Five Ex-Secretaries Map Out a Communications Strategy For Transportation

Former Transportation Secretaries Mary Peters, James Burnley, Rodney Slater, Samuel Skinner, and Norman Mineta participated in the conference that produced a report and communications strategy. Photo from Miller Center.

If 80 percent of the American people agree that federal infrastructure investment will create jobs, and two-thirds say better infrastructure is important, why is the call for a robust transportation bill being made in whispers? And why is Congress already two and a half years late in producing one?

There are many political reasons — from the earmark ban to wariness of “Bridge to Nowhere” projects to the anti-spending frenzy that’s taken over the House — that it’s been a tough time to pass a transportation bill. But five former U.S. Secretaries of Transportation have said that the voice for change has to be louder. They released a report yesterday, with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, calling for a new communications strategy. (See “Is Transpo Funding Fundamentally a PR Problem? Five Ex-DOT Chiefs Discuss,” Dec. 2, 2011, for more on the conference the report is based on.)

The communications strategy is both visionary and tactical. Its more nuts-and-bolts elements include social networking campaigns and election-year news hooks to bring attention to the issue and make candidates talk about infrastructure.

The strategy is aimed at both leaders and the public. After all, both say they want better transportation infrastructure (and the jobs that will be created to build it), but no one wants to pay for it. The American people haven’t woken up to that contradiction. “Seventy-one percent of voters oppose an increase in the federal gas tax,” the Miller Center report says, “with majorities likewise opposing a tax on foreign oil, the replacement of the gas tax with a per-mile-traveled fee, and the imposition of new tolls to increase federal transportation funding.”

That’s a pretty comprehensive list of funding mechanisms, and the public has rejected them all. Part of a communications strategy, therefore, has to explain to the American people – not just about transportation but about all government services – that you can’t get something for nothing.

The political environment, characterized by a freshman class that feels it has a mandate to oppose any and all government spending, is a high hurdle. “How much transportation spending is needed and how that spending should be distributed has always been a subject of debate,” the report says. “But in recent years the transportation discussion has become part of a larger, higher-stakes disagreement over federal spending more broadly about the best way to address the nation’s mounting debt problem.” It’s unlikely that we can resolve the problem as it relates to transportation without addressing the underlying reluctance to raise revenues.

And the message that reformers are pushing is a little different. The country could spend a lot less on transportation if there were a less exclusive focus on automobile infrastructure. Everybody talks about performance measures and the need to “get more bang for the buck” but not everybody agrees on what that means. The secretaries in this report mention the need to restore public faith and accountability in the transportation funding system, but they don’t spell out how to do that. To reformers, the solution is to start funding projects that will reduce carbon emissions, improve safety, pass a cost-benefit analysis, increase mobility, and produce better public health outcomes. And a transportation funding paradigm that prizes those goals doesn’t need to be one that ignites a nationwide debate about big spending.

Nonetheless, the Miller Center report is right that a transportation reauthorization needs to become a “must-pass” piece of legislation, and that will take a “sea change in public awareness and engagement.” The four features of their plan are as follows:

  1. A positive, forward-looking tone that frames the transportation debate around issues of economic growth, jobs, and U.S. competitiveness, combined with quality of life. “A message that focuses on the benefits of transportation investments and its potential to improve Americans’ lives is relatable, while negative tones and fear-based messages are not as compelling,” they say. Rather than focus on crumbling bridges, they want to play up “themes of economic development, job creation and quality of life.” The goal is to showcase transportation infrastructure as “the backbone of a strong U.S. economy” and push Congress to move beyond partisanship.
  2. A well-defined but flexible campaign plan that is keyed to the rhythms of an election year and to important events in the transportation calendar. The report acknowledges the challenges of trying to compete with every other issue constituency vying for a bit of the election-year spotlight, but says it can happen with a flexible plan that builds support for local projects and draws the connection between those and the national bill that should make them a reality. They plan to exploit five key moments for news exposure: expiration of the current extension, the July 4 week when the media runs a lot of stories about driving, the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions, the elections, and the post-election transition period. (As part of the news media myself, I’d say the strongest of those news hooks is July 4 – and for that matter, Memorial Day and Labor Day – with their focus on travel, gas prices, and traffic congestion.)
  3. A focus on building broader engagement through effective, targeted use of traditional media and social media. “The effort could be seen as turning the issue of transportation investment itself into a candidate,” the secretaries say. Rather than focus on transportation as a lightning rod for the heated debate over spending, they want to turn it into “an integral part of the ongoing national debate about how to accelerate and sustain the economic recovery.” Part of the solution, not part of the problem.
  4. A concerted effort to link local transportation investment opportunities and benefits to national-level policy decisions. This is implicit in the other three elements. The Miller Center doesn’t spend much time on this, but it’s worth noting its importance. While no one wants to pay more into a federal gas tax that will spread money around the country, people time and time again show that they’re willing to spend more for infrastructure that they know will benefit them. Local tax initiatives have a remarkable success rate when they can point to concrete benefits the taxes will bring. Many essential transit projects around the country have gotten funded that way, especially in the absence of adequate federal funding for public transportation.

The Miller Center and the five secretaries don’t seem optimistic that that scenario will improve anytime soon. “It seems clear that no solution can be expected before the end of the current Congress,” they write. “Even if the House and Senate achieve agreement this year on pending legislation to reauthorize our surface transportation programs, that legislation is likely to be of relatively brief duration — expiring in less time than it has taken Congress to enact it. It will also leave wholly unaddressed the most important transportation policy issue facing the nation: the need to establish fresh, contemporary, and sustainable mechanisms for financing the maintenance and expansion of America’s vital transportation infrastructure.”