qualitative study reports described in depth the many concerns respondents had about MBUFs, whereas the reports discussed far fewer positive opinions. Thus, the meta-analysis of the qualitative research supports the more generalizable survey research finding that most participants did not support the MBUF concept. Related to the question of whether people support the general concept of an MBUF is the question of whether they support replacing the gas tax with an MBUF. Both the surveys and the qualitative studies found that participants saw no compelling reason to replace the gas tax. The aver- age support across the 23 survey questions addressing the replacement of a gasoline tax with an MBUF system (pre- sented as a hypothetical scenario) was 23%, with a range of 8% to 42%. Complementing this survey finding, the authors of many of the qualitative studies concluded that the public saw no reason to replace the gas tax with an MBUF. The synthesis results provide tentative evidence that MBUF support may rise over time, especially if there are new pilot programs or other activities that familiarize people

43 with the MBUF concept. First, the meta-analysis of survey data shows that mean support for replacing the gas tax with an MBUF has increased slightly over time. Second, surveys of participants in two MBUF pilot programs found relatively high support levels, suggesting that direct experience with an MBUF noticeably increases support for these fees. (The act of participating in a pilot might, in and of itself, raise support.) Third, the media story analysis found that the per- centage of stories taking a positive tone toward MBUFs has gradually increased, from 6% in 2010 to 27% in 2014. These various pieces of evidence suggesting that MBUF support may increase over time align with existing social psychology research, which suggests that message repetition is a key fac- tor in changing public opinion and attitudes toward an issue. Specific Issues of Concern with Mileage-Based User Fees The analyses of qualitative studies and of media stories pro- vide a rich and detailed picture of the factors that most likely are causing low support for MBUFs, and in a couple of cases, survey evidence indicates that these factors do indeed matter to the public at large. Privacy was a prominent theme in the focus group stud- ies and media stories. The topic was discussed in virtu- ally all the qualitative studies evaluated, and the authors of several studies specifically called out privacy as one of the main objections to an MBUF system. Participants were most alarmed at the idea of technology that collected data on the location or time of travel, but even simple odometer-based systems raised concern. The media story analysis supports the notion that privacy is a common concern: half of the sto- ries discussed privacy issues in some capacity. As for the survey data, responses to seven of the 10 privacy questions asked showed that at least half of the respondents considered privacy to be a concern. A second prominent theme in the qualitative studies and media stories was fairness, with the MBUF system framed as both fair and unfair. For example, many focus group par- ticipants were concerned that fuel-efficient-vehicle owners would pay comparatively more taxes under an MBUF scheme than they would under a gas tax system, while owners of less fuel-efficient vehicles would pay comparatively less. These people thought it was unfair that a switch from the gas tax to an MBUF would penalize those who were doing their part to protect the environment and reduce greenhouse gas emis- sions. Others thought an MBUF would be fairer than the gas tax, because all drivers would pay to support road costs, including drivers of fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel vehi- cles. Yet other fairness discussions focused on how MBUFs would affect lower-income drivers, rural drivers, truckers, and commuters, and on whether an MBUF system would allow some unethical drivers to cheat the system by avoid- ing payment altogether. The survey data do not provide clear evidence about which fairness issues are most important to people, but the data do support the conclusion that fairness is a serious concern. The focus group analysis revealed concerns related to administering MBUFs. People distrusted the technology itself or the government’s ability to administer the program accurately, without billing errors. Other administrative con- cerns focused on program cost and, to a lesser extent, on the logistics associated with billing for a state driver’s travel in other states or an out-of-state driver’s travel within an MBUF state. Additional issues that emerged across the focus groups, media stories, or both were that people worry that switch- ing from the gas tax to an MBUF would remove a policy incentive to stimulate the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles. Participants also voiced objections to MBUF programs with a congestion pricing component and expressed concern that an MBUF would require drivers to make large, infrequent payments that stressed household budgets more than fuel taxes that are paid frequently in small amounts. The stud- ies and media stories also indicated that people object to the potential complexity of a structure for collecting these fees; if there is to be an MBUF at all, they want a simple structure. Perceived Benefits of Mileage-Based User Fees The qualitative studies and media stories suggested a few reasons that people might support MBUFs. Some people liked the fact that MBUFs could charge electric and fuel- efficient vehicles for their road usage. Further, the media story analysis showed that some people viewed the MBUF system as a “sustainable” or “innovative” revenue source, and an MBUF was sometimes described as a possible “solu- tion” to the problem of funding transportation infrastructure into the future. FUTURE RESEARCH NEEDS The results of this study suggest several research gaps, which are discussed here along with possible avenues for filling those gaps. Additional Survey and Qualitative Research One gap in the public opinion research is that existing stud- ies do not look carefully at the opinions of important sub- groups within the population. For example, there is very little research identifying the specific perceptions held by popu- lations of special concern as defined by federal civil rights regulations and guidance documents, such as low-income and minority residents. Among all the qualitative and survey studies reviewed, only one specifically explored the views of a population of special concern (Agrawal et al. 2011). Fur- ther, few surveys or qualitative studies present findings for

