New ATA campaign aims to emphasize "the human toll and how the issue of crumbling roads and...

New ATA campaign aims to emphasize "the human toll and how the issue of crumbling roads and bridges impacts virtually every American."

Image: ATA

If I had closed my eyes during the phone call, my mind might well have drifted away nearly 60 years back until I was seated in a conference room in the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency on Park Avenue hearing pitches on how leverage advertising to give dour and dorky Richard M. Nixon an edge over highly photogenic and telegenic John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election.

But I’m getting behind myself and therefore seriously risking burying my lede-- and in an imaginary time capsule, no less.

So, to cut the chase, what I was listening to on the phone on this morning of the third of April of 2019 was a pitch for a very different advertising campaign, as well as a related grassroots lobbying effort, that has the solid whiff of “winner” about it.

It was not at all like the fictional campaign in “Mad Men” about selling a below-average candidate to the voting public. No, this was a very real one. And a real put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is one at that.

What was on the table this early spring day was a detailed plan to sell elected officials on the idea that right now, in the coming weeks, is the time to get going on writing, introducing, and passing-- so President Trump can sign it by year’s end-- legislation that will compel the federal government to increase its investment in our nation’s roads and bridges.

The pitcher wasn’t Sterling Cooper’s slick ad man Don Draper, but Chris Spear, the plain-speaking and go-getting president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations. If nothing else, his conference call with reporters, including those covering trucking and political beats, once again showed that his savvy grasp of how to lobby for trucking’s interests extends both everywhere inside the fabled Beltway and well beyond it, straight out to the American heartland.

The recognition that Washington works best when it hears what people— especially those living in the voting districts of key House members and Senators— think, and above all, feel about an issue is the essence of the new and multifaceted campaign being launched by ATA that Spear explained in detail during the half-hour call.

“The dismal state of our nation’s roads and bridges forces the average commuter to waste 42 hours a year sitting in traffic,” said Spear. “Between time lost and the $1600 in vehicle damage and wasted gas the average American is saddled with [by deteriorating roads and bridges], we are no longer at the brink – we are living in a crisis situation.”

What’s more, he pointed out that trucking’s losses from congestion and vehicles damaged by bad roads amount to $74.5 billion a year, even though trucks account for merely 4% of all vehicles on our roads.

Spear added that ATA was launching this campaign “to highlight the very personal impact of poor roads and the urgency necessary for Congress and the Administration to take action.”

The visual centerpiece of the new media and advocacy effort is a 60-second TV spot titled “America's Failing Infrastructure: Life Won't Wait.” It presents three storylines: a father trying to make it to his son’s baseball game; a mother rushing to get to a welcome home ceremony for her son on active duty in the military; and a husband who needs to get the hospital as his wife is in labor. In each case, each of the three motorists is unable to make it to their important life events due to either urban traffic congestion or a rural road that’s closed due to deterioration.

“What’s often missing from the infrastructure debate in Washington is the appreciation of the human toll and how the issue of crumbling roads and bridges impacts virtually every American, often with unfortunate consequences,” said Spear.

He said the first phase of the six-figure effort kicked off with the commercial hitting the airwaves in the Washington, D.C. market on April 3; it will also run on national Sunday morning talk shows. After saturating House members and Senators— as well as their many policy aides who actually draft legislation— with the D.C. placement, the TV ad will then appear in other select markets, including the home districts of the House Ways & Means and Transportation & Infrastructure Committees and in some major congestion "pain points," such as Atlanta, suburban New Jersey, and Houston.

Spear said other components of the six-figure campaign, which will play out over eight weeks, include a digital ad campaign, newspaper op-eds, and a campaign website,, which hosts other information that “illustrate the time and money motorists are losing due to poor infrastructure.” Both the commercial and the website encourage the public to call on their representatives in Washington to take action, because “life won’t wait.”

But wait, there’s more. The grassroots part of the campaign will entail bringing members of 18 state trucking associations to Washington and local events highlighting the country’s worst traffic bottlenecks, op-eds, and a social media campaign.

As to why now, Spear said essentially that the stars have aligned in 2019 for getting a major infrastructure bill passed and signed into law. That includes the sobering fact that unless a bill is “quickly approved, the Highway Trust Fund will go broke in the next year and a half.” He also contended that this is the year to push for fixing highways because next year politicians will be politicians and get themselves wrapped up in the Presidential election.  

Spear said he saw solid bipartisan support hovering in place to support a bill that would raise fuel taxes enough to generate billions of new revenues to replenish he Highway Trust Fund, yet not be an undue burden on motorists or truckers. He noted that ATA is pushing for a 5-cent per gallon “at the pump” increase in the federal tax on both gasoline and diesel, which the association estimates would over the next four years pour $340 billion in new revenue into the Highway Trust Fund— all “without adding a dime to the deficit.”

Detailing what he sees as a favorable political environment for addressing the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges, Spear said there is “no daylight between business and labor [interests] on this issue. We’re hopeful that will resonate with both Democrats and Republicans. If the White House, House, and Senate can do what is right for the country, we’ll see an infrastructure bill pass into law later this year.”

He also made the shrewd observation that even two political polar opposites have the wherewithal this year to meet in the middle on this issue. “Presidentg Trump has campaigned heavily on this [issue], promoting his trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. And with the new House majority, Speaker Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] will be looking for a win this year, too.”

Referring to all the Members of Congress, Spear added that “they are all sent here to do a job and we will hold them accountable. But the actions they take [on infrastructure funding] will resonate well in their home districts,” which will benefit them.

Hmmm. I feel an idea for an ad coming on …

About the author
David Cullen

David Cullen

[Former] Business/Washington Contributing Editor

David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

View Bio