Inside the furious social media fight over proposed I-81 tolling

By: - February 19, 2019 5:01 am

The view of Interstate 81 from exit 146 in the Hollins area of Roanoke County. (Mason Adams/ For The Virginia Mercury).

The fiercest battle over the prospect of tolling on Interstate 81 in 2019 did not take place within the Virginia Capitol.

Sure, the debate within the General Assembly over how best to fund capital improvements on the 325-mile highway that sees 42 percent of statewide interstate truck traffic left a few bruises.

A plan to introduce tolls along the interstate — backed both by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican lawmakers along the corridor — crashed amid disagreement over whether raising fuel taxes might be a better option. Instead, a bill creating a fund for the highway — with no revenue source and a study due at the end of the year — has advanced. 

The debate in Richmond, however, looked positively collegial when compared to the public relations campaign being fought out on Facebook and Instagram. As traditional media has fragmented and more people are turning to social media for their news, interest groups are using those platforms to lobby Virginians on state policy issues like tolling on I-81.

Keep Tolls Off I-81, a Facebook page operated by the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, predicted on Jan. 10 that new tolls would undermine western Virginia’s economic development, raise freight costs throughout the commonwealth, “waste taxpayer dollars on new tolling bureaucracies” and “wreak havoc on communities” along 81.

It ended with a call to action: “We can’t let this happen. Join us in keeping tolls off of Interstate 81.”

The Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates retained a lobbyist from Capital Results, LLC, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, and the address and email listed in its contact information tie it to the American Trucking Associations’ Arlington office.

The Keep Tolls Off I-81 page later purchased ads targeting the bill sponsors and members of the Senate finance committee. Most featured a neutral message for voters—“Does Senator Saslaw want to toll Virginians?”—but reserved a harsher tone for lawmakers like Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, who carried tolling legislation: “Why does Senator Obenshain want to toll you?”

Keep Tolls Off I-81’s Facebook presence looks weak, however, compared to Virginians for Better Transportation, which supports the tolling plan. As the public-relations wing of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, a coalition of road-building companies, Virginians for Better Transportation played a big role in successfully advocating for the massive $3.5 billion transportation funding bill in 2013.

Since mid-July, Virginians for Better Transportation has purchased about 250 Facebook ads related to I-81. The first ad, which launched on July 16, reads, “Interstate 81 is congested and exceeds the capacity it was designed for. Over the past 6 years, Virginia Department of Transportation has been able to contribute approximately $200 million to improvements along the 325-mile corridor, the majority of which did not go to the over $2 billion already identified in needed capacity improvements.”

In December, the group hired Public Opinion Strategies, an Alexandria firm, to conduct a survey of 500 registered voters in the I-81 corridor on the condition of the interstate and their preferences for how to fund improvements.

Forty-five percent gave I-81 a D or an F grade. When given a choice for how to fund construction, two-thirds supported tolls on trucks, 47 percent supported increases in the gas and sales taxes, and 41 percent backed tolls on all vehicles with an option to purchase a discounted annual pass. The legislation that emerged in the General Assembly proposed the latter, least popular option—apparently in an effort to win the trucking industry’s backing.

“Originally the trucking industry had said, ‘We’ll support tolls as long as it’s not on trucks only,’” said Jeff Southard, lobbyist and VTCA executive vice president. “The General Assembly said we’ll put tolls on trucks and cars, and then for whatever reason the [Virginia] Trucking Association backed off of their original agreement. To this day I can’t tell you why.”

Virginia Trucking Association President and CEO Dale Bennett disputed Southard’s account and said it has consistently opposed I-81 tolling.

Through the fall of 2018 and into 2019, the VTCA’s ads focused on the general idea of improving I-81 to relieve congestion, ending with this call to action: “Tell Virginia’s leaders: It’s time to fix I-81.”

After Northam announced the bipartisan plan to fund $2.2 billion in improvements for I-81 through tolls, the VTCA’s Facebook ads began explicitly supporting the legislation, although Southard denies the social media campaign is a lobbying effort. Most of the construction alliance’s ad buys have been for less than $100 each, but during the week of Northam’s announcement, the organization spent more, with a series of ads costing between $100 and $499, according to Facebook’s “Ad Performance” records.

“What our goal was in social media was, let’s give people the facts,” Southard said. “Let’s tell legislators what the facts are. Here’s what the economic impact is. Here’s what people in the corridor say [poll results]. It wasn’t a lobbying effort. It was an informational effort.”

