New Jerseyans Still Don’t Give a Green Light to a Gas Tax Hike; NJers Know More Funding for Road Repairs is Needed, but Don’t Like the Proposed Means by Which to Get It

We switch gears this week, turning to some issues at the forefront of New Jersey politics. Today we revisit the proposed gas tax hike – an issue we have been following throughout the past year and a half. New Jerseyans continue to adamantly oppose any increase – even a bit more than they did back in February – and no new piece of information seems to change that. Being an academic polling center, we wanted to once again explore levels of opposition toward the gas tax increase a bit further, so we did a survey experiment that randomly split the sample into three separate groups: one group was asked a basic support/oppose question about the gas tax with no further context, another was asked the question but given additional information about revenue being entirely dedicated to road maintenance, and the third group was asked the question within the context of how much more it would cost the average New Jersey driver. While the negative information about additional personal cost had the expected negative effect, respondents were not more likely to support the hike when given the more positive information (revenue only going to road repairs). Nevertheless, a number of residents rate state and especially local roads as only fair or poor, and a large number believe New Jersey does not spend enough money on road and bridge maintenance. Therefore, New Jerseyans know they need a cure for the state’s transportation ills, but the gas tax hike is the much needed medicine that residents simply do not want to take right now.

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

GAS TAX HIKE A NONSTARTER FOR NEW JERSEYANS; PROPOSED ESTATE TAX TRADE-OFF FAILS TO BOOST SUPPORT 

Many say roads in good shape, but over half see need for more money on maintenance

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – An increase in the gasoline tax now seems all but certain in New Jersey, but opposition persists among most residents, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. As talks between Gov. Chris Christie and legislative leaders are anticipated in the coming month on this issue, about six in 10 are against hiking the gas tax for any reason. Thirty-seven percent support the increase, compared with 57 percent who do not, a slightly more negative turn since the issue was last polled in February. There is virtually no change when residents are told the revenue would be dedicated entirely to paying for road maintenance and improvement and other transportation costs: 36 percent support an increase while 58 percent do not.

When respondents are told a gas tax hike would cost the average driver about 50 cents more per day – or $180 annually – their opposition grows stronger: only 29 percent support the hike, while 66 percent oppose it.

“New Jerseyans have remained adamant in their opposition to a gas tax hike over the past 18 months, even as news continues about a near-broke Transportation Trust Fund and the need for many important repairs to the state’s transportation infrastructure,” said Ashley Koning, assistant director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. “New Jerseyans agree more money is needed for this upkeep, but even when told specifically how the extra revenue would be used, they do not want it coming out of their own pockets.”

A corresponding cut in estate and inheritance taxes, a trade-off allegedly supported by Christie, does not make the gas tax hike any more appealing to New Jerseyans. Just 31 percent (down six points since last December) 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 44 percent say this would make them less supportive of a higher gas tax. Sixteen percent say it would make no difference, and 10 percent remain unsure.

Cheaper gas prices in recent months somewhat soften the blow: 48 percent say now would be a better time for a gas tax hike, although 32 percent say it would be a worse time, and 15 percent say no time is good.

Opinions on local and state roads remain steady; 37 percent say the former are in excellent or good condition, while 55 percent say the same of the latter. Nevertheless, 54 percent believe not enough money is spent on road, highway and bridge maintenance.

Results are from a statewide poll of 935 adults contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from October 3 to 10, 2015. The sample has a margin of error of +/-3.6 percentage points. Interviews were done in English and, when requested, Spanish.

Gas tax increase still a partisan issue

The poll randomly divided respondents into three groups to ask about the gas tax. One group was asked for their views about the hike with no further context, another was given additional information about the generated revenue going entirely to road and bridge maintenance, and the third was only told about the hike’s average additional cost to New Jersey drivers.

The gas tax continues to be politicized both within and across each of the different versions. Democrats look more like independents and Republicans in both the version with no additional context and the one specifying an extra 50 cents per day, although they are still over 10 points more likely than their counterparts to be in favor of the hike even when told the latter. Democrats show almost double the support of other partisans (at 50 percent, versus 46 percent oppose) when told the hike’s revenue would go to the upkeep of transportation infrastructure.

