Way back in the twenty-teens Iowa had a problem.
The state’s roads and bridges were crumbling and unsafe, but no funds were available to do anything more than fix stuff well after it broke. It cost the driving public tens of millions of lost hours spent in traffic and hundreds of millions in vehicle damage and wasted fuel.
The governor and one of the halls of the State Congress were strongly conservative. Many ran (or were currently campaigning) on a ‘No New Taxes’ platform.
The region’s transportation and public safety industries had been advocating for decades to increase funding in order to repair the failing critical infrastructure and save lives - for decades - without getting a single additional penny in return. Some had begun to believe that getting new funding was an impossibility.
But one of the board members knew about my past work and asked if I could help.
[Before I get into the story, let me be clear that this happened almost a decade ago, and I don’t have many notes preserved, so I might get some of the details wrong. If anyone knows that I’ve missed or misstated something please let me know and I’ll be happy to fix it. Onwards.]
I spent about a week trying to nail down the reasons why Iowa’s infrastructure was so bad. A few of the issues that seemed significant at the time:
Historically, state Departments of Transportation may avoid maintenance work to save money and avoid citizen complaints associated with constant preventative work. They wait until the road shows significant signs of failure before they act.
There had been no fuel tax increase for over 25 years (1988).
Inflation had effectively halved the value of funds available.
Gas prices nearly doubled, but the tax remained flat, giving the state a lower percentage of the price paid at the pump.
Diverted funds - Many states use fuel taxes to pay for other things like mass transit, law enforcement, education, tourism and environmental concerns, leaving less money available for the original purpose.
It appeared to me that every fiscal or safety-related indicator was blinking red, and had been for a long time. The transportation infrastructure was broken and would keep getting worse.
The transportation industry had made their case to the Governor dozens of times over the years, and the only outcome was the appointment of a blue-ribbon panel that would make a recommendation.
Governors had already done this five times. And just about every time they did it the panel said the fuel tax should be raised. The Governor knew it was the right thing to do.
The recommendations were ignored.
At the time I was hired, both the long-time conservative Governor and the Republican House of Representatives had committed to not raising taxes.
It’s almost a trope. Politicians, and conservatives in particular, don’t want to be viewed as raising taxes on the populace. A significant portion of the country views taxes as unnecessary or wasteful.
It was into this headwind that I told the transportation industry that I’d take the gig.
It wasn’t bluster. I’d uncovered some studies about the effect that raising taxes has on a candidate reelection. Predictably, the studies basically all say something a lot like, “if you want to get reelected, don’t raise taxes.” No surprise there. But one study went further. It found that spending money to prevent disaster could very likely swing an election to the opponent in a close contest. But when taxes are raised to recover from disaster? Incumbents are almost always rewarded at the ballot box.
So... If, hypothetically, a politician was more interested in being reelected than in keeping his constituents safe, then the numbers clearly showed that it made sense to freeze spending until disaster struck.
Now, of course no sane politician was going to come out and say that they were just waiting for more people to die before they spent money. And telling politicians that people were going to die if they didn’t fund transportation had been done for decades and hadn’t worked.
What to do… Well, in my case, I used an early version of Linden’s Lens to figure it out. I put myself in the place of the resistant politician and imagined what could possibly get me to change my vote.
Mass tragedy was the right (but wrong) answer, and for reasons I hope are obvious, I didn’t pursue it.
Secret payments might do it, but that wasn’t legal. Or ethical. Another no.
But… What if we could somehow tie increased transportation funding to getting reelected? Get Iowa’s drivers shouting for the politicians to fix the damn roads.
Compared to the other options it was clearly a more desirable path, but… how? It sounded like a fairytale ending. If it existed, someone would’ve tried it.
No one had. Here’s how I did it:
I used the government's own public databases to identify all of Iowa’s obsolete and deficient bridges. (Anyone can do this, but only engineers and academics ever do.*)
I found lists of billboards state wide.
And then I connected the dots.
I wasn’t involved in the conversations with the congressional ‘no’ votes, but I prepped the people who were there. These weren’t long conversations. As I recall, the holdouts were handed my list of all the unsafe bridges in their district, followed by a few spoken sentences voicing concern for the safety of their constituents. We then let them know we’re launching a public campaign to increase transportation funding and wanted to let them see it and comment before we did. It was all a lot like what representatives had been hearing for decades, and that was intentional.
Because it allowed us to show them this exact picture and think about what was about to happen back home.
What I would’ve given to be in the rooms where it happened. The response was immediate. Not only did a whole bunch of anti-tax representatives take a sudden passionate interest in transportation infrastructure, my client was called by party leaders - who made it clear that they didn’t want these signs anywhere near their member districts just a couple months before the election.
Or ever, really.
As much as I’d like to say that this billboard design was posted across the state, I can’t do it. In a courtesy call with Iowa’s Department of Transportation, they suggested something like the billboard might cause accidents or panic, and that my clients could be liable. But the mock-up did its job. Given that the majority of resistant representatives expressed support, a less aggressively specific campaign was launched in a handful of holdout districts and the state capitol. And it worked. Even the watered down campaign was still front page news.
Three months later, Iowa - led by congressional Republicans and the conservative governor - raised their gas tax by 50%, committing over $3 billion additional dollars towards critical infrastructure and public safety in the years since.
While this kind of result seems remarkable, it’s not unusual at all for the projects developed with Linden’s Lens. This isn’t a one-off. We’ve helped a non-profit increase their fundraising ten-fold, helped a dwindling industry grow 30%, branded the fastest growing insurance agency in America, developed a business card that sparked 10,000% growth, helped swing the US House of Representatives, and somehow rebranded The Pentagon’s most advanced US government research agency without a single taxpayer or congressional complaint.
We do it by starting from a place of full awareness and understanding, then crafting messaging that makes the desired action inevitable. We bring structural integrity to organizations and the people who lead them. And it seems to work pretty damn well. * [Note: Summary state-level bridge data is still available on the DOT website. More detailed county-level info can be found here. It's not easy to navigate, and if you do, be warned that researching it may make you a lot less excited about driving.]