The construction alliance purchased 59 sponsored ads on Facebook in January and 17 so far in February — even after tolling was removed from the bill. However, Southard said everything VTCA wants in the bill is there except for funding — and he thinks that will be determined by the end of 2019. And so VTCA will continue to actively campaign.

“Virginians for Better Transportation will have the same message: People want it fixed, people want it fixed now, and people are willing to pay for it,” Southard said. “We’re all in agreement over that. I remember asking my counterpart with the trucking association, do you believe 81 is a problem? Do you believe 81 should be fixed? The answer was yes. We’ve agreed on everything except how to pay for it.”

That remains a sticky question, though, and a contentious one among truckers. That’s reflected in the trucking press, which hasn’t participated in sponsored ads to the extent of Virginians for Better Transportation but which plays an important part in shaping opinions within the freight industry.

The Trucker, a print and digital publication with a truck-driving readership, did promote a post that linked to a story suggesting the American Trucking Association would sue Virginia over tolls.

Transportation Nation Network, a start-up media outfit that was launched in 2017 by a former publisher and manager at the Trucker, has published numerous stories on the I-81 tolling proposal, as well as targeting Obenshain on Instagram and Facebook. A Facebook post with the news that tolling had been removed from the legislation  depicted Obenshain with a tear and broken heart.

“There’s virtually no support in the trucking community for tolling,” said Micah Jackson, TNN’s co-founder and CEO. “The biggest reason why is the inefficiency that’s created in tolling. Just having to build out the infrastructure and then collecting the tolls is a very inefficient way to generate revenue.”

TNN initially began as what Jackson called a “business and lifestyle streaming service” with talk shows and other programming. Last year it introduced a news service. Since then TNN has reported on tolling battles in Rhode Island and Indiana, in addition to broader stories examining various options to raise infrastructure revenue and naming road congestion and tolling as the two of the “top 5 troubling trucking trends likely to continue in 2019.”

Asked whether TNN contributed to the removal of tolling from the I-81 legislation, Jackson responded, “I don’t think there’s any question about it. The reason why is because when you inform the public about what’s actually being done, you can expect the resolution of that outcome to be a more just resolution.”

And just as the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance will continue to advocate for construction on I-81, TNN will continue to make its case against tolling to pay for it.

“Take some advice form the folks in Rhode Island, take some advice from the folks in Indiana: truckers will not go away quietly on this,” Jackson said. “Yes, the final battle has not yet been waged. But don’t expect truckers to roll over either, because that’s not going to happen.”

With the funding for I-81 improvements still in question, the social media skirmishes between different interest groups will invariably continue. In fact, these battles will likely become more ubiquitous as social media strategies and responses continue to evolve.

Beth Becker, a social media consultant who runs Becker Digital Strategies, said the use of social media to organize grassroots action on policy began in earnest in 2009 and 2010 during the political fight over the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Since then, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have developed policies to encourage transparency and crack down on practices like astroturfing, in which entities create multiple fake accounts and repost each other’s content to create fake buzz.

That’s enabled users to find more detail about sponsored posts like those by Virginians for Better Transportation, including who paid for the ad and how it performed among demographics broken down by sex, age and location.

Becker said people are becoming more savvy about social media ads and posts, although the practice of sharing content without even clicking through to read it remains common. States are beginning to legislate greater transparency, but Becker said that both social media and online advocacy will likely become even more interwoven into policy debates.

“The idea of these platforms developing and adjusting, and organizations and groups adjusting their strategy to reach people where they are isn’t going anywhere,” Becker said.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the characterization of ads purchased by the Keep Tolls Off I-81 Facebook page. The group purchased ads aimed at sponsors of the tolling bill and members of the Senate finance committee, not all 40 senators.

UPDATE: A response from the Virginia Trucking Association has been added to this article.  

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Mason Adams
Mason Adams

A native of Clifton Forge, Mason has covered Blue Ridge and Appalachian communities since 2001. He worked for Waynesville, N.C.’s Enterprise-Mountaineer from 2001 to 2003 and The Roanoke Times from 2003 through 2012. He’s freelanced since then, with bylines in Politico Magazine, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Vice, Blue Ridge Outdoors, Scalawag, Belt Magazine and many more. He lives in Floyd County.