Transportation groups strike right chord with toll message

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recently approved a highway toll increase, preceded by what PR pros call one of the sector's smartest and slickest communications plans.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recently approved a highway toll increase, preceded by what PR pros call one of the sector's smartest and slickest communications plans.

For starters, public meetings were heavily attended by members of labor unions adorned in bright orange shirts, who made the toll increase about job creation rather than rising commuter costs. The approved increase was also lower than the original amount first floated by the Port Authority, which enabled the governors of both states (who have the power to veto toll hikes) to swoop in.

William Murray, EVP for the public affairs practice at MWW Group, thinks the Port Authority "leaked what the toll hike could be and created a sense of panic for a week so the governors could then come in and say, 'Here's what we're going to do.'"

With a lower hike than what was first announced, plus the organized support of labor, bu- siness, and transit groups, "they have built a lot of momentum," adds Murray, who in 2007 worked on behalf of Save Our Assets, a coalition to fight toll hikes in New Jersey. "It will be difficult for anyone to mount a really strong opposition."

Twitter on the roads

The E-470 Public Highway Authority, which maintains the tolled Eastern beltway of Denver, hit Twitter in May 2011 (followers numbered 1,370 at press time) and recently hosted a tweet chat. It also recently launched a Facebook page and YouTube channel, which features videos that explain the toll-pay process.

Jo Snell, manager of community and PR for E-470, says social media enables the authority to communicate on positive issues as well, including its free roadside assistance services and sponsorship of local events.

Overcoming obstacles
The Port Authority, which did not return calls for comment, is just one example, particularly on the East Coast, where tolls have become a highly politicized issue. State agencies need funds to make much-needed road improvements, but it comes at a time when many people haven't had increases in their own pay.

"The nation is facing a crisis," says John Undeland, SVP and partner at Stratacomm, which has worked with a number of clients on the issue. "Toll increases will have to be an increasingly large part of transportation funding. And overcoming public opposition is perhaps the single largest obstacle."

The Maryland Transportation Authority, for instance, recently announced it was delaying its planned toll increases in the wake of public outcry, despite the fact many of its toll rates have gone unchanged since the 1970s.

The International Bridge Tunnel & Turnpike Association, an alliance of toll operators and associated industries, has a communications committee that helps state jurisdictions on PR strategy, says government affairs director Neil Gray.

The group has urged members to educate consumers on the fact that "there are no free roads," says Rachel Bell, chair of its communications committee and communications manager with the Kansas Turnpike Authority. "That is one of the messages we regularly put to our customers - roads are either paid through a user fee or gas tax. But the user fee is what consumers see."

The authority uses various outreach methods, including news releases, text messaging, and Twitter, all of which it handles internally. Bell says it also uses those channels to communicate toll increases and how fees are spent.

For instance, the organization recently highlighted the reconstruction of two 50-year-old bridges. "Because there is that close association between what you pay and what you get from a toll road, toll roads are often held to a higher standard," she adds. "We talked about that be-cause it is something visible that customers can actually see."

Continuing education
Undeland says he'd like to see toll authorities do more to educate consumers. For instance, he notes that in some jurisdictions it might make sense to create an online calculator, which would show commuters how much gas and time they'd save by taking a toll road versus non-toll routes.

"Toll agencies have to do a better job of personalizing why this is a good deal for Joe Citizen," he explains.

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