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21 PLENARY SESSION 3 Public and Political Acceptance Issues Posed by Alternative Financing Methods Kay McKinley, PBS&J (Moderator) Brian Taylor, University of California, Los Angeles Frank Wilson, Frank Wilson and Associates Kathy Ruffalo, Kathy Ruffalo and Associates As transportation agencies at all levels of gov-ernment grapple with finding a long-term, sus-tainable funding solution, a key challenge is effectively engaging the public, elected officials, and the media in the debate. In this session, moderated by Kay McKinley, leading experts in the fields of transportation policy making, public relations, and academic research addressed these four questions: Does the public even perceive that there is a transportation crisis? Is there an understanding of how transportation projects are funded today and what the user pays? What strategies can be employed to communicate the message about funding options effectively? What is the risk of inaction? overcoming equity oBjectionS in imPlementing recent road Pricing ProjectS Brian Taylor noted that there are a growing number of road pricing projects both in the United States and in Europe. However, many road pricing proposals have failed to make it to implementation because of political objections that often involve the issue of equity. While there is substantial literature on public attitudes toward road pricing, less research has focused on how equity concerns have been raised and addressed in political debates over projects. Dr. Taylor stated that there is a need to engage the pub- lic and elected officials in long- and short-term dialogue to overcome equity objections in implementing toll proj- ects. In the short term, project proponents should develop an information campaign that provides something for all stakeholders. In the long term, there are major challenges to overcome. Partisan debate is often abstract. In addition, there is no longer consensus on the benefits of transporta- tion investment. There is a need to educate stakeholders about the reasons why more funding is needed. Federal transportation programs are disintegrating, and there is a widespread belief in the inelasticity of demand. Ulti- mately, transportation funding is poorly understood. Important questions about what an optimum motor fuel tax level would be or how tolls and sales taxes could be used to maximize mobility benefits go unanswered. The following are among the lessons learned: address- ing equity early in the process, securing broad-based sup- port among the public and interest groups, building trust between elected officials and transportation agencies, and organizing constituencies for the toll revenues. WaSHington State tolling Study Frank Wilson pointed out that after Washington State passed a gasoline tax initiative, additional mechanisms for raising new sources of revenue were considered. The Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) was tasked by the legislature to develop recommendations for a comprehensive tolling policy for the state. WSTC wanted to present the state with a strategy that was action- able, so it embarked on a statewide tolling study to iden- tify the opportunities that tolling would facilitate. As part of this effort, the commission reached out to key opinion leaders, the media, and the general public throughout the state and asked for input. The effort involved execu-
22 FINANCING SURFACE TRANSPORTATION IN THE UNITED STATES tive interviews with people who were perceived to have influence, focus groups, a statewide public opinion sur- vey, roundtable discussions with local leaders, and open houses for the public in four areas of the state. Historically, most state governments have received a lukewarm public reception for the way they handle transportation issues. In Washington, there had been extensive education on the gasoline tax. As a result, a slight majority of the people surveyed believed that addi- tional funds were needed to support transportation. As part of its research, WSTC identified three commonly held beliefs that pose obstacles to increasing transporta- tion funding: â¢ The economy, education, crime, and health care were more important issues than transportation and traffic congestion. â¢ The gasoline tax would be adequate to meet trans- portation challenges if only government was more efficient. â¢ Alternative sources of funding are unnecessary. While the public generally understands the problem of deteriorating transportation infrastructure, it is skep- tical about the stateâs ability to deliver improvements, and the skepticism impedes the discussion of solutions. This situation is exacerbated by the lack of information on solutions and funding alternatives. Dr. Taylor observed that if the choice is either to keep things the way they are or to institute a change, the status quo will always prevail. Therefore, public communica- tions efforts should paint a picture of what will happen if changes are not made to the way transportation revenue is generated or traffic is managed, or both. The publicâs support is based on the benefits that the public believes it will receive. Tolling is merely a tool. To generate support for tolling, we should not focus on the tool but rather on the consequences of a failure to