When it comes to transportation, street maintenance dominates the discussion.

You public officials out there, you’ve got a popular issue. It doesn’t mean you’ll be successful getting money out of taxpayers, however. Surveys and focus groups about governance and public finance suggest that choppy seas will continue for those piloting the ships of local and state government.

The currents of negativity, skepticism, cynicism, low awareness and knowledge levels, and anxiety about the economy are leading to smaller and more polarized electorates, with higher percentages of voters feeling that government cannot get anything done or that it makes bad decisions and wastes money. Convincing voters to open their pocket books will be more difficult than ever — a situation that underlines the importance of knowing their priorities and motivations.

So, beyond the pothole, what are voters’ priorities for the transportation system? After street maintenance comes safety, including improved street crossings and intersections, safety around schools and safer bicycle lanes. Public transit ranks third after maintenance and safety, followed in fourth place by new roads and highways. Public transit is a higher priority than new roads and highways, even in many parts of rural Oregon.

One yellow light for public transit supporters is that support levels differ depending on the kind of transit. People feel differently about buses, light rail and streetcars. And support is different for bus rapid transit and traditional buses. My industry has to stop asking folks about public transportation generally and be more specific in our query of the public about transportation improvements to be of real help to planners and policymakers.

Understanding priorities is important, but it isn’t enough to be successful with voters. You also need to know the reasons for those priorities. Attention spans are short these days — make that 140 characters short — and more things than ever are competing for people’s attention. Any request of voters needs to be made for both the right objectives and the right reasons.

So, what is it about public transit — actually all forms of transit — that causes a majority to give it a higher priority than new highways and roads? One word: options. Many people are hurting financially and cannot afford to own a car. Young, unemployed Oregonians and aging drivers are looking for transportation options. More and more people also want to have the option of working on their laptops or smart phones instead of having both hands on the wheel while stuck in traffic congestion.

People give us other reasons for supporting the development of public transit as well, including reducing air pollution, having a system that promotes more exercise and healthier living, and reducing our nation’s dependency on oil.

Don’t get me wrong — asking voters to pay more for public transit, even with the right message, does not guarantee a ballot measure win. Many other currents need to be flowing in the same direction to float that ship, and the chances they will do so are less likely every day.

Indeed, we’ve dug ourselves a pretty deep pothole when it comes to governance and public finance in Oregon.

Adam Davis is founder and principal of DHM Research in Portland, which conducted the 2013 Oregon Values & Beliefs Survey.

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