Talking better infrastructure

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell recently opined that “The proponents of infrastructure investment have yet to close the sale with the American people…” (The Infrastructurist Forum, Feb. 15, 2011) that the nation’s infrastructure needs “repair and revitalization.” 

It hasn’t been for lack of trying.  Every newsworthy disaster stirs up swarms of dire warnings: the 2010 gas pipeline explosion that leveled a neighborhood in San Bruno, California; the rush-hour collapse in 2007 of an Interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis; or the 2009 crash of two trains on Washington, DC’s, Metro subway.  Following the example set two decades ago by the National Council on Public Works Improvement, the American Society of Civil Engineers periodically issues its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, giving it a solid “D” in 2010.

The trouble is, things don’t look so bad to the average person on the street.  Most of us get up in the morning, turn on the lights, brush our teeth, travel to work on paved roads, and are unsurprised when the garbage in our wastebaskets disappears without a trace.   Most of us only read about disasters or watch the video, even when the areas affected reach such grand scales as the destruction of New Orleans and the electrical blackout of the continent’s northeast.  Talk about necessary maintenance and fixing problems and most of us simply tune out.

In the summer and fall of 2010, Maslansky Luntz and Partners (a communications strategy firm) conducted a series of “listening sessions” around the country to learn about why the voters in some states and localities have been willing to increase their taxes to pay for their road systems while so many of our elected officials adamantly resist even mentioning the idea.  The work was done at the request of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, under the National Cooperative Highway Research Program.

What the listeners found was that people expect their taxes to pay for maintenance; it’s a given.  If those who are responsible for the roads and bridges say that maintenance is being neglected, then they simply haven’t been doing their job, even if the reason is there’s not enough funding.

Modernizing, however, improving technology, making things work better…. That’s another story!  Fixing the traffic lights so that you never have to sit at a red light when there’s no traffic on the cross street…. That’s worth paying for!  Clearing traffic crashes and mishaps quickly to get the traffic moving again; synching bus and train schedules to ensure that a trip by transit goes smoothly, and making sure that there’s a backup bus for when the train does run late; providing better mobility generally, that’s what people want and will pay to get.

Extending the message to all infrastructure (and to appropriate a phrase), “It’s the service, stupid!”  Infrastructure is a matter of steel and cement only to those who design and build the bridges, dams, and pipes that carry our vehicles, drive our water and electric power systems, and bring fuel to our homes.  The essence of infrastructure for most of us is the services provided: If we want to close the sale, we have to offer more and better service, not simply a legacy system in a state of good repair.

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