Kirk Landers: New times, new tactics

| March 1, 2010

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kirk.landers@att.net

New times, new tactics 

Better Roads’ February 5 e-RoadPro newsletter carried an item from infrastructure blogger Melissa Lafsky in which she mulled the significance of the fact that a large majority of Americans believe the federal fuel tax increases every year.

The poll in question was commissioned last year by Building America’s Future and conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. It found that 60 percent of Americans believe the fuel tax has been constantly rising. Even more amazing is the fact that there were no sharp demographic exceptions. That belief is as pervasive among Democrats as it is among Republicans. It is as universally held in the north and east as in the south and west. (For the record, the federal fuel tax has not increased since 1993.)

Lafsky eloquently mourns the startling revelation that most Americans who oppose increasing this tax know nothing about it. (You can read her excellent blog post

at http://www.infrastructurist.com/2010/01/21/how-often-is-the-gas-tax-raised-most-americans-have-no-clue/.)

And yet, why should this surprise us? Where is the evidence that we are an informed electorate? Our school test scores have declined against global competition for years. We think reality television is real and that it’s entertaining. We have access to the lowest cost, highest quality fresh foods in the world, yet we gorge on heart-clogging fast foods to the point where obesity is an epidemic.

So, why would we think our countrymen would have any idea what the fuel tax is, how often it’s raised, or even what it funds?

Well, they don’t. And among the few who do, very, very few will have any idea of how much more investment we need to make to head off a transportation crisis.

My point is not to denigrate American voters. None of us can hope to be well informed on more than a relative handful of issues.

My point is that if we want to change the political gridlock on the transportation bill, we need to educate the citizenry about the issues ourselves.

Precious few elected representatives are willing to fall on their swords to pass an aggressive fuel tax increase when the folks back home think the tax has gone up every year. And precious few of them will invest the resources it takes to educate the electorate on a niche issue like the fuel tax — there just isn’t any payback in terms of campaign politics.

Which means if we want our senators and representatives to have the support of their constituents on a federal fuel tax increase, our industry needs to do the educating. We are the stakeholders in this, along with the nation’s motorists, and we need to find a way to talk about the challenge and the solutions.

For decades, the road industry’s strategy on federal funding has been to educate congressional leaders and their staff people. We have done a great job of that. But it’s no longer enough. If we are to do the work that must be done to keep the country competitive with the world’s best, we need to open a new front in the battle for public opinion. We need to take our message to the people who use the streets and highways and bridges we build and maintain.

And we need to get started soon.v

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