Transportation Experts: Vision, Accountability, Demonstrated Local Benefits Keys to Winning Support for Investment

I blogged previously about last week’s National Transportation Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. hosted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. You can read my previous postings on the appearance by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica and the panel with five former U.S. Secretaries of Transportation here and here. But the forum also featured several other panels with transportation advocates, stakeholders and analysts weighing in on what might be needed to convince the public and their leaders that now is the time to move forward on infrastructure investment. Among the questions they addressed:

  • How can transportation advocates win support for projects and investment in the post-earmark era?
  • What’s the best way to identify the most “shovel-worthy” projects?
  • Can more accountability and transparency in transportation programs help win back a public skeptical of government?
  • Will an injection of politics into transportation policy help or hinder efforts to move forward on infrastructure?
  • What words does the public respond to best as policy makers try to make the case for infrastructure investment?
  • What’s the best way to emphasize the impact of infrastructure on economic development and job creation?
  • How can developing a plan and vision for transportation at all levels of government and demonstrating visible benefits to the public help advance the cause?

Here is some of what the panelists at the Miller Center forum had to say on those issues.

Ashley Halsey, The Washington Post – Staff Writer

Halsey: “I do think that there is a larger issue that when the conversation gets around to the point of what do we need to do or what do those of you in the room need to do, there is a larger issue of communication of the necessity for investment in infrastructure that is I think the missing piece in developing the public and political will necessary to move forward.”

All Transportation is Local

Halsey: “If the impetus of earmarks isn’t there for Congress, then the impetus has got to come … from the local level. And it’s got to come from the state highway people and it’s got to come most importantly from the general public having an awareness of ‘what does this really mean?’ The way you convey that is by talking about what it means to them locally. A great many people will tell you if you just fill the potholes and do something about the congestion, I’m good. And that is as far as they go because all politics is local and all transportation is local. So finding a way to convey to the general public and having the conversation in ways … so that the average person can enter a room and talk with some sense of understanding about where transportation is going and why it is important to them beyond just the pothole that they hit yesterday and the fact that it took an extra half-hour to get to work … and think a little bit more about their community at large. You create the conversation. You create the awareness. You also provide the political motivation from constituents who are talking to Congressmen and saying ‘y’know what, this is a really important issue and you need to get behind it.’ But right now I just don’t think there’s enough of a connect there.”

Emil Frankel, Bipartisan Policy Center – Director of Transportation Studies

Frankel: “We do have to continue to find common ground and to frame our responses and policies in surface transportation and aviation recognizing the political realities, the fiscal realities, the economic realities … but we have to accept those constraints financial and otherwise.”

Need to Identify, Focus on Best Transportation Investments

Frankel: “(We need) the capacity to concentrate on the key issues, the key investments that really will make a difference in terms of trying to address in our own way infrastructure investment as an important part of economic growth (and) to continue to get that message across even in an extremely difficult context.” 

 “There’s a difference between spending and making investments that contribute to long-term economic growth (and) shovel-ready construction jobs … We need to put in place ways to make that judgment importantly at the state and metropolitan levels. Washington needs to have rules so that that kind of analytical process occurs at the state and local level where those investment decisions are made. So I think that’s a real challenge and an important challenge for us.”

“There’s tremendous evidence of support for transportation at the state and metropolitan or local levels. Support for referenda and bond issues and dedicated sales taxes and so forth. But even there, there are lists of projects that may not necessarily be the best projects but they’re the projects that certainly are going to be supported. How do we make sure that those lists are the best projects and that there is a kind of beneficial effect of interaction between those initiatives?”

“The planning, programming process needs to be held to a higher standard. We really do need to go through a process … There’s none of that in the public sector. Maybe some authorities do it but most state agencies generally do not do this … We don’t even have enough money at the state level … to replace all of the crumbling bridges. A commissioner or secretary of transportation of East Ipswich has to make a decision today about which of the three bridges that need to be replaced he or she is going to invest the money in. Only one of them can be replaced and the other two need band-aids so they don’t literally fall down. That’s the decision-making that goes on. But there is no system in place to make that kind of investment decision—not only what is an investment as opposed to spending but also ‘do I invest in bridge b versus bridges a and c?’ That’s the reality and there is no system in place. Federal legislation does not create rules and incentives and penalties to make sure that when they come to spending federal money that that process is in place. Maybe 20 years ago we didn’t have to worry about that stuff. Today we do.”

