The psychology of public acceptance of gas tax increases

By Dan Handel

Raising gas taxes is a perennial issue for states, and getting public acceptance is always front and center in the debate. Raising gas taxes serves the dual purpose of generating revenue for much-needed infrastructure maintenance, as well as incentivizing other modes of transportation. Economists on both sides of the political spectrum agree that it is the most efficient way to achieve both of those goals; however, lawmakers remain wary due to public opposition.

A recently published study from two Michigan State University sociologists found that the telling factor for whether an increased gas tax would be supported by the public was how the justification for the increase was presented. Their suggestions for framing the reasons for an increase are based on research on “fear appeal,” which finds that:

“[F]or people to take action against a threat, it is not sufficient that they believe that the threat is severe and that they are susceptible to its consequences. They also must believe that there are practical ways of protecting themselves against the threat.”

When it comes to gas taxes, people must both believe that infrastructure is sufficiently endangered, and that their actions—paying higher taxes—will contribute to maintaining infrastructure in good repair.

The study reports that 65 to 70 percent of Americans oppose raising taxes on gasoline as a way to decrease fossil fuel consumption. On the other hand, the greatest amount of public support for a higher tax came when individuals were told that their money would be put toward road and bridge repairs or new energy efficient transportation.

According to the Michigan State study, people do not support a gas tax increase based on its ability to reduce driving because:

“[O]ne possible reason the general public so strongly opposes a gasoline tax increase is that many people are convinced that there is no reasonable alternative to driving and that people will drive as much as before the tax increase. Moreover, to have self-efficacy to act against a threat, people also must believe that such action is not excessively costly in terms of time, convenience, and money.”

California can be seen as a testing ground for this approach. In September Governor Jerry Brown introduced a proposal to raise the state’s gas tax by six cents per gallon and the state’s diesel tax by eleven cents per gallon. According to a local news article, “The additional fees would raise an estimated $3.2 billion annually for much needed road repairs, with another $400 million going to support buses, trains and mass transit systems.” The proposal has seen mixed feedback. Apart from general complaints about higher taxes, a theme of distrust of elected officials was apparent. Some doubt the money will actually go to transportation maintenance, others are afraid that this could lead to further tax increases in the future. That said, most parties agree that California’s infrastructure is in bad shape and something needs to be done.

Dan Handel is a Graduate Assistant at SSTI.