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Tolls vs. Taxes: Wisconsinites Choose Their Preference

All taxes are not equally disliked—some are more tolerated than others. Jack Craver of The Cap Times examines an academic poll and speaks with policy makers and one advocate about the least objectionable options to pay for roads in Wisconsin.
June 10, 2014, 11am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"In a Marquette University Law School poll (PDF) conducted last month, voters indicated support for bringing tolls to the Badger State. Fifty-five percent said they would support tolls in order to fund highway projects, while 42 percent were opposed," writes Craver.

The same poll found only 40 percent would support raising the state's gas tax or vehicle registration fees to fund highway projects, with nearly 57.6 percent opposed.

Support for shifting to tolls also found bipartisan support in the state legislature, and "U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., recently said that tolls should be one of the options for funding infrastructure “on the table,” writes Craver.

The only dissenting opinion was expressed by Gov. Scott Walker's transportation secretary, Mark Gottlieb, who "recently suggested that the gas tax would be a better solution for raising much-needed revenue than tolls, calling the latter "not immediate enough," because of the necessary federal approval."

Indeed, while President Obama's Grow America Act allows for interstate tolling, the MAP-21 Reauthorization Act approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on May 15 does not allow it.

The odd thing about the deep dislike for raising the gas tax is that it goes against the two principles expressed earlier by Todd Berry, executive director of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance:

  • The more frequently you pay a tax, the less likely you are to see it - which explains why property taxes were the most disliked tax; sales taxes the least.
  • The more user-oriented a tax is, the more tolerated it is "because it can be avoided". Cigarette taxes could be avoided by not smoking, sales tax by buying less taxable goods.  

Perhaps it speaks to our relationship with driving, with the vast majority of people viewing it as a necessity, rendering the gas tax as being unavoidable. However, slap a toll on certain roads - you don't have to drive on them!

Hopefully Craver will do a future piece evaluating a mileage-based user fee as a gas tax alternative.

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Published on Friday, June 6, 2014 in The Cap Times
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