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Infrastructure Needs a Good PR Firm


By Robert Ikenberry

Which would you notice first? Money missing from your Social Security check, or a patch of rust on the underside of your local bridge?

Obviously, the check.  That may be one reason why nearly all of the increase in government spending since 1972 has gone toward entitlements, rather than something less personal like infrastructure.

By the Numbers

Statistician Nate Silver recently explored such numbers in his New York Times blog. Silver looked at the growth of U.S. government spending compared to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over the past 40 years or so.

He reported that between 1972 and 2011, overall government spending has grown from 30 percent of GDP to 40 percent of GDP, which is huge—and essentially all of the increase is in entitlements.

Put another way, total federal and local government spending went way up during that period, compared to the rest of the economy, driven by entitlements. Transportation, science, technology and other infrastructure spending actually went down as a percentage of GDP.



Caltrans spokesman Bart Ney narrated a series of videos about work on the new East Span of the Bay Bridge. The California governor’s office later killed a $9.8 million communication contract with the PR firm for the project.

Feeling the Pain

One quote from Silver’s article particularly resonated with me:  “…cuts to entitlement programs are liable to be more noticeable to individual voters than cuts to things like infrastructure spending.”

He highlights two related impacts:

1. There’s a much bigger outrage on the part of voters when someone’s Social Security check (or any other benefit) goes down.

Cuts to infrastructure are much less visible and, therefore, create less outrage and are easier for politicians to pass. So, our benefit checks tend to go up, and the amount we spend on roads, bridges, schools, space programs and medical research tend to go down. It’s just politically easier. But I think most experts agree that ignoring needed investment in infrastructure is more damaging to our global competitiveness and our standard of living in the long run.

Investing in Inspiration

2. Bridges feel big; checks feel small.  As a child of the 1960s Space Race, I can vouch that visionary government projects can really inspire a generation.  Seeing the government as a provider of benefits, not so much…. 

I’m not advocating any particular level of overall government spending, but I think most of us agree that infrastructure is one area where government SHOULD spend money.  How much and where should be discussed, publicly.  And pursued as part of a long-range plan, not as an afterthought.

Getting the Word Out

One thing that might help the cause: public relations. Infrastructure needs a good PR firm.  We should know about, and be proud of, what we build and achieve together as a country. 

 California Gov. Jerry Brown
California Gov. Jerry Brown killed Caltrans’ $10 million public relations contract for the Bay Bridge project. "We felt it was excessive, and not a proper use of toll-payer money," a spokesman said.

In California, the Department of Transportation (Caltrans) recently fired its public relations firm, Words Pictures Ideas, with which it had a three-year contract to publicize progress on the Bay Bridge project. The ax fell because the governor’s office thought the $10 million cost could be seen as an embarrassment.

That was a mistake. The money was only about 0.15% of the total cost of the project. Caltrans will still have to spend much of that on new personnel and contracted services to coordinate its public outreach and information as the agency plans for bridge closures, detours, and other issues as the project nears completion.

So the money will still get spent; it just won’t be transparently seen as “PR.”  But that’s what it is. And that’s what it needs to be.

Keeping Informed

As the public, we deserve to be informed about where our money is spent.  We want to celebrate our engineering achievements and dramatic construction projects.  We want to know we are protecting our common investments. We need to relate.

As a taxpayer, I want to know where my taxes are spent, and I want a more—not less—spent on infrastructure going forward.  That means spending some money to tell me what’s going on with government spending.

And I have to listen. 

Is government telling us what it is doing for our infrastructure? Are we listening?


Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now semi-retired as the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.



Tagged categories: Bridges; Business operations; Construction; Infrastructure

Comment from Andrew Sefton, (1/31/2013, 7:38 AM)

I highly recommend "Too Big to Fall: America's Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward" by Barry B. LePatner and Daily Commercial News online articles by Stephen Bauld, Canada’s leading expert on government procurement. Organizations such as the American Society of Civil Engineers and The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, amongst many others, are advancing the interests of a value-for-money proposition for the construction and life-cycle maintenance of public infrastructure assets. What position, if any, is being asserted by architectural paint and protective coating contractors?

Comment from William Cornelius, (1/31/2013, 4:14 PM)

I really don't understand the Social Security bashing. Until recently SS was completely pay-as-it-goes and aforded a main source of the funds that the government raided to pay for other progams. How can it be now that Social Security is break-even rather than a source of funding for other programs that it is so very bad?

Comment from Robert Ikenberry, (1/31/2013, 5:12 PM)

No Social Security bashing intended. I strongly support Social Security. Just pointing out that politically it's much easier to cut funding for bridges, they don't vote and can't call their congressman.

Comment from Mike DesPres, (2/4/2013, 8:11 AM)

let’s face the facts politicians don’t care about infrastructure unless the project in question is named after them. Politicians giving away government handouts get them re-elected. In my opinion we need leaders that can make the hard choices and communicate this to the American people in a way that they not only support but insist we rebuild this nation.

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