44 subsets of respondents defined by income, race, or ethnic- ity, and the survey projects that do report findings for these groups often have sample sizes too small to permit general- izing the results to the larger group of interest. Therefore, it would be valuable to conduct additional qualitative and then survey research to understand the perceptions of low-income and minority residents. This research would provide high- quality information that government agencies could use to complete environmental justice analyses of potential mile- age fee programs. Also, there is a perception that MBUFs may have differ- ent impacts on rural versus urban residents, because rural residents usually have fewer travel alternatives to driving. It would be useful to design surveys that compare the percep- tion of urban and rural residents to confirm whether or not this perception holds among the full population or among members of one of those groups. In addition to looking at the opinions of key population subgroups, more research is needed with the full population. One research gap is that a number of issues and concerns identified in the qualitative research studies have not been thoroughly addressed in quantitative public opinion surveys. Most of these surveys asked only about support or opposi- tion to MBUFs in general. Numerous opinions and concerns revealed in the qualitative research and media coverage have not been well tested in survey research, so it is impossible to know whether the larger public shares these views. A few surveys have included privacy and fairness issues, as well as a limited number of questions on topics related to adminis- tration or technology, but more surveys are needed to develop a broader understanding of public opinion on these and other issues raised in the qualitative research and media stories. The following additional topics could be usefully explored through survey research: • How does a respondent’s knowledge about current transportation revenue options influence support for MBUFs? • Does educating people about current transportation issues change support for MBUFs? The qualitative studies found that most participants had almost no accurate understanding of how governments pay for transportation or of the links between road usage and road construction and maintenance costs. Surveys could be designed to measure support before and after respondents receive education about these issues. Surveys could also compare the impact of various edu- cational messages on MBUF support. • How does messaging influence public opinion on MBUFs? For example, does opinion vary depending on whether people are told what the annual cost would be for a typical driver? Or if they are told that the revenue raised will be dedicated to specific purposes? Survey research evidence suggests that support for gas taxes rises when people are given this type of information, so it would be worth investigating whether the same pattern holds for MBUFs. Turning to a different aspect of survey research, most existing survey studies present only descriptive statistics or simple bivariate analysis. There is a need for multivari- ate analysis to better understand how factors such as demo- graphic characteristics, travel behavior, vehicle type owned, and attitudes influence public opinion on MBUFs. Finally, there is no large-sample-size, longitudinal state or national survey that delves in detail into public opinions about mileage fees. Such a survey would be useful for a vari- ety of purposes. First, if the sample size were large enough, it would be possible to compare attitudes in different regions of a state or country. Second, such a survey could be designed to ensure enough responses from populations of special concern, or urban versus rural residents, so that the opinions of those groups could be identified with confidence. Third, a survey focused primarily on opinions related to MBUFs could explore many of the issues raised in the qualitative research that have so far not been thoroughly covered in survey research, including concerns about administration and people’s ability to pay infre- quent, lump-sum MBUF bills. Fourth, a longitudinal survey would reveal whether and how public opinion fluctuates over time in response to changes in the economy, vehicle technol- ogy, and transportation funding policy. Research on Guidance on Most Effective Practices for MBUF Survey Research To help agencies that wish to survey the public about mile- age fees, it would be useful to conduct the research needed to develop a brief guidance document that outlines advice on how agencies can design a survey questionnaire, sampling plan, and data analysis plan. The guide could include topics such as these: • Contextual questions that would help interpret findings on MBUFs. For example, surveys could include ques- tions that probe support for alternative funding mecha- nisms such as higher gas taxes or tolling and questions that determine what respondents know about the gas tax rates and annual dollar amounts they currently pay. • Sampling strategies to ensure that there are enough respondents from populations of special interest so that their responses can be generalized to the full subgroups in question (e.g., low-income, minority, or rural residents). Research into Creating an MBUF Public Opinion Research Clearinghouse It would be extremely useful to future researchers to have a single online location for all surveys and qualitative studies

