There is nothing that gets regular people more riled up than airlines' checked bag fees, increased tolls, or sudden hikes in gas prices. They hate spending extra money on travel, especially when they feel they have no control over the seemingly random price. Unfortunately for the expert commenters on this blog, this type of grumbling represents the lion's share of the general public's experience with transportation policy. The area man only notices infrastructure when it hurts him.
Consumers see the transportation system in a way that the industry doesn't, as Innovation Briefs Publisher Ken Orski pointed out in his comment last week. They don't see crumbling bridges. They see a line of cars in front of a toll booth to cross that bridge.
Here are a few examples of how the public interest in transportation issues is sparked by consumers' wallets:
* In Virginia, there are squabbles over Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposal to put new tolls on Interstate 95 to pay for reconstruction of U.S. highway 460. Republican senatorial candidate George Allen has also expressed concern that the Northern Virginia's Washington-Dulles Toll Road will be saddled with huge increases to pay for a new metro rail line.
* My colleague Niraj Chokshi moderated a panel last week sponsored by the Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, where consumer advocates and independent air travel sellers argued for new rules requiring airlines to include ancillary fees in prices listed independent web sites. It's a hot issue for passengers, but it's more complicated than it appears on first blush. The airlines say that such regulations would tie their hands in terms of offering package deals customers and quash the industry's ability to create new, potentially market-shifting travel experiences like plush seating.
* President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney went deep into energy issues in last week's town hall debate. They talked about new drilling and clean energy. But let's not forget how they got there. The question was actually about gas prices, specifically whether the government should try to lower them. Even the experts can't agree on the government's role. Obama and Romney answered the question by talking about oil drilling (Romney) or clean energy (Obama)--things that have little direct connection with the price at the pump.
Does it make sense that consumers are often the last to find out about government policies that impact their own finances? How can the link between consumers and infrastructure wonks be drawn more closely? Are there layers of complexity that make a consumer-friendly dialogue impossible? How do airlines, toll booth and turnpike operators, or transit authorities respond to their customers' discontent? Is it worth it to try to engage them about broader transportation policy? If so, how?