If only Dale Earnhardt Jr. released the Urban Land Institute’s study on America’s $2 trillion crumbling infrastructure earlier this week, we might still be talking about it. A public interest campaign with drivers from Indy and NASCAR, talking about our country’s declining structures and the need to fix them. The issue would have a public face. Maybe then we, the public, would pay attention. After all, outside the Beltway, most of us live the disrepair others write about. Day-to-day slugging through traffic, enduring slow train rides and waiting through endless runway delays, we experience the problem firsthand. Still, the case is not being heard as urgent.
To most people across the country, it feels less like a crisis and more like an inconvenience. An inconvenience we can put up with during a time of belt-tightening. Yet there is cause for concern. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, one in four of the nation’s bridges is either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Think about that every time you drive over a waterway or through an underpass. Officials say that these bridges are “not unsafe” but post limits for capacity and weight. So as long as fewer people drive and less freight goods are moved, we should be fine. Does that instill confidence, encourage commerce and increase productivity?
Perhaps it’s the "Bridge to Nowhere" effect. Infrastructure is attached to the public’s attitude toward much of spending: ineffective, expensive and, at its worst, wasteful. Washington would like to retire the phrase, but the powerful image continues to resonate. A late 2010 Pew Research Poll showed respondents in five states were reluctant to support additional transportation funding and offered to make cuts in the area when asked which expenses in the state’s budget they would least protect. Far from a groundswell of grassroots support, that’s not even a ripple.
If we want different results, we need a different approach.
Why can’t the government succinctly communicate the case for improved infrastructure? Private industry is able to do it. They are able to take much more abstract (and boring) concepts and present them as a value proposition. Take the telecom industry. Whether it’s computers or cellphones, they are able to explain to consumers why they should value higher-quality wireless infrastructure. Verizon Fios, showing the frustration of buffering video, convinced us that we need faster download speeds to our homes. In the case of wireless, AT&T’s “raise the bar” ads show us the value of an expanded access network. I don’t know what a network is, I just know I want five full bars on my phone.
These campaigns persuade us to pay more for infrastructure we do not see. Who among us isn't willing to pay for a high-speed Internet connection ... so why not less congested freeways? The real ones that are made of concrete have at least as much use as the virtual ones that are built in cyberspace. An Epcot High Speed Rail ride, anyone? Why not? Unless you’ve been on one yourself, it’s hard to envision just how clean and efficient a means of transportation these trains are. Back to NASCAR, how about a public awareness campaign where America’s top sport drivers talk about better transportation systems? When it comes to infrastructure, maybe this is one policy area where we could use a little more show and a little less tell.
Lindsay Ellenbogen is a former congressional aide who served as a communications adviser to Building America’s Future, a pro-infrastructure coalition of mayors and governors.