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Tolls on 520: Will newer Americans, minorities be surprised?

Highway 520.

Highway 520 in Bellevue at evening rush hour. Credit: WSDOT

The Seattle Times‘ analysis of 2010 Census data indicates that the number of minorities has quickly risen on the Eastside over the past decade. Since 2000, in Bellevue alone, the minority population climbed 62 percent, and the non-whites now make up 41 percent of the general population.

The rise should not surprise anyone. Racially white Eastern European minority communities are also on the rise. Natasha Savage, president of the Eastern European American Chamber of Commerce, estimates that 13–15 percent of those on the Eastside include recent Eastern European immigrants.

Despite the steady increase, many ethnic communities still lie outside the purview of communication campaigns that they help fund with their tax dollars. The campaign for 520 tolling, the Good to Go! program, exemplifies such an oversight.

Certainly, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) tolling communications department means well. In the “Good to Go! Outreach and Marketing Elements,” there is a section on grassroots outreach, which states that the WSDOT should perform “outreach to minority and low-income organizations to use their communications channels to inform their constituents.”

The WSDOT communications office notes these efforts include sending informational material to community organizations, such as ethnic-based student groups at the University of Washington, religious institutions, cultural associations, and social-service providers.

Volunteers or small staffs, however, run most of these organizations. Their priorities are unlikely to include informing their constituents about 520 tolling when many of them face more pressing concerns such as health-care and social-service cuts.

Asian Indians comprise one of two of the dominant Asian groups on the Eastside. Debadutta Dash, co-chair of Washington State India Trade Relations Action Committee, said “the lack of outreach [for creating an awareness] is certainly an issue for the Asian Indian community in the case of upcoming 520 tolling,” and cited 10 prominent Asian Indian organizations not contacted.

Interestingly, the 520 tolling campaign includes almost none of the dozens of ethnic media outlets whose mission is to serve as “communications channels” to their communities.

WSDOT has budgeted for media buys. According to the “SR 520 Good to Go! Advertising Plan,” WSDOT plans to purchase $1.1 million in ad campaigns in newspapers, TV, radio, and online resources.

Only $11,982 went to ethnic media — just 1 percent of the campaign.

WSDOT also made an interesting choice in deciding which ethnic communities to focus on, too. Good to Go! media buys only went to a single Spanish-language radio and a Spanish-language newspaper.

Surprisingly, the other dominant ethnic minority, the Chinese — in Bellevue 9 percent, and in Redmond 6.5 percent — was not addressed. Twenty percent of Northwest Asian Weekly print-edition papers are distributed on the Eastside. Statewide, more than 70 percent of Chinese speak Chinese at home; 38 percent report they speak English less than very well. Nearly a dozen Chinese language newspapers are distributed locally to serve the community’s strong need for in-language news.

The major locally based Chinese language news outlets, Seattle Chinese Post, Seattle Chinese Times, and AAT TV, reported they contacted WSDOT communications and their advertising agency last year, but received no response. Numerous other ethnic media outlets gave the same report.

The fact is that many ethnic communities rely on ethnic media, and they care about transportation.

The Vietnamese Friendship Association recently released a study showing that, after getting information through word-of-mouth, the Vietnamese, age 35 and above, rely more on Vietnamese-language media than English language media for social and economic resources. Nearly 70 percent expressed concern over transportation.

WSDOT would save money by investing more in informing communities with limited English proficiency about the 520 tolling now, rather than dealing with customer complaints and inquiries later.

With the electronic tolling, many of those who do not regularly access mainstream media or comprehend ads on billboards and buses will continue to use 520 without even understanding a toll exists. They will only find out when they receive a bill for the toll in their mailbox.

A week ago, on March 18, a WSDOT representative met with leaders from the region’s ethnic media and several economic groups — the Eastern European Chamber of Commerce, the Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, and the Urban Enterprise Center. Bellevue Deputy Mayor Conrad Lee spoke about his city’s diversity. WSDOT Communications Manager on Tolling Janet Matkin agreed to bring back the message to her office about the importance working with ethnic media to increase awareness of the Good to Go! program.

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