IBTTA & the media - plus the new Jones' rule as enforced in Atlanta EDITORIAL
2012-07-29: Jordi Graells president of IBTTA in his opening speech at the Atlanta conference last week said one of the toll industry association's objectives this year is to "enhance the reputation" of tolling, countering what he called "negative perceptions" of the public. The IBTTA board of directors after intensive discussion, he said, concluded that a more sympathetic public was a key to the health of the toll industry and an expanded role for tolls in transportation.
IBTTA would make new efforts at reaching out to stakeholders and key policymakers, and embark on longterm 'public education' to advance tolling.
Good stuff. Go tollers, go!
The media matters too
But IBTTA also needs to think about working the media better than it does.
Too often all that the public hears about tolling on the screen and in type is:
(1) toll officials living high on the hog
(2) the use of toll revenues for purposes that will never benefit those paying the tolls - like a fancy rail line in northern Virginia or 'economic development' (crony capitalist subsidies)
(3) toll increases
(4) toll collection as an expensive and inefficient means of raising road revenues
(5) toll plazas as confusing and a hassle
(6) tolls as an imposition on motorists
Of course some negative stories are justified, such as (1.)
(2) I find difficult to defend, but some can make decent arguments for other mobility improvements in a corridor.
Along with (3) stories on toll increases should be information on where the extra revenues is going, why it is needed, and what the consequences would be of a frozen toll rate.
(4) and (5) used to be true, but with electronics they are now wrong. The relative costs should be documented as Reason is doing with Daryl Fleming's new report. And made part of most toll advocacy.
Talking more to reporters, editorial writers, columnists
Tollers could do a better job making media reports more balanced by talking more to reporters, giving them the present facts and arguing the good case that we have for road pricing.
As for (6) tolls are not an imposition. They are voluntarily paid by motorists who find the value of using the toll road, bridge or tunnel greater than the toll. Or they wouldn't use it.
Toll facilities are used by people who get net value from the payment.
The tolls allow a facility to be built that otherwise wouldn't be built. The toll facility adds options to people's travel - a quicker, more reliable, safer, less stressful trip. It provides an opportunity, not an imposition.
Taxes are the imposition, because you pay them whether or not you use a road they may finance.
Cultivating the instinct for what's news
And tollers need to get positive stories out to the media.
Look at this press release from WSDOT: "Six months into SR 520 tolling: Traffic and revenue on track," June 22, 2012.
It's not a bad press release. It IS news that traffic and revenue in the first year of tolling SR520 bridge is "on track" but the real news - the big news, if you like - is given passing mention, and no elaboration, "12 to 15 minute" travel time savings in the peakhours.
On a 12 mile route that's a dramatic improvement in level of service to motorists.
Trips at 50mph now are taking about 15 minutes whereas before they took 27 to 30 minutes with speeds typically 25mph to 27mph.
I'll bet the travel times are also more reliable with tolls too - another big benefit. They should be documenting that.
So the big news of the new and graduated tolls on the SR520 bridge was not that forecasts were "on track" but that the toll had made a huge improvement in the average ride in peak hours with average speeds 80% to 100% faster than pre-toll. And this even before the new better facility was opened!
Just one of many examples of perfectly adequate press releases but ones written without much instinct for what makes a really good story about tolling.
IBTTA's new anti-media rule at conferences
IBTTA unfortunately seems to be moving to restrict the media's access to its members. The program for the recent Atlanta conference on all-electronic toll collection contained this: "MEDIA: Members of the media are permitted to attend sessions ONLY and can be identified by green ribbons on their badges." (page 13, left column)
The identifying badge is fine. Members should know when they are talking to a journalist, but IBTTA is for the first time banning press from all the informal activity of conferences - the breakfast, lunch and dinner events and the informal outside-the-session chitchat that occurs before and after sessions in the lobbies nearby.
The Jones rule
Pat Jones executive director of IBTTA and me exchanged angry words on two occasions at the recent IBTTA conference in Atlanta as he ordered me off the premises of Loews hotel citing the new no-media rule.
Asked the reason he simply said it was "the wish of members" that there be no media except in formal sessions. And he claimed that the board of directors had laid down this rule.
I was the only media person at the conference - as at most IBTTA conferences - so I took this personally. I've attended probably 40 IBTTA events like since I became a specialist reporter on tollroads affairs in the mid-1990s and never before was there any media restriction of this kind.
From my standpoint about half the value of IBTTA conferences lies in the casual one-on-one and small group conversations with toll people outside the formal sessions. Jones was attempting to rob me of about half the value of my investment in the journey to Atlanta.
After my first expulsion the Sunday afternoon I talked to members including directors of the IBTTA. Every one was amazed at Jones' action and said they'd heard no discussion of his no-media rule. I didn't find anyone who thought it was needed.
Jones invented a "board decision"
Monday afternoon he confronted me again when I attempted to go with others for after-session drinks, and again he cited a board decision to exclude media.
I got angry, very angry, saying I wasn't going to put up with being told such blatant lies and being excluded for no proper reason. I let fly.
The incident moved toward a climax when he brought his face to within about two inches of mine, and quietly hissed the challenge: "And what are you going to do about it?"
His angry expression changed to a sneering smile as he awaited a response.
I wanted to get Jones rapidly out of my face and the instinctive part of me felt like pushing him away very hard. But the rational part of me said: "Don't, don't. He is trying to provoke you into something he can construe as 'assault'."
He'd planned the confrontation. He had a staffer videoing us with an iPhone and there was a big muscular guy in a tracksuit about 6 feet away who looked like security.
So I just turned and left, bewildered at what might be behind Jones' confrontational behavior.
Why, why, why?
We've never been close but I can't remember even a serious argument with the guy - the closest was a couple of years ago when I called and asked him if he'd say anything on why he'd dismissed an energetic, able, and much-liked staffer at IBTTA.
He told me my readers weren't interested in the internal affairs of IBTTA.
Wrong, I said, I'd got a bunch of calls and emails. And I said: it's my job to decide what my readers are interested in, not your's.
That's about the extent of any disagreement in all these years.
I think IBTTA generally does a good job of representing the toll industry and tolling and I think most of its meetings are productive, and that it provides value for its members. And I have written in that vein.
One member told me I don't show Jones "sufficient deference."
I don't bow and scape and flatter sufficiently. True I guess.
But is IBTTA's whole policy on the media at conferences to hinge on that?
Media groundrules justified
Maybe IBTTA does need groundrules for the media in the informal, out-of-session setting - making explicit what seems to me implicit, namely that people in informal conversation are not talking "on the record."
Such informal talk is in its nature "off the record."
Reporters shouldn't quote any such talk without at the least getting a subsequent approval to report and attribute. Or they should ask for it to be "on the record."
So it would be quite reasonable for IBTTA to lay down that only the words spoken in formal session are "on-the-record" and that informal out-of-session talk is "off-the-record" and "not for attribution" unless the talker explicitly gives permission for something to be "on the record."
Journalists who break the rule can legitimately be excluded in future.
IBTTA members can always have private meetings, no media invited. Or they can simply take care what they say when media people are around. They are smart enough to do that.
The Jones' Rule, a blanket ban on any media presence outside formal conference sessions, deserves reconsideration - editor.