By Alex Binkley

Bruce Anderson is a respected Ottawa lobbyist and pollster who offers straightforward advice to make life easier for proponents of major transportation infrastructure projects to gain public support. Speaking to the annual Ottawa workshop of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transportation in North America (CILTNA), Anderson urged governments and companies to create public backing for new roads and airport, port or railway expansions by emphasizing the benefits. Tell the public what’s involved and what’s in it for them. Respond to opponents’ objections with facts rather than belittling them.

“Many people take transportation for granted,” he said. They need to be shown how the investment will improve their lives. Otherwise, the noisy opposition that comes with every proposal to build everything from pipelines to cell towers will continue.

“Building infrastructure is far more difficult than it used to be,” he points out. “There is public resistance to development.” For example, the congestion in large cities “should make expansion of the subway system a no-brainer. The same with more toll roads.”

From polling done by his company, Abacus Data, Anderson has concluded about 15 per cent of the population is instinctively opposed to any change. “They tend to be comfortable with the way things are. If the rest of the population sees no direct benefit, it tends to sit out the issue.” They may understand the project at a general level, but they are not into the specifics, he adds.

However, many of them want to understand all sides of an issue, if given the opportunity, Anderson says. That’s why the project proponents “need to become active by explaining what the project will bring to the community.” Too often debate on a projects degenerates into personal attacks on the proponents or opponents. “The two sides demonize each other rather than discuss each other’s views,” he said. “Politicians tend to compound the problem by failing to look for compromises.”

“Avoid rancorous debates and leverage the information about the benefits of an infrastructure project,” he added. “Tell the public what’s involved in the new project or technique and what’s in it for them. Most importantly, respond to opponents’ objections with facts rather than belittling their position and ideas.”

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority has tried just the approach that Anderson recommended when tackling the touchy issue of noise complaints about its operation, Aleem Kanji, Manager of Public Affairs, told the conference. It engaged the communities around Pearson Airport explaining that it generates 40,000 jobs in the region in addition to the 1,100 people who work at the airport, he said. It explained the steps it was taking to reduce the noise generated by planes taking off and landing and that the best time for flights to depart for Asia was in the early hours of the morning, he said. “We wanted to understand where the people complaining about our operations were coming from.”

The answer came from developing an active community presence that engaged local residents. Open houses allowed the public to see what goes on at airports, nad the Airports Authority now has 28,000 followers on Twitter. After the disruption caused by last winter’s severe weather, the Authority realized it had to better explain how it was the hub for air travel and problems at Pearson affected air travel across the country, he added.

Mark Hubert, Vice President for Environmental Leadership with the Forest Products Association of Canada, said industrial sectors have to tell their stories a lot better. “It doesn’t mean you will win an argument today. You have to plan for a long-term campaign. “You have to make a connection with the audience. People have to have a sense of what your position is.” The Boreal Forest Agreement, which includes forestry companies and environmental and other public interest groups, is a great example of industry connecting with the public. “We have made progress but this is a world of what have you done for us today.”

Michael Bourque, President and CEO of the Railway Association of Canada, said the Lac-Megantic disaster demonstrated the need for the rail industry to talk about transporting dangerous goods. That included pointing out that 99.9 per cent of dangerous goods shipments reach their destination without an incident, he said. “We don’t see any other tragedies. “We talk about safety a lot. It’s our No. 1 priority. We are working with municipalities on new emergency preparedness measures.” The industry is also trying to communicate the fact that most of the people killed in train-related incidents are trespassers or suicide cases. “We are safe and getting safer,” he explained. “We have two accidents per million tonne train miles.”

Stephen Brown, President of the Chamber of Shipping of B.C., said that dealing with the claims on social media has become a daily activity for the marine industry. On the West Coast, it involves coping with a well-financed campaign against the development of LNG terminals by U.S. environmental group Tides. “We’re getting killed in the social media,” he said. Governments aren’t helping much. “It took three years to convince Ottawa to upgrade spill response equipment on the West Coast.” “We only have a 10,000 tonne response capacity when we have 300,000 tonne tankers,” he said. “We have to do a better job at educating the public through the social media and town hall meetings.” The Chamber has launched a website to tell its side of the story. “We need an information source for journalists because the government has been reluctant to deal with the public,” he said. “We have to open up, and we have to get creative about it.”

Roger Larson, former President of the Canadian Fertilizer Association and now a consultant with PSfocus, said Canada needs a clear focus on improved ties with Asian countries. “We have to take advantage of the global in demand for goods. We have to get better at value added exports such as food.” The transportation sector has to clearly focus on meeting the specific needs of shippers, he said. “It all comes down to a service issue.”