By nature, I am a political scientist. Whereas some people daydream about lounging on the beach, or fishing in Alaska, or the Broncos winning the Super Bowl again, I daydream about political strategy and impacts. The inertia of politics is substantial, and creates many barriers to improving… well… anything. In politics, communication is key. As an example, conservative activists in the U.S. have mastered the art of communication hegemony. Despite very real differences in policy preferences, strategies and tactics, the forward-facing communication strategy is adhered to with more or less consistency. As a result, they can project a unified vision despite those differences.
In transportation infrastructure, communication is typically a lagging element of any project. Perhaps it is the natural disposition of engineers and public sector staff to eschew proactive communications with stakeholders and the public. Or perhaps it’s a desire to not “get out in front” of elected officials, whom any transportation professional (private or public sector) ultimately works with as the representation of the public will. Regardless, communications often lag, and it can create complications with project development.
Eight years ago, I wrote the following in a paper published in the Transportation Research Record:
In general, few citizens fully understand the current system of transportation financing, and most are unfamiliar with issues such as marginal cost and price elasticity as they relate to transportation. Many people feel that value pricing—in particular, toll rates that change based on time of day or vehicle occupancy—will fail to change their own travel behavior or that of others. Developing a simple message to communicate the concept of value pricing can be essential in gaining support. For toll facilities, the messages can be simpler, centered on the need to fund or speed up construction. However, interest groups that are opposed to new facilities in general, regardless of how there are financed, may use the public’s general apprehension concerning tolling as a weak point of attack.
No project in my mind better represents this situation in the past year than the I-77 express lanes project in Charlotte, North Carolina. This project is being developed as a public private partnership, which often requires substantial negotiation to come to an agreeable contract. The process of developing such a contract tends to reduce the level of communication — neither the state nor the partner wishes to “tip their hand” in a public setting. However, this period of relative silence creates a vacuum where appropriate and legitimate questions go unanswered or unaddressed by official parties. In turn, this opens up the opportunity for opponents to project their perspectives without significant rebuttal by proponents. Many websites and interest groups have done exactly that as it pertains to I-77. Fast forward to today’s article by Charlotte’s WSOC, where the I-77 public private partnership CEO, Javier Tamargo, is now in a position to speak up about the project I-77 Mobility Partners is developing, and resolving many lingering questions about toll rates and customer attraction. This is information that certainly could have helped the public debate about I-77 if it could have been provided earlier. Furthermore, complications with communication on one project can have a cascading impact on other projects. The unanswered questions on I-77 have impacted understanding of US 74 and I-485 in Charlotte, as illustrated in this article from the Charlotte Observer, which also came out today.
Altogether, and with the understanding of complexities inherent within P3 projects, it goes without saying that this industry needs to do a better job of finding ways to communicate throughout the project development process and engage the public and stakeholders in meaningful ways towards new infrastructure.