Report Shows Winning Ballot Strategies Drive Home Local Benefits of Funding Hikes

AASHTO Journal, 15 May 2015

A key factor in motivating people to vote for funding initiatives around the country, a new report says, is educating residents about how their transportation systems work and how they are funded.

The research report determined that “a dialogue with the public and amongst a diverse group of people can move members of the public toward greater support for transportation initiatives.” It was conducted for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, with funding provided through National Cooperative Highway Research Program Project 20-24.

That report, titled “Mobile Messages: Moving People to Support Transportation,” used several research techniques – case studies, surveys of transportation officials, focus groups and dial testing sessions – to assemble a comprehensive look at messages and themes. Shane Peck of Parsons Brinckerhoff and Lance Gentry of Heartland Market Research prepared the report.

Among conclusions coming out of their work is that “people care most about transportation at a personal level,” said Lloyd Brown, AASHTO’s director of communications. “This reinforces what we already know about communicating with the public, that as much as possible we must explain funding initiatives in ways that show how they are relevant and personalized to the local voter.”

Brown said the report builds upon previous NCHRP-funded research in 2010. That work had found that many people do not understand how the transportation system they use every day is funded, he said, “which underscores the importance of good communications and ongoing dialogue with voters.”

Analyzing 27 local and state transportation funding initiatives, the researchers behind “Mobile Messages” determined that most victorious advocacy campaigns for new revenue measures had targeted their messages. They focused voters’ attention on the economic benefits of investment, touted long-range and comprehensive planning that had involved the public, and assured voters of accountability for how the money would be spent.

By contrast, unsuccessful campaigns tended to focus on broad, less precise themes, such as maintaining or fixing the overall existing infrastructure. Often, unsuccessful campaigns were also vague about how officials would spend the new revenue if voters approved the funding proposals.

The researchers conducted eight focus groups in four states to target a range of voter demographics – urban vs. rural, younger vs. older, car-centric vs. transit-oriented.

They used the focus group results to develop messages and then tested them in two dial-testing sessions. In those, a narrator would read various advocacy statements that prompted each participant to maneuver a handheld “dial” to reflect opposition or supports.

The report determined that people responded positively to these major themes:
-Campaigns should focus on transportation agency accountability and transparency.
-The proposed funding should improve mobility, convenience and livability.
-And a funding package should either be specific in the list of projects it would pay for, or emphasize that infrastructure improvements should be protected so that state officials could not divert funding to non-transportation uses.

The full report including the research data is available here.

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