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Five Ex-Secretaries Map Out a Communications Strategy For Transportation

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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.

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