act. current landScaPe: oBStacleS and oPPortunitieS Kathy Ruffalo emphasized that the priority of Congress in 2010 is on job creation and the deficit. All issues are viewed through these prisms. It is an election year, and this may limit the opportunity to implement meaning- ful policy during the lame duck session after November. Other priorities competing with transportation needs include tax extenders, budget resolution, appropriations bills, climate legislation, energy legislation, and immi- gration. There is little interest in the next transportation authorization act, and there is a need to engage the pub- lic to make it a priority. Ms. Ruffalo stated that while there is no consensus on how to pay for the programs funded through the next authorization bill, the options are clear. The pro- gram requires revenue that can be raised from motor fuel taxes, a carbon tax or pollution charge, heavy vehi- cle use taxes, fees on imported oil, a financial transac- tion tax, and, in the longer term, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fees. The program will also rely on financing techniques to leverage revenues and provide capital funding needed up front to implement projects. Financ- ing options may include short-term borrowing from Treasury, expansion of the Transportation Infrastruc- ture Finance and Innovation Act program, and possibly a national infrastructure bank or a national infrastruc- ture innovation fund. Ms. Ruffalo observed that no one on the Hill is consid- ering a VMT tax at the moment, and the transportation community has not done an adequate job of explaining the benefit of increasing the motor fuel tax. Instead, the administration is focused on âshiny new stuff.â Trans- portation professionals need to stop talking with only one another about these issues. There is a need to engage the public, elected officials, and other stakeholders from the ground up rather than the top down. The extreme partisan divisions in Congress allow the House and Sen- ate to ignore us. Transportation professionals need to cultivate consensus among our stakeholders. We can prevail by developing a coherent message explaining the benefits of increased funding and the consequences of not having money for transportation needs. queStionS and anSWerS Question: Are there suggestions from Washington State that can be applied at the federal level? Answer: Innovation has to come from the local level until Congress can resolve our national issues, which have all become wedge issues. There has been a resur- gence of innovation in states like Texas, North Carolina, Florida, and Washington. One challenge is that state departments of transportation (DOTs) are perceived as inefficient, but many are implementing cutting-edge projects. DOTs need to communicate a clear mission and public purpose. The fact that many regions have multiple transportation agencies blurs the issues. Question: What do you expect will be the fate of the KerryâLieberman climate bill? Ms. Ruffalo: The bill includes a pollution charge that would generate $6 billion in revenue that would be directed to transportation needs. There is little in the bill that addresses transportation emissions.
23PUBLIC AND POLITICAL ACCEPTANCE ISSUES Question: How can we engage the public and gain sup- port for pricing? Answer: Pricing is a new area for most DOTs. It can also be a generational issue where DOTs are afraid of losing control. Social media offer potential for DOT commissioners and agency officials to get the message out to the public. To communicate effectively with the public, elected officials need to use information that peo- ple can readily understand. Question: The health care debate was shallow and led to division because it did not address the real issues. How can we avoid this with reauthorization? Ms. Ruffalo: The issue is more about how people feel about taxes than anything else. Researchers are not in favor in the media. Most of the heady discussion these days is taking place in blogs. Question: What are the odds that the WaxmanâMarkey American Clean Energy bill will pass? Ms. Ruffalo: The chances this year appear slim. It would move more quickly if it had the support of 60 senators. Question: Could more support for increased transporta- tion funding be generated by making people aware of what they are already paying? Ms. Ruffalo: The way to gain support for transpor- tation funding is to provide simple information about funding gaps and advise the public on how they will benefit if new funding is made available. We need to be specific in identifying improvements. Information on VMT is too abstract and complicated for most people to understand. Information should be project-specific. Tolling has a chance, but publicâprivate partnerships are complicated. The transportation sector has done a poor job of selling itself. We talk about the value of what we have done rather than focusing on needs and gaps. If you talk too much about what you have done, people will ask why more money is required. Question: Whose job is it to do the marketing work needed to gain support for transportation funding? Answer: Industry organizations and universities need to teach communication techniques to enable the trans- portation community to deliver a compelling and consis- tent message to the general public.