Knowledge is power on transportation issues


On the theory that 300 million Americans can’t be wrong – and even if they are, the customer is always right — politicians and public policymakers pay careful attention to opinion polls. Where else would recent calls by presidential candidates for a federal gasoline tax holiday have come from?

But citizens can be misinformed, such as by the dubious notion that a break from taxes at the gas pump would noticeably improve their economic well-being without further degrading the roads and bridges they drive on. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that a little learning, listening and discussion can reconnect citizens with public policy reality. That’s what happened when Metropolitan State University recently conducted an unusual dual polling experiment with Twin Cities area residents on transportation issues.

Residents were surveyed on their knowledge and opinions before and after a daylong session of studying issue option briefs, questioning politically balanced panels of transportation experts and policymakers, and deliberating with fellow participants. It’s a trademarked process called Deliberative Polling, and some of the results were eye-opening:

* At the beginning, only 9 percent of participants knew that local property taxes bear the lion’s share of road and bridge costs in Minnesota. Afterward, 60 percent knew it.

* One-third of the group expressed concern in the first poll that higher transportation taxes would damage the state’s economy. In the second survey, only one-sixth stuck with that idea.

* Respondents’ understanding that about 30 percent of Metro Transit operating costs are paid by bus and rail riders increased from 55 percent to 84 percent between the two surveys.

Once equipped with a better grasp of the facts, people also changed their minds about policy directions:

* Support for increasing the state gas tax increased from 58 percent to 76 percent.

* Support for increasing vehicle registration fees went from 66 percent to 84 percent.

* Support for levying a sales tax on gasoline dedicated to transportation rose from 47 percent to 67 percent.

The initial telephone poll was conducted by Northwest Survey and Data Services from Jan. 30 through Feb. 29, a period that included the Legislature’s passage and veto override of Minnesota’s first transportation tax increases in 20 years. The 1,003 respondents were invited to attend the deliberative session March 15; 61 did so and completed the second survey, results of which were compared with the same 61 people’s responses to the first poll. (The full original survey group gave slightly less support to increased transportation taxes and fees than the self-selected session participants.)

Were the participants brainwashed by an evil cabal of pointy-headed academics and liberal politicians? Hardly. The expert panel included representatives from Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Metropolitan Council and the Twin West Chamber of Commerce as well as environmental and transportation advocates. The policy panel featured Pawlenty’s transportation commissioner and the tax-averse former Minnesota House transportation finance leaders Mary Liz Holberg and Tom Workman.

“Very informative,” one participant quoted by the session organizers said afterward. “I realize I need to seek more information to make a better-balanced opinion.”

What a concept – informed opinions! Here are a few more attitude adjustments prompted by the Deliberative Polling process:

* Knowledge that Minnesota tax revenues devoted to transportation had stagnated over the previous five years rose from 26 percent to 49 percent.

* Agreement that investments in transit are good for the Twin Cities economy increased from 80 percent to 90 percent.

* Support for a half-cent regional sales tax dedicated to transportation went from 59 percent to 68 percent; support for county road and bridge taxes on vehicles inched up from 46 percent to 53 percent.

* Support for improving transit services and adding lanes to congested highways each rose 6 percentage points, to 90 percent and 77 percent, respectively.

Unfortunately, it took contributions from the F.R. Bigelow, Saint Paul and Minneapolis foundations and the Metro State University President’s Special Initiative Fund to move the opinions of just 61 Twin Citians. The other 942 original survey takers, not to mention the rest of the 3 million seven-county residents, are still fending for themselves.

Unless public officials, the media and concerned ordinary citizens do a better job of educating them, most of those 3 million folks will keep thinking and voting in ignorance about the transportation investments we need to make Minnesota prosper. Minnesota 2020 will continue to do our part to bring the facts to light.