“(As the interstates were being built 55 years ago), people were willing to spend money, they saw some value in building a highway across Wyoming and Montana. That’s another struggle here—how to get people in New Jersey or Tennessee to support the CREATE project in Chicago, which has enormous implications in terms of the national freight system.”

(Editor’s Note: for more information on CREATE, see: CSG’s recent Capitol Research brief on “Developing Freight Transportation Alternatives.”)

Jeff Shane, Hogan Lovells (law firm) – Partner

Shane: “We need to figure out what are the projects we need to fund but that’s not what our system does today. Our system as we have always said figures out how to spread the money like peanut butter across the entire country without reference to what are the projects we should really be funding. We hope the genius of the states working with other levels of government will figure out what the projects really should be but y’know, it’s a bit of a crapshoot honestly. If in fact you just hypothesize for the moment or fantasize that earmarks are not going to be part of the problem anymore, which is not the case obviously according to The Washington Post this morning (see here). But even if it were, maybe especially if it were, how do we persuade members of Congress to do something that’s good for the country in the abstract? There is no local win for a Congressman who signs on to a bipartisan compromise to reauthorize the federal highway program or the Federal Aviation Administration. Earmarks provided that link to the local level, link to the local issue and that’s presumably gone at this point.”

Gas Tax as Revenue Source No Longer Serves National Policy Interests

Shane: “I’ve always felt personally that the gas tax is for a lot of reasons a bad way to fund transportation now—not to say it hasn’t been a huge success over many, many years. But we’re basically predicating the financing of our transportation system on a tax we impose on a commodity the consumption of which as a matter of national policy we are trying to discourage. Is it a sin tax? Is it an infrastructure revenue source?”  

Marcia Hale, Building America’s Future Education Fund – Director

Hale: “I actually think the country is way ahead of Washington at the moment on this subject. The local elected officials out there understand how important a transportation bill is. We have to help them voice their support for it.”

Finding a Way to Talk About Accountability Important

Hale: “We need to start thinking about how we talk about this subject. Semantics is important. The strongest message you can use in most places on the state and local level is to talk about reform, accountability and transparency. If you ask people what they want, they will come back to you and say ‘I want accountability. I will let you spend this money if you tell me what I’m going to get for it.’ When we start talking in ways about performance measures in Washington talk, it gets completely lost and people’s eyes glaze over and you’ve lost them. So how we talk about this is as important as what we say.”

David Burwell, Carnegie Endowment – Energy & Climate Program Director

Need to Paint a Picture of What Investment Can Create

Burwell: “One of the problems on transportation return on investment is the problem of dynamic scoring. You can score the jobs that are created on shovel-ready projects but you can’t score the economic return that’s going to be engendered by that project … That level of justification I think is not appropriate. You don’t ask a general contractor when he builds a building “what’s the economic return on the businesses that are going to locate there?” It is a standard that cannot be met. You cannot make that connection in a straight-faced way. But you can paint a picture … It’s the co-benefits of the infrastructure. It’s not just the return on investment in terms of warehousing costs, wear-and-tear on automobiles, that kind of stuff which is the traditional way you justify transportation. It’s what it creates and you have to give them a picture of what you can create with good transportation. People love that.”

Edward Wytkind, AFL-CIO – Transportation Trades Department President

Growing the Pie vs. Protecting the Status Quo

Wytkind: “You saw growth in the surface transportation program from $17 billion a year in 1987 to almost $26 billion in 1991 to $36 billion in ’98 and to almost $58 billion in ’05. And now even those of us who are in this business are now debating whether or not we can hold on to the status quo. Those debates never happened (before). The messaging around these issues was never about whether we could survive and get the status quo protected. It was about growing the pie.”

Injecting Politics into the Surface Transportation Bill

Wytkind: “I worry about the messaging because it’s a 1980’s perhaps even a 1990’s message that isn’t working in the decade that we are in and we have to fix that because we now have a House leadership that’s about to unveil a new proposal that probably doesn’t fund the surface (transportation) bill at the level that it needs to be funded. But more importantly, it’s probably going to inject another partisan fight into the messaging. It’s not a message (about) whether we need to rebuild the country and make our economy more competitive. It’s about who’s right on energy policy. Are we going to drill more? Are we not going to drill more? Are we going to go to ANWR or not go to ANWR? We’re going to relive those debates but we’re not going to actually get a proposal on the floor that moves the needle in trying to invest in the transportation system.”

