Today we revisit the idea of an increase in the NJ Gas Tax. Short version, people still don’t want a higher gas tax. Slightly longer version – for the first time since 1980 we asked about perceptions of road conditions in the state. Turns out lots of people think local and state roads are not in very bad condition, which may be part of the reason they resist a gas tax increase.

We asked about the gas tax in back in  February (31 percent supported a generic increase), again in late March  and once more in October (38 percent support). Today we find 41 percent in favor in our generic version of the question. But when we asked about a specific proposal to increase the tax 25 cents, we get a pretty strong NO. And reminding people the tax is nearly the lowest in the country doesn’t make them want a higher one more; if anything the opposite happens.

The full text of the release follows. Click here for a PDF of the release with text, questions, and tables.


Many think local and state roads are already in good shape

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – As winter weather bears down on New Jersey’s already crumbling roads, residents continue to oppose a gas tax increase, according to a new Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Despite active support from various state lawmakers, about six in 10 New Jerseyans are against hiking the gas tax no matter the context. Forty-one percent say they support the increase, compared with 56 percent who do not. Residents do not favor an increase even when told that the state’s gasoline tax – at 15 cents – is one of the lowest in the country.

“While not statistically significant, we may be seeing a slight uptick in generic support,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and professor of political science at Rutgers University. “In October, 38 percent were in favor of an increase, which was up seven points from April 2014. Even so, most New Jerseyans simply do not want a higher gas tax.”

One puzzle has been that, while “everyone agrees” that New Jersey roads are in terrible shape and the transportation trust fund used to improve them is broke, residents continue to oppose higher taxes dedicated to fixing the roads. The answer may be that apparently New Jersey drivers do not think the roads are actually that bad.

For the first time since 1980, Rutgers-Eagleton asked residents about the condition of local and state roads. Fifty-four percent replied that state roads – not including the Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, which are funded by tolls – are in either good (48 percent) or excellent (6 percent) shape. Another 36 percent see state roads as in only fair condition and 8 percent think they are in poor shape. This result is virtually unchanged from the 1980 poll.

Opinions on local roads are slightly more negative: 6 percent say they are excellent, while 33 percent call them good. A plurality of 41 percent says local road conditions are only fair, and 19 percent think they are poor.

“If New Jerseyans don’t actually think the roads are all that bad, it is going to be a hard sell to convince them to pay more taxes to maintain them,” noted Redlawsk. “In fact, not only do they not see the roads as crumbling for the most part, they also don’t think they are getting any worse: 42 percent think the roads are the same as the past few years, and a third actually says they’ve gotten better.”

Results are from a statewide poll of 750 residents contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from Dec. 3-10, 2014, with a margin of error of +/-4.0 percentage points.

New Jerseyans oppose Wisniewski’s proposed 25-cents hike

Besides asking an initial general question about a gas hike, the poll tested a recent proposal by Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) to increase the tax by 25 cents per gallon. It finds opposition is just as strong as the question without a specific increase offered. The poll randomly gave groups of respondents a different set of details about the consequences of the 25-cent per gallon hike. In each case, views were virtually the same, with about 60 percent expressing opposition.

“Interestingly, in April we found the proposal by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto could be supported by as many as 58 percent of New Jerseyans, depending on how much context is provided with the question,” said Redlawsk. “But eight months ago, that proposed nickel per year increase over three years amounted to only 1.5 percent of the then current price of gas. With gas prices plummeting, ironically a 25-cent increase is now more than 10 percent of the total per gallon cost and simply sounds like a very big deal.”

The poll divided respondents into three groups to ask about the Wisniewski proposal. One was told that gas costs would increase by about 10 percent, another that the increase would add about 80 cents a day to driving costs for the typical New Jersey driver, and the third that the gas tax would triple under the proposal. None of the versions resulted in significant differences in opposition, with 57 percent opposing the “10 percent” version, 59 percent the “80 cents version,” and 60 percent the “tripling the tax” version. However, some differences in support appear: 33 percent support the triple the tax version, while 37 percent are in favor when told the cost would be 80 cents per day, and 40 percent express support given the 10 percent scenario. Nonetheless, support for a 25-cent increase remains weak across all versions.

Those who give a higher rating to local roads are most opposed when told the gas tax hike would triple the state’s share, while those who give lower local road ratings are slightly more likely to be supportive given the context of a 10 percent increase or tripling of the gas tax share.

Even telling residents that, at about 15 cents, the New Jersey gas tax is among the lowest in the nation does not increase support for a higher gas tax, a different experiment finds. Among the half-sample given this additional information in the initial generic gas tax question, opposition is greater, at 61 percent, compared with 56 percent of those not given this additional detail.

“While not a statistically large difference, it seems as if New Jerseyans may be pleased their gas taxes are low, and reminding them of it does not give leeway to increase them,” said Redlawsk.

