Poll Gives Mixed Signals on Tax Boost to Pay for Freeway Work

Times Urban Affairs Writer

Although 51% of county residents questioned in a recent survey said they favored a proposed sales tax increase to pay for freeway improvements, an Orange County pollster said Monday that he doubts that such a measure would survive an election.

The same residents who said they favored the tax increase in principle indicated in other poll responses that they would strongly resist attempts to impose such an increase, said UC Irvine professor Mark Baldassare, who conducted the survey.

Just 24% of the 1,010 residents telephoned in September in the Orange County Annual Survey said they favor a sales tax increase over other options for funding road improvements, such as tolls and diverting money from other government programs.

Baldassare said the survey shows continued public resistance to increases in the sales tax and linked the resistance with a general perception that the government has caused the county's current traffic mess--partly by mismanaging existing funds.

But the survey also showed that support in principle for an increase in the sales tax rises to 60% when people are told that such a measure would hasten the widening of the Santa Ana Freeway by 10 years, he said.

County officials have been considering a countywide sales tax measure to help pay for transportation projects. But they are reluctant to put an increase on the ballot because Proposition A, a proposed 1-cent boost in the sales tax, was defeated overwhelmingly in June, 1984.

Baldassare said Monday that the political climate has changed since 1984 but that resistance to new taxes remains strong.

Last month, Baldassare released another part of the survey, paid for by civic and corporate subscribers, that showed widespread gloom about the future of the county's quality of life and traffic problems.

But data from 20 more questions, paid for by the Orange County Transportation Coalition, was withheld until coalition officials agreed to present the findings to the Orange County Transportation Commission at that panel's regular Monday meeting in Santa Ana. Most of the coalition's members are business executives.

Some of the withheld findings were:

- 40% of respondents favor tolls on new highways, an increase of 12 percentage points over last year.

- 41% favor increasing the state gasoline tax, down from 47% in 1986 survey results.

- 24% support increasing the sales tax, up 3 percentage points from a year ago.

- 45% support "charging all businesses a tax," a 1-point increase over 1986 results.

- 70% favor charging developers a fee for building, another 1-point rise over 1986.

- Of those favoring a developer fee, just half would still support it if they knew it would be passed on to new homebuyers.

Still, Baldassare said there is slightly more public recognition "of the necessity of increasing local taxes for transportation projects."

For example, in a year's time support for increased taxes rose, from 19% in 1986 to 23% in 1987. And the proportion of people who think government already has enough tax money dropped, from 64% in 1986 to 62% in 1987.

In the poll, 94% of the respondents said there is too much government waste; 71% said more money should come from state and federal agencies; 70% supported diversion of funds from other government programs, and 36% said they simply oppose all new taxes. Twenty-seven percent said transportation projects do not cost enough to require new taxes.

Baldassare said a third of the public indicated it has noticed an improvement in travel conditions because of new transportation projects. But he pointed out that the age group that most often noticed improvements--respondents 18 to 34 years old--was the same group that resists a tax increase the least. He also noted that the 18-to-34-year-old group is not as likely to turn out in elections as are older residents, who strongly oppose a tax increase.

The pollster cited results showing that 39% of those surveyed believe that government should be held most responsible for the current traffic congestion, followed by 28% who believe that all or a combination of factors are involved. Fourteen percent blamed developers, 10% cited citizens themselves and 4% singled out businesses. Five percent cited other factors or said they didn't know.

Roger Tompkins, coalition chairman, said it is "vexing at times" to reconcile the public perception that funds are already available "with reality."

Asked by OCTC member Richard B. Edgar why the survey results show support for tolls, Baldassare said it is because the public sees an immediate benefit of getting started on a new highway by paying the fee, while the benefits of paying higher taxes are "more amorphous."

Baldassare said the survey had a margin of error of 3%, plus or minus.

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