“We’re now living in a 2011 transportation system on an early 1990’s budget. Nobody can run this system anymore.”

“The politics of this issue are what’s going to solve it as I’ve said many times before. We either need to wring electoral politics out of transportation and make it a bipartisan sort of mutually assured destruction pact where we go together and do what’s right for the country or we need to give it a huge injection of politics and accountability and hold people accountable for bad decisions that hurt the country or local economies. Right now we’re straddling in the middle. We’re doing neither of those very well.”

America Has Stopped ‘Doing Big Things’

Wytkind: “I think unfortunately while I’m sure there are some smaller, less profound things going on that are incrementally improving the ability of businesses to do what they need to do and passengers to get where they need to go, I think it is the big things that we’ve stopped talking about … We are no longer thinking big and I don’t see any hope of that happening until we break through with a completely new message that touches voters and gets them to see it as important in their lives.”

Recovery Act, Transportation & Job Creation

Wytkind: “The problem with it is it’s become open season for either elected officials or those seeking elective office to go on the air and talk to Rush Limbaugh about how not a single job was created by the stimulus. So everything is about Obamacare (and) the no-jobs stimulus bill. We’ve become branded to a point where a truly wasteful piece of pork barrel spending that perhaps all of us could collectively agree was a waste of taxpayer money has become mixed up with all the other stuff that we’re supposed to be doing as a nation … In the “old days” you could say every $1 billion (spent on infrastructure creates 45,000 jobs). Now they say every $1 billion creates no jobs. It’s not 45,000, it’s not 35,000, it’s not 25,000. It’s zero and that’s the rhetoric we hear on the public airwaves and I think we’re losing the branding battle.”

Norman Chambers, Let’s Rebuild America – Chair / NCI Building Systems - CEO

Chambers: “Unless we can make our message in service to something other than ourselves, in service to something bigger and grander than roads and bridges and energy, I’m not sure we’re ever going to enroll the rest of the nation … And I’m fascinated by that challenge because the message seems so compelling.”

James Corless, Transportation for America – Director

Corless: “I do think that we as transportation folks tend to think that we have the right answer and it’s up to everybody else to come along and agree with us … We tend to talk to ourselves really well. We actually don’t tend to talk to a lot of other people who don’t agree with us or out of the public very well at all … We tend to look back very well. We don’t tend to look forward very well.”

Transparency, Trust, Coalition Building Important in Messaging

Corless: “I think in terms of messaging … it is about transparency. It is about trust. It is about an unusual coalition of people that they have never seen actually up on the same stage before all singing the same tune and talking about the importance of transportation. When you have a two-thirds vote threshold (as California does) to pass a local transportation tax measure, you have the road builders, the Sierra Club, the public health association, the nurses, the contractors, AARP. And you have a tax measure that looks like something that funds highway interchanges, shuttles for seniors, and access to health care for veterans, bike paths … And those packages and those coalitions are the reason that California has been successful at passing those measures.”

Rich Thau, Presentation Testing – President

Thau: “(Presentation Testing) did three rounds of dial testing. We started out in Miami last January and we did two groups. One was conservatives and one was small business owners. We then went on to Philadelphia in early February and again looked at conservatives and small business owners. And then we went to Omaha and we looked at moderate democrats and left-leaning independents … It was much easier to move people who were left of center on transportation than it is people who are right of center … We did two-hour sessions with each of those six groups. We benchmarked voters attitudes towards transportation when they walked into the room using those handheld dials. We got their moment-to-moment reaction to a point-counterpoint video debate over transportation financing. We gauged their change in attitude after seeing the video. And we replayed particular snippets of the video to find out why they responded well to some parts and not so well to others.”

Key Findings from Focus Group Testing

Thau: “First key finding: there’s a clear partisan divide in support for infrastructure spending … Second finding: it’s not a shortage of money that’s viewed as being the problem, it’s about wasting the currently available resources. While there’s strong agreement that roads need repair, you can’t get many voters to believe that current funding is insufficient to meet the need. Our Philly and Miami participants in round one and round two completely agreed that roads and infrastructure are in need of repair. However, they are utterly convinced that the money exists to do all we need to do if only we spent it more wisely. Between money misdirected to non-transportation programs, money wasted on corrupt construction practices and ego-driven monuments to lawmakers, there is no recognition of the need for additional taxation.”

