Transportation's Messaging Solution

A new report from University of Virginia's Miller Center offers ways for the transportation community to improve its outreach.
by | April 24, 2012

Governing wrote earlier this month about transportation community's messaging problem. This week, one group is offering its take on the solution.

The University of Virginia's Miller Center released a new report that examines how the transportation community can "sell" Americans on the importance of investing in transportation infrastructure. As Governing previously noted, the Miller Center -- like other transportation-minded organizations -- is now starting to realize that it's time to dispense with the tried and true (and often ineffective) message that harps on the risks associated with crumbling infrastructure.

Instead, the Miller Center's report urges stakeholders to strike a more positive tone as they make their pitch and emphasize the economic benefits of transportation investment while calling for accountability that voters crave.

The report's release comes at a critical juncture for transportation policy. Earlier this spring, the Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion highway and transit bill. The House, after seeing its own efforts at long-term legislation stymied by Republican in-fighting, passed a short-term extension that will be used as a vehicle for the two chambers to go to conference.

As it stands, the country is the closest it's been in years to a long-term bill (though at two years, that may not be the best term to describe it). The last long-term bill, known as SAFETEA-LU, expired in September 2009, and Congress has passed stopgap legislation to fund the country's transportation projects since then.

As the Miller Center notes, "Rarely has more public concern about a vital prerequisite to America’s economic health and competitiveness been met with such sustained inaction by the institutions of our government."

The report comes at a busy time for the transportation community as it faces a serious of challenges simultaneously, including a Highway Trust Fund on the verge of insolvency; a government-wide focus on fiscal austerity; and a lack of trust by citizens in their government.

The Miller Center's report is largely a distillation of a a November conference that featured input from various transportation stakeholders and notably included five former U.S. Department of Transportation secretaries. It's recommendations are based on the assumption that the public is willing to spend money on transportation when they believe doing so will have positive outcomes in their own communities.

The report urges transportation stakeholders to:

  • strike a positive tone that emphasizes the effect transportation investment can have on economic development, job creation and quality of life
  • adopt a publicity campaign that keys in on important moments in the transportation calendar: the expiration of the existing bill, the July 4 weekend (when news outlets focus on travel stories), the party conventions, the election, and the post-election transition
  • engage with a broader audience using a combination of traditional and social media
  • help voters make the connection between national policy decisions and the local impact they'll have. 

Still, any communications strategy will have to overcome a resistance to spending. Generally, survey data shows that the public opposes increasing the gasoline tax, switching to a vehicle miles traveled fee structure, and increasing tolling -- all of which could be used as a way to increase revenue available for transportation projects.

The report says that a strong campaign will help generate grassroots support -- which has been missing from the debate -- and build a broader base of support.

"It is our belief that once citizens become aware of the significant costs and risks associated with a compromised transportation system operating at less than optimal capacity, they will feel more compelled to demand calls for action that will, in turn, prompt policymakers to act," the report says.

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