45 on public opinion of MBUFs. Ideally, this resource would include survey questionnaires, raw and cleaned data files, and summary reports describing the findings from each study. Researchers and professionals could use an MBUF clearing- house for many purposes, from analyzing the data in new ways to gathering ideas for wording research and survey questions. Research is necessary to identify an appropriate design for such a web resource, an entity to host it, and ongoing funding to maintain and update the resource over time. One example of such a clearinghouse, which could be used as a starting point for further investigation, is the Metropoli- tan Travel Survey Archive (http://www.surveyarchive.org/ about.html). Additional Research on Pilot Program Participants Relatively little information is available about MBUF pilot program participants. This synthesis found that support for MBUFs appears to rise after people have had direct experi- ence with the concept through a pilot program. Therefore, it would be helpful to conduct more pilot programs that include extensive public opinion research, as the views of these par- ticipants could be particularly useful for predicting how the public would react if an MBUF were actually implemented. Additional Media Story Analysis Research Because major news media databases such as the ones used for this study (Lexis-Nexis and Proquest) do not capture all relevant stories on a topic, additional media analysis using different search methods would be useful. The databases used (and other comparable ones) omit certain types of sto- ries presented in the sources covered. For example, some letters to the editor or wire stories might not be included. Also, the databases exclude smaller media sources, such as community papers, as well as influential public interest blog sites. Therefore, it would be valuable to conduct more focused media analysis in states, such as Oregon and Min- nesota, that have seriously debated or experimented with MBUFs. Such work would require identifying a set of rele- vant local media sources and gathering news stories through a search of each one’s archives. Research Using Data from Social Media To date there is no analysis of social media commentary about mileage fees, a data source that could prove useful as a complement to other research methods. With the tremendous proliferation of social media outlets such as Facebook, Twit- ter, blogging sites, YouTube, and Reddit, the role of these sites in influencing public opinion is likely to expand con- siderably in the future. Further, social media have significant potential for public opinion research because they provide researchers with fast access to a huge amount of data and do not require recruiting participants to participate in a research process (Murphy et al. 2014). However, as with any research method, there are potential limitations to social media data analysis, which any research project would need to account for. Probability sampling is not possible with social media research, so findings cannot be generalized to the full population with confidence. Also, significant portions of the population do not participate in these forums, so their opinions would be missed. Yet another issue facing researchers is how to properly assess sentiment using automated sentiment analysis, because the huge quan- tity of data usually precludes having a person analyze and code every data point (Bialik 2012). While algorithms can be trained to decode what straightforward written language actually means, it is challenging to interpret sarcasm, slang, emoticons, or acronyms such as ROFL (rolling on the floor, laughing). For example, in some cases ROFL might denote a happy, positive sentiment, but it could also mean something very different if used sarcastically in a tweet such as “Our county plans to implement #vmtfee rofl.” CONCLUSIONS As fuel tax revenues decline in real terms per vehicle mile traveled—and changes in vehicle technology suggest that this trend will accelerate—policymakers are actively exploring the possibility of replacing fuel taxes with MBUFs. Indeed, more than half the states in the country have already taken some action to investigate the potential value of adopting an MBUF. Mirroring this interest within the policy arena, a small but growing body of research has looked at public opinion about MBUFs. This synthesis documents a number of findings that emerge across the existing research. The majority of the pub- lic does not yet support MBUFs. People’s key concerns most likely include privacy, fairness, distrust of the technology and administrative capacity needed to collect mileage-based user fees, and a belief that the gas tax still functions better than an MBUF would. The study findings also show that additional research is needed to establish a more nuanced understanding of the public’s specific concerns, as well as to understand the concerns of important population subgroups.

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TRB’s National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Synthesis 487: Public Perception of Mileage-Based User Fees explores proposals to replace the current motor fuel tax with a road usage charge assessed on vehicle-miles traveled, often called a mileage-base user fee (MBUF). The report identifies and assesses various measures of public opinion on the MBUF concept.

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