“You can’t defend earmarks. Don’t even try. Saying that they’re useful shoots your credibility in the foot.”

“Four: though few are willing to raise taxes to support it, respondents across the ideological spectrum recognize the importance of infrastructure to our economy …”

“We did a little bit of online polling for the folks at the (U.S. Chamber of Commerce) in June. We asked (people) how much do you agree or disagree with this statement: we should not balance the federal budget on the back of infrastructure … 60 percent agreed with that statement … Yet (we also asked) this question: the federal fund that supports highway and public transportation projects is not bringing in enough money to cover existing investment levels. What should Congress do? 62 percent (said) “cut highway and public transportation investments.” Only 38 percent were willing to raise more revenue. One other (question we asked): if the U.S. military insisted that improving America’s roads and bridges was a matter of national security, would you be willing to pay 15 cents more per gallon for the needed fixes? 73 percent said no. We tried to appeal to conservatives from a national defense perspective, going back to Eisenhower. It didn’t work.”

“Last finding: you need to focus on having a plan where the benefits to voters are visible and where they know there’s accountability for spending but even then, you won’t win over everyone.”

“Bottom line: you can win over those on the left but winning those on the right poses huge challenges. You can make very effective arguments that score well with all audiences but just because people value infrastructure doesn’t mean they’re willing to pay for it. Your biggest obstacle is our huge budget deficit and voters’ desire to solve that before committing additional spending to anything else. Success may have to be defined as “no cuts in infrastructure” and I’m sorry to say that to you but that’s the way the American people spoke back to me.”

Brian Pallasch, American Society of Civil Engineers – Managing Director of Government Relations & Infrastructure Initiatives

Pallasch: “One of the things that we found after releasing the last (Report Card for America’s Infrastructure) in 2009 was the concept of “crumbling” (to describe infrastructure) doesn’t always work … But we also need to start telling people that we can solve some of these problems. We either need to give people examples of those solutions … but we also need to give them a list of solutions or things that we think as we move the policy debate could actually change some of the negatives into positives as we look forward.”

“In August and early September we did (a series of) focus groups, two in Des Moines, Iowa, two in Los Angeles and two in Washington, DC. They were broken down very simply: democrats and republicans in each location.”

Key Findings from Focus Groups

Pallasch: “Some of the key findings that we walked away with were: number one, the (transportation policy) elites as we called them recognize that infrastructure is the backbone of our economy. It’s how we move people goods and energy. So we’ve made that argument. We can all pat ourselves on the back. Folks do understand that. However, not surprisingly in some areas of the country, folks understand that there’s a bigger problem than in other areas … We need to articulate the problems on a more local and regional basis. We cannot just say ‘the infrastructure is crumbling’ because it’s not crumbling everywhere.”

“In addition, everyone interestingly believed in both groups that we do need a long-term plan and a vision to improve America’s infrastructure … There is agreement that our infrastructure needs to support our citizens and our economy. In the current political climate, elites want decision-makers to be smart and efficient about where we cut and invest. While they agree on this plan, they’re not sure where the money should come from … But they do agree there should be performance and accountability measures with whatever new money that there should be.”

“Some of the best arguments … jobs, that’s a good argument at this point still, talking about how jobs relate to infrastructure investment … How infrastructure is the basic element of a strong economy and how it keeps our country moving forward—that works with folks. How it affects and impacts the importance of our daily lives from the water you use to the electricity that charges your iPod to the roads that you drive on. Infrastructure is the backbone of what we do with our daily lives.”

“The messaging should emphasize how the improvements will advance and strengthen our economy. But it shouldn’t be about ranking among various countries. The folks that we spoke to didn’t care whether the U.S. was third or 10th (in the world). They cared that we would be competitive in the global economy and that was more important.”

“Some of the language we found that didn’t work as well as others: folks liked ‘progress’ and ‘modernization.’ They did not like the word ‘repair.’ They liked ‘economic growth’ not ‘economic harm.’ They preferred ‘outdated’ or ‘deteriorating.’ They did not like the word ‘crumbling’ … In addition I think folks didn’t like the absolutes in some of the discussion. They did not like ‘infrastructure is the solution to solving our economic problems.’ That’s an absolute.”