Independents and especially Republicans show more opposition in both the “50 cents more per day” version and, surprisingly, the version about dedicating revenue to repairs than they do when provided no additional information.

Driving habits, road ratings steer views on hike

New Jerseyans who drive a car almost every day are more likely to oppose the hike in all three scenarios (over six in 10 are against it in each) compared to those who drive less. While daily drivers show little change across versions, less frequent drivers show a large spike in negativity when told about the added cost (24 percent support to 65 percent oppose) while being more split in other versions.

New Jerseyans who spend an hour or more driving on an average weekday are most likely to oppose the hike when told about the added personal cost per day (25 percent support to 72 percent oppose), and generally more likely to oppose the hike than those who drive less than an hour. Sixty-two percent of those with hour-plus commutes are still against the hike even when told how the funds would be used, compared to 55 percent of residents who drive less than that.

Views on roadway conditions only somewhat affect gas tax hike support. New Jerseyans who say local roads are in excellent or good shape are about as likely as those who say they are only fair or poor to oppose the hike. Similarly, those more positive about the condition of state highways are just as likely to oppose the hike as those who are more negative in all except the additional cost version; those who rate the state’s highways as excellent or good are 10 points more likely (at 71 percent) to oppose an increase than those who say the highways are only fair or poor.

“The results are as we would expect: views on a gas tax increase remain politicized, as well as ‘driven’ in part by how much you drive and how well you know the roads,” said Koning, while noting limits in interpretative strength given the smaller sub-groups produced by the split design. “But whatever the variations, it’s clear that no one wants it. Not even being told what the revenue would be used for increases support much – sometimes, just the opposite. Perhaps residents don’t trust new taxes or doubt they will be spent as promised.”

Estate tax compromise has some support but not widespread

More than any other demographic, Republicans like the idea of cutting estate and inheritance taxes to balance a gas tax hike: 39 percent say linking the two would make them more likely to support increasing the gas tax, although this is down nine points since last December. Another 39 percent say they would be less likely to support it, making them more split than they were last year. White residents and those in households making $150,000 or more annually most resemble Republicans in these views.

Other groups more swayed by a corresponding estate tax decrease include those who drive almost every day or more (32 percent) and those who agree now is a better time to raise the gas tax (48 percent). Regardless of what context (if any) was presented in the original gas tax hike question, half or more of supporters say they would be even more likely to favor the hike if there was a corresponding decrease in the estate tax.

New Jerseyans who rate local and state roads as only fair or poor actually have stronger negative reactions than those who give more positive ratings; 48 percent say they would be less likely to support a gas tax increase even in light of an estate tax cut.

Despite significant opposition, almost half of New Jerseyans say that if the gas tax is going to go up, there is no time like the present, given lower prices at the pump in recent months – though this number is down five points since last December. Even more frequent drivers and those who spend a longer time in their cars tend to agree more than disagree.

Road conditions, views on funding for repairs determined by usage

Over half of residents say that state roads, excluding the toll-funded Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, are in either good (48 percent) or excellent (7 percent) shape. Another 33 percent see them as in only fair condition, and 9 percent think they are in poor shape. Opinions on local roads are more negative: 5 percent say they are excellent, and 32 percent call them good. Thirty-seven percent say local road conditions are fair, and 25 percent, poor.

New Jerseyans who drive almost daily are not much different from less frequent drivers regarding local roads, but they rank highways more negatively. Those who spend more time in the car are slightly more likely to think local roads and highways are in worse shape than those who spend less time driving.

Despite giving the roadways decent ratings, about half or more of almost every group believes New Jersey is not spending enough on road, highway and bridge maintenance. New Jerseyans who drive more frequently especially feel this way, as do those who spend longer than 30 minutes in the car on average. Those who rate local roads and highways as only fair or poor are about twice as likely as those who give more positive ratings to say more money is needed.

Those living in suburban, exurban, and shore counties are more likely to say the state is not spending enough than those living in other areas.

Among those who support a gas tax increase, large majorities say New Jersey does not spend enough on road and bridge repairs. Even a plurality of gas tax hike opponents say the same.

“It’s an interesting disconnect,” said Koning. “Most New Jerseyans – including the gas tax hike’s dissenters – agree more funding for road and bridge maintenance is needed, but they are largely against the most likely method for securing it.”

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