How do we get “everyday Americans” to support transportation funding?

By Beth Kanter 

Despite the fact that everyone uses some mode of transportation, a recent article in Governing Magazine explored the transportation community’s failure to engage “everyday Americans” in the need for transportation investments. There is too much at stake – jobs, money, infrastructure – for people to ignore these critical issues. If we want policymakers to make smart transportation decisions, they need to feel pressure from their constituents.

The article finds that we aren’t reaching “everyday Americans” because the messages that the transportation community has been using don’t resonate with them.

How do we fix this communications challenge? We need to reframe how we speak to people about transportation investments.

Given the current and lingering state of the economy, people are more apt to listen when they hear that smart transportation spending can boost a community’s economy, create jobs and improve quality of life.

A 2010 survey by Smart Growth America found that 68 percent of voters believe now is the time for state governments to invest in transportation, because if done right, these investments will create jobs and attract new business. The poll found that 91 percent of U.S. voters believe that maintaining and repairing our existing roads and bridges should be a high transportation or even top priority for state governments. Also according to the survey, voters responded best to messages that linked transportation spending to jobs and economic development.

The Iowa Department of Transportation is currently advocating for an increase in the state’s gas tax to fund critical repair and maintenance of the state’s crumbling infrastructure. To build support for this effort, they are reaching out across the state to engage voters and key industries. For some voters, the cost savings message resonates best. They respond to the fact that spending $1 to keep a road in good condition prevents spending $7 to reconstruct it once it has fallen into poor condition, and that investing in repair returns at least 400 percent, while new roads generate less than an eighth of that, on average.

At a time when job creation is critical, voters want to hear that infrastructure preservation creates more jobs (16 percent more) than new construction. And for the farming and trucking industries – two of Iowa’s biggest job creators and economic engines – they support the gas tax increase because they need safe, reliable infrastructure for their businesses to stay competitive.

Iowans also engaged in the issue when they heard how much it would personally cost them to do nothing. Rough roads cost each Iowa driver $383 a year due to damaged tires, suspensions, and reduced fuel efficiency.

Across the country, cities and states are making smart decisions about how they spend their transportation dollars. They have the support of their communities because they talk about transportation in a way that resonates with what voters care about – a thriving economy, an efficient government, and safe roads.

SSTI is working on communication strategies with our partner organizations. If you have found a message or strategy that has worked for you, please let us know. You can email our newsletter editor at rwebber@ssti.us.

Beth Kanter is a Vice President at Spitfire Strategies. She can be reached at Beth@spitfirestrategies.com.