Road conditions might not be so bad

New Jerseyans’ resistance to an increased gas tax may be related to the fact than many simply do not see the state’s roads as in very bad shape. Moreover, many think the roads are actually better than they were, and most think they are at least no worse. The perspectives on state and local roads do not vary depending on driving frequency – both daily and less frequent drivers have the same perspective.

Support for a gas tax increase is generally higher among those who rate their local roads lower. About a third of respondents who think local roads are in excellent or good condition support a higher gas tax, no matter which version of the general question is asked. Support climbs to about 40 percent or more among those who think local road conditions are only fair or poor.

But for residents who think state highways are only in fair or poor condition, the version of the question matters. Nearly half of those not cued that, at 15 cents, gas taxes are among the lowest in the country support an increase (compared with 37 percent who say roads are excellent or good). But for those given current gas tax context, perceptions of state road conditions have no effect. Fewer than 40 percent support a higher gas tax whether they give road conditions positive or negative ratings.

“Again, we think our experiment had an unintended effect of reminding residents that at least one tax in New Jersey is low compared with the rest of the country,” noted Redlawsk. “Instead of allowing room to increase the tax, knowing this seems to have solidified opposition to any increase, even for those who feel many roads are in bad shape.”

Regionally, exurban and shore counties rate their local roads best: 54 percent of exurbanites and 43 percent of shore dwellers say their local roads are excellent or good – higher than any other group. But only 27 percent of urban residents feel the same, along with 35 percent of south Jersey residents and 36 percent of suburban New Jerseyans.

Statewide, respondents are more likely to say state roads are in decent shape. Again, exurban (63 percent good or excellent) and shore county residents (59 percent) lead the way, followed by 54 percent of south Jerseyans, 49 percent of urban dwellers, and 48 percent of those in the suburbs.

Across all regions, at least 30 percent say that roads have gotten better in the past few years, with shore residents most positive at 38 percent. Suburbanites are most likely to say roads are getting worse, at 26 percent, compared with 18 percent of south Jersey residents. Other regions fall between these two.

Partisan explanation for gas tax question effects?

Support for a gas tax increase does not vary no matter which version of the initial gas tax question was received. Residents in almost every demographic group are squarely against it.

In particular, in a change from previous polls, more than half of both Democrats and Republicans oppose a tax increase when given the basic question without additional information. In previous months, Republican opposition was much stronger than Democratic dislike.

But among partisans explicitly told about the state’s currently low gas tax, some differences persist. Democrats are more supportive of an increase (at 44 percent) compared with independents and Republicans (32 percent and 33 percent, respectively). Reminding Republicans and independents of how low the tax is seems to trigger stronger antitax sentiment with these groups, although Redlawsk cautioned that given the split design of the question, the small numbers of Republicans in each version limits the strength of this interpretation.

New Jerseyans don’t want to borrow for roads

While not supportive of a gas tax increase, New Jerseyans appear even more opposed to borrowing to fund road and infrastructure improvements. Forced to choose between either a gas tax increase or borrowing for necessary road repairs, 58 percent would raise the gas tax, while 27 percent would borrow. Ten percent volunteer that neither is necessary.

“It may be that the only real hope for increasing support for the gas tax hike is to pit it against less desirable alternatives – borrowing the necessary money to fix roads or doing nothing at all,” said Redlawsk.

If forced to choose, more than half of most demographic groups side with raising the gas tax. Democrats, independents, and Republicans alike support the tax hike to virtually the same degree. The latter two are less likely to want to borrow, at 23 and 27 percent, respectively, compared with Democrats at 34 percent. Fourteen percent of Republicans reject either option, compared with just 4 percent of Democrats.

Which choice to make varies little based on positive or negative ratings of local roads, with a majority preferring a gas tax over borrowing. But those who rate highways more negatively are eight points more likely to choose raising the tax than those who rate them more positively. At 60 percent, those who drive almost every day are nine points more likely than those who do not to prefer a tax over borrowing, while just 26 percent of the frequent drivers would borrow. Thirty-five percent of less frequent drivers would borrow, given just the two options.

Linking gas tax increase to estate tax cut fails to make much difference

Just 37 percent of residents say they would be more likely to support an increase in the gas tax if it were linked to a cut in estate taxes, while 43 percent say this would make them less supportive of a higher gas tax. Eleven percent say it would make no difference to them. Republicans, however, like the idea more than most: 48 percent agree that linking the two would make them more likely to support increasing the gas tax.

While continuing to oppose a gas tax increase, more than half of New Jerseyans say that if the gas tax is going to go up, there is no time like the present, given the more than 70-cent drop in gas prices in the last few months. Majorities across the board agree, including partisans of all stripes to the same degree. Even 54 percent of those who drive almost every day say there may be no better time than now.



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