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Building Support for Infrastructure Investment

Falling during a historically tumultuous month in Washington, National Infrastructure Week (May 15-19) is easily overshadowed. While infrastructure may not be front page news, the issue is receiving significant attention on Capitol Hill, at think tanks, and in local communities nationwide. Americans on both sides of the political divide agree that there is a need to invest in our roads, bridges, energy, communications, and water delivery systems.

Without an accompanying disaster, sparking a national or even local discussion on the need for infrastructure investment is a tall order. Steve Croft covered the challenge for infrastructure stakeholders, and the communicators who support them, in a 2014 60 Minutes segment entitled, Why Infrastructure Gets Ignored. The opening of the story says it all: “It’s not a very sexy subject.”

Traffic congestion during rush hour, power failures on hot summer days, and water main breaks when the temperature drops are annoying, but rarely inspire action, especially when those that complain realize that action means tolls, taxes, or higher water and electricity bills. There is, however, much at stake when it comes to infrastructure investment. The Flint, Michigan water crisis and collapse of Interstate I35W in Minneapolis nearly a decade ago show the life of death consequences of ignoring the warning signs of crumbling infrastructure.

Despite the current challenges and conflicts in Washington, infrastructure spending is about to become more popular. On Monday, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao spoke before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about the administration’s plans for the much anticipated $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan. Whether this momentum will translate into action remains to be seen. Stakeholders are starting to wonder if this growing popularity will lead to the matter becoming newsworthy?

Infrastructure advocates are already jockeying to have their projects funded by the soon to be announced federal infrastructure investment program. But only those who can successfully communicate the value pf their projects will be rewarded. Persistence and a campaign approach will be crucial to their success.

Infrastructure stakeholders will face significant competition for money. Cultivating public support to apply pressure on decision-makers will be the difference between a project being funded or forced to the back of the line. To generate this support, engage with those who will benefit most from the projects and inspire them to get involved.

Presenting infrastructure projects in a way that rallies support among a variety of stakeholders will help decision-makers see the light. Focusing on the jobs that will be created, the local economic benefit, and the positive impact it will have on reliable utility services will be powerful arguments. Furthermore, presenting what could possibly be lost if projects fail to secure funding will force decision makers to feel the heat from those with the most to lose.

While not everything that is important is newsworthy—utilities and local authorities can overcome this obstacle by building an advocacy base for a mutually beneficial cause. Funding will go to those who successfully engage the media and launch grassroots campaigns.

Hopefully, we can celebrate National Infrastructure Week in a meaningful way next year.

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