Transportation survey finds support for tax hike to fund needs



A snapshot taken last fall of Missoula’s traveling public found that 78 percent went to work in a car, truck or van, while nearly 19 percent rode a bicycle, motorcycle or walked. The same survey found that most residents believe the area’s transportation network is good or even better.

The survey also found that roughly 48 percent of area residents would support an increase in taxes or fees to make improvements to the system, with the majority of those believing a 2-cent increase in gasoline taxes is the best way to fund improvements currently beyond the reach of local government.

Sponsored by the Metropolitan Planning Organization and conducted by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, the survey sampled 1,500 households and received 643 responses, including 475 from city residents and 168 county residents.

Conducted in November, the survey found that roughly 34 percent of area residents rated the transportation system as excellent or very good, while 34 percent rated it as good. Another 30 percent rated the system as fair to poor.

The survey will be used to inform the new Long Range Transportation Plan, which is expected to be finished later this year.

“Generally speaking, the majority of responses felt the system was at least good, if not better,” said David Gray with Development Services. “The people who travel to work using modes other than a car rated the system higher than those who use a car to travel to work.”

In that category, roughly 82 percent of non-motorized users rated the system as good, very good or excellent, while only 65 percent of those who used a vehicle agreed.

When asked what improvements they’d like to see made, 52 percent said reducing traffic congestion would make the greatest impact while 41 percent agreed that safety improvements for all transportation modes would better the system.

In the same category, 31 percent believe that bicycle and pedestrian improvements would better the system, while improving public transit ranked fourth. The survey also asked respondents a series of progressive questions on how they’d prefer to fund the improvements.

“It went through that progression of seeing whether or not there was general support for a funding increase and, if there was, what you’d want it to be spent on and what type of fee or tax would you most prefer,” said Jessica Morriss, the city’s transportation planning manager.

The survey found that 48 percent of respondents would support paying more taxes or fees on transportation improvements while 29 percent opposed it.

When given an choice in what type of tax or fee they’d rather see go toward funding improvements, more than 40 percent chose a 2-cent gasoline tax – per gallon – while 18 percent opted for a 3-percent increase to development fees.

Roughly 7 percent said they’d support a 3-percent sales tax on non-essential items, while 4 percent supported a 1-percent increase to property taxes.

“A fuel-tax increase is the most likely to be supported – the numbers seem relatively strong for that,” said Morriss. “It seems to indicate that folks are most interested in using that funding to maintain and repair what we already have versus building something new. That’s consistent with similar surveys we’ve seen nation wide.”

If a tax or fee were implemented, Morriss said, 37 percent said it should go toward maintaining the area’s existing transportation network, while 19 percent supported wider roadways.

Roughly 10 percent supported improving bicycle facilities, 9.5 percent supported new streets, and and 7 percent opted for improvements to public transportation.

“We’re in the process of coming up with what a 2-cent increase in gas tax would mean for revenue,” said Morriss. “We haven’t run the numbers on development fees, and I don’t know that we’d be able to calculate the sales tax.”

Morris said a similar survey was conducted in 2008 as part of the last update to the Long Range Transportation Plan. The plan must be updated every four years.

The next round of public hearings is slated for April.

“We take all this public input and filter that down to potential transportation projects that we’d look at over the next 30 years, and money we’d project to receive over that time,” said Morriss. “We’d rank and prioritize the projects based on the public input we receive and the money we’d have, which is never enough to pay for all the things people want.”