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X. Public opinion: a major shift favoring pricing

The Task Force commissioned several focus groups and surveys to gauge the public's receptiveness to road pricing alternatives. The response was surprisingly favorable to all three of the Task Force's ultimate recommended policies: emissions charges, congestion charges, and HOT lanes. Fifty eight percent of a January 1996 Godbe Research Associates sample thought that air pollution fees, by themselves, were a good or excellent idea. Forty percent thought congestion fees were good or excellent. Seventy percent said that fees would be more acceptable if accompanied by a compensatory tax reduction. A majority of respondents said they would pay $20 per month to gain 10 miles per hour in peak-hour freeway speeds, and $30 per month to meet clean air health standards every day. Actual users of the S.R. 91 HOT lanes were paying $5 a day to save about 20-30 minutes when the REACH Task Force was meeting; this implies that they valued their travel time no less than $10 to $15 per hour. Tolls have risen 50 percent since 1996 and would imply Year 2000 time values of at least $15 to $22.50 per hour if the time savings have held constant.

Forty percent of respondents to an August/September 1996 Resources for the Future poll favored emission and congestion fees per se. Fifty percent of respondents with an opinion favored congestion fees with a 50 percent tax rebate. More than 50 percent favored emission fees with rebates. Young people, Democrats, independents, Asians, and Hispanics were most favorable to both kinds of fees. About 30 percent of the interviews were in Spanish.

Fifty four percent of the RFF respondents favored add-a-lane HOT lanes, 45 percent favored take-a-lane HOT lanes. Sixty two percent of the Godbe January sample favored HOT lanes, with no specification as to whether they were add-a-lane or take-a-lane. Ventura County respondents were hostile to HOT lanes; every other region supported them with comfortable majorities. Early surveys of prospective and actual users of the S.R. 91 HOT lanes showed them to be favored both by reserved-lane users and general-lane users. Year-1997 surveys of SR 91 commuters showed overwhelming, 60-80 percent approval of the toll lanes, with toll-lane users' percentages 5-10 percent higher than free-lane users (Sullivan, 1998, Executive Summary, p. 7).

Before the REACH studies political sophisticates thought it was so self-evident that people would bitterly oppose being charged for what they now get free that it was hardly worth asking them what they thought about new road pricing schemes. The expectation was that 95 percent would say "over my dead body." Such hostility to new charges still appears (though not at the 95 percent level) in recent polls elsewhere: Minneapolis and the Bay Area are examples. And 1996 Task Force focus groups in the Basin still seethed with suspicion and resentment of other government exactions. They were sure that the money would be wasted. But most of the focus groups, despite their general hostility to government, nonetheless favored HOT lanes. Ironically, the exception was a panel of liberal West Side non-commuters otherwise enamored of a pervasive government presence, and far removed from the facility. In general, those most hostile to toll lanes have been those with the least experience with them.

What could explain the surprising softening in Southern California, supposedly the most autocentric part of the country, toward three different kinds of car-charging incentives? Worsening congestion? The persistence of our getting-better-but-still-worst in the country air pollution? Putting the questions more shrewdly -- How would you like to be able to buy on to a fast lane? instead of How would you like to be forced to pay for something you now get free? Several months of growing awareness of the S.R. 91 HOT lanes? Exhaustion of other once-favored decongestants, such as megarail and megaroads? Creeping awareness of what economists and some transportation experts have been saying since 1960? No one knows which, if any, of these explanations figured in the change, but a major change there has been. We may not have seen the end of it.

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