“I think a possible solution is to give people the vision of what they will get out of a renewed federal role in surface transportation. Now, I don’t think we have that yet maybe. But if there’s a way to present that in a way that we can envision the positives of what we will get … Some folks have talked about the fact that all these referenda (to fund infrastructure) passed at the local level. Well many of those passed because they’ve got a list of projects and I can look it up on the internet and I can see what is going to happen in my neighborhood and (say) ‘oh, I’m more interested now.’”

Jim Mulhall, SKDKnickerbocker (strategic communications firm) – Managing Director

Mulhall: “Our project was very specific. We did a set of focus groups in southern New Hampshire and Charleston, South Carolina and then did polls in both states … Our focus group attendees were all republican conservatives, very favorable towards the Tea Party.”

Key Findings from Focus Groups

Mulhall: “It took little or no effort to talk about the need to do something for infrastructure. They buy the fundamental premise that infrastructure needs to be worked on, that repairs need to be made, improvements need to be made, capacity needs to be expanded. There was no real argumentation back on that. But how you talk about it from there, it was dramatic what we found as far as messaging. If you talk about jobs, it was like throwing a switch—basically a lot of resistance … If you talk about transportation as a jobs bill, they immediately thought those jobs are temporary and the phrase they would ‘go away’ came up over and over again … But if you talk about how it’s healthy for the economy and that we need it for the long-term success of the American economy, there was strong support.”

“We found that talking about a reform agenda was incredibly compelling. The words ‘earmarks’ and ‘bridge to nowhere’ have been seared into this electorate … This was like waving a bloody flag at them. But if you talk about being in favor of reforms, more accountability, more transparency, holding public officials and the private sector accountable …”

“They want private sector involvement because of the competitive forces, that they’re more innovative than the public sector. They believe that the sort of bottom line mentality is incredibly important that the private sector brings to infrastructure spending. But they also, in a very pragmatic way, they just want more accountability on both the public and private sides of this.”

“The public has strong views about it but not a lot of knowledge about the mechanics of (infrastructure financing). When we asked them about the gas tax, they simply didn’t understand that it was devoted to transportation funding … They didn’t understand that the federal government gets a percentage as well as state government.”

“They want quality. ‘Built to last’ was something that was really compelling to our participants. Also innovation. We were doing (our focus group) in the shadow of the Ravenel Bridge, which was this great new bridge project in Charleston, South Carolina. Everyone knew that bridge was state of the art and everyone told us in that focus group that it had come in on time and under budget. It was very impressive. Conversely … in New Hampshire, we were doing (our focus group) in the wake of a big story about how a key bridge between New Hampshire and Maine was crumbling and had to be closed. So therefore people were very aware and the safety issue resonated there.”

“But our big takeaway from this project was that it is a hard sell, that there is incredible resistance to spending across the board … It’s no shock. People are very concerned about the deficit. We were pushing against an open door as far as the need to improve transportation specifically. Where you got resistance was how specifically you talked about it and our big conclusion was that you have to lead with the reform agenda, that people have to believe that this is different from the past, it’s different from the earmarks … They’re sick of highways being named after politicians … and bridges to nowhere. All of that has been burned into them and they will stand up and say no. But if you address their concerns and you give them more accountability, a belief that there’s more transparency and that there’s a plan … They don’t believe that there’s an overall plan for the country or for their state. They just simply didn’t accept that. Clearly the transportation community has to do a better job of conveying this, that it isn’t just simply a bunch of politicians with a wish list and I think that’s incredibly important. If they believe that that plan is designed to increase economic growth in their community and in the United States, they’re for it. But they’re incredibly skeptical.”

“A lot of us have gone out and made the argument ‘China is doing this, Europe they have that.’ In our focus groups in particular, people rebelled against that. What they heard was not a compelling argument of (the United States not) keeping up. What they heard was ‘someone is making an excuse to pick my pocket.’ They don’t want to know what China’s doing. They want to know is it going to help here in the United States. They don’t want to know about the bullet trains in France. They want to know does that make sense here at home. And if you address those, we found that you could get them to yes not only for infrastructure spending, (but also for) increasing taxes. But it is by no means a slam dunk. And I think they are very vulnerable to counter arguments. So I think getting out there forcefully and speaking with a unified voice is incredibly important.”

Additional Reading

The Washington Post’s Ashley Halsey, who is quoted above, offered his take on the Miller Center’s two-day discussion in this article.

You can read more from many of the other folks quoted in this blog post elsewhere on the CSG Knowledge Center, including: