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Grassroots Advocacy Takes Root; How Public Transit Agencies Cultivate Successful Ballot Initiatives

Editor's Note: This version of the story does not include graphics that appear in the print edition. To see these graphics, click here.


When voters go to the polls in a few weeks, in addition to ­electing the president and members of Congress, many will also be deciding the outcome of nearly $200 billion in investments for transportation— an unprecedented level of funding.

These initiatives are years in the making, starting with far-sighted planning, long-range forecasting, deep local grassroots outreach and ambitious ideas about the transformational role public transportation has in strengthening communities and improving the quality of life for individuals.

What does it take to get from a vision to a vote? What’s the appropriate role of public transportation agencies in advancing a positive outcome? What lessons can be learned from an initiative that loses?

Passenger Transport
explores the power, scope and influence of grassroots advocacy in this article.

At a time when anti-tax advocates are a powerful political force, the Mass Transportation Authority (MTA) in Genesee County, MI, did something unprecedented: Twice, in just three months, it asked voters to approve taxes for public transit.

First, in August 2014, MTA asked them to renew a property tax for public transit that had been on the books for years. Then in November, it came back with another request—this time, to approve a new tax.

“I would not prescribe that anyone else do that,” said Edgar Benning, general manager and chief executive officer of MTA, which serves Flint and Genesee County. (This type of vote, based on millage, is typically for operating funds and usually renewable—once every five or 10 years, for example.)

The unprecedented request came as Michigan enacted property tax reforms that threatened agency resources, while at the same time MTA and other transit providers were suffering from declining state support. As a result, Benning said, the agency opted to pursue its first new transit tax in 17 years.

Benning said the agency had to pursue a relentless outreach campaign to convince voters—even those who tend to support public transit—of the merits of the agency’s unusual approach.

“This was our pitch: ‘We don’t want to do this, but we’ve got to have an increase, and if we don’t, we could find ourselves having to do service reductions’,” Benning recalled. MTA relentlessly made that case to every civic group that would listen.

Eventually, the new tax passed—with just 50.4 percent of the vote.

“The community, I think, really likes this organization,” Benning said. “I think they recognize they’re getting a good value for the investment.”

Growing Trends
Those relationships are poised to become even more critical for transit agencies as they increasingly ask voters directly for additional funding. Agencies are making their appeals to voters for two overarching reasons—the demand for more service and the reality of scarce resources.

First, a growing interest in urban living and public transit is leading some residents to demand more of their transit systems. Riders are no longer satisfied with good service. They want more—and extended—service, new facilities and shelters, environmentally friendly vehicles, Wi-Fi, real-time trip information, easy payment options, sidewalk repairs and frequent headways. And in many cases, they’re willing to pay for it.

Responding to the demand requires additional operating and capital funds—both of which depend on a combination of federal, state and local resources.

Second, the federal government, which had previously served as a catalyst, is no longer seen as a reliable source of long-term, sufficient resources for all capital projects. In many cases, transit agencies are being forced to find that money elsewhere—including the ballot box.

In 1999, APTA, along with the New Starts Working Group, the Surface Transportation Policy Project and Parsons Brinckerhoff, created the Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE) as a resource for communities pursuing ­public transit measures. Art Guzzetti, APTA vice president-policy, has been associated with CFTE since its beginning.

“It was established to build a body of knowledge from best practices and lessons learned around the country,” he said. “Experiences are largely transferable to regions with upcoming elections.”

Seventy ballot measures related to public transit funding will go before local voters by the end of the year, a new record, according to CFTE.

Among them are major efforts throughout the country, including a half-cent sales tax to fund nearly $100 billion in expansions in Los Angeles; various taxes to fund $54 billion in projects in the Seattle area; $7.5 billion in the San Diego area; an effort to approve an Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail line; an initiative for the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit), Oakland, CA, to extend the parcel tax that accounts for 7 percent to 9 percent of the agency’s annual operating revenue; and other high-profile elections in Atlanta, Santa Clara County, CA, Columbus, OH, and Wake County, NC.

“With more than 30 local referendums on public transportation on the ballot on Nov. 8, voters across the country will have the opportunity to make a big difference in their communities,” said APTA Acting President and CEO Richard A. White. “With approximately $200 billion in funding for public transportation, this is a game changer for people and the communities they live in.”

White noted that since 2000, public transit ballot initiatives have passed by an average of more than 70 percent, showing how important public transportation is to people and communities of all sizes. Local and state funding are critical revenue streams for public transportation. Governments at all levels—federal, state and local—fund public transportation, he added.

Though local ballots may give public transit agencies more flexibility than relying on state or federal governments, that doesn’t mean they are easy. In fact, ballot measures often require years of planning, carefully honed messaging campaigns and careful attention to the politics of a community if they have any hope of being successful.

Guzzetti sees local measures as the spark for attracting other resources. “The self-help demonstrated through ballot measures will help leverage federal and state funds, low-cost loans and support from the private sector,” he said. “Denver, Dallas, Seattle and Salt Lake City are systems that started with sales-tax measures.”

Planting the Seeds
Agencies with experience pursuing ballot measures almost universally agree: You can’t start planning for them too soon.

Generally, said CFTE Executive Director Jason Jordan, public transit agencies and community advocates start contacting his organization for advice at least two years before Election Day.

“My advice has always been, the more time you give yourself up front, the better your campaign is going to be,” Jordan said.

A longer timeframe gives communities the chance to run a “pre-campaign.” That might entail an evaluation of the local political climate and a study of past ballot measure performance.

Take the case of Phoenix, where voters opted to hike a sales tax to support public transit in August 2015. To the public, that process might have looked relatively brief. In less than a year, the city council formed a committee of community leaders to identify transit needs; it voted to put the tax on the ballot and residents voted to approve it.

But behind the scenes, staff members had been working on the issue much longer. “We knew we couldn’t wait that close to 2020 to do this, so that’s why we started planning three to four years ahead of time,” said Maria Hyatt, public transit director for the city of Phoenix.

Of course, that situation is ideal. In reality, some agencies may be forced to scramble on a faster timetable—as was the case with Flint.

Agencies and their partners in local government have to think hard about how election timing will affect their odds of success at the polls. Will high turnout help or hurt a measure’s chances? Is a mayor up for re-election, and does that person support or oppose the measure? Will the transit tax have to compete against other tax-related measures? What’s the national mood and how does that affect local opinion?

But one thing is certain: Experts say because transit agencies become bound by rules once an item is officially placed on a ballot, they should take full advantage of the time they have leading up to that moment.

Educating, Not Advocating
Though the particulars of the law vary by state, almost without exception, the role of transit agencies is to “educate, not advocate.” That means an agency can provide the public with information about what it will do with new funding—from the project list to proposed routes to any accountability programs that may accompany the endeavor.

In some cases, the agency might even be able to communicate broadly about how the funding would benefit the community, as well as emphasize any service cuts that would result from failure of a measure to pass.

“They’re not saying how to vote,” said Jordan, “but they are responding to questions about what will this buy the community, what are the benefits and what’s the plan. It’s a hugely important role.”

In Seattle, Sound Transit is asking voters to approve a measure that includes a mix of sales, property and motor vehicle taxes to fund light rail, commuter rail and bus service for 15 years.

“We put out interactive web content. We’ve used video. We’ve done FAQs and things like that. It’s about trying to make it easy for people to understand,” said Geoff Patrick, media relations and public information manager for the agency.

Many agencies also choose to go on road shows throughout the community, presenting their plans to media outlets, civic groups and business organizations, as was the case in Flint.

For the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) in Salt Lake City, the political campaign that supported the 2015 transportation measure on the ballot in 17 counties launched a mobile app. Users could input their addresses to see which projects and expanded bus routes would serve their area if the measure passed. It was developed by Parsons Brinckerhoff, which previously launched a similar initiative for an Atlanta ballot measure, said Abby Albrecht, chair of Utahns for Responsible Transportation Investment, the political campaign that supported the measure.

Developing Lists and Transparency
What’s the right dollar amount to ask from voters? There’s no easy answer, but Jordan said agencies should think carefully about how big an ask they want to make of their community, balancing the resources they need against the local political climate and history.

Similarly, agencies should assemble a list of projects that’s clear enough for voters to know what they’re going to get, but not so specific that agencies handcuff themselves for years to come.

“It’s about finding the sweet spot,” said Ed Reiskin, director of transportation at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni). In 2014, voters approved issuance of $500 million bonds to support public transit.

The task force of local community leaders and advocates that helped outline San Francisco’s public transit needs prior to the vote also served as a built-in coalition of supporters for the ballot measure. “There was already this base of folks who understood this because they had been in the room for a good part of a year,” Reiskin said. “It wasn’t intentional, but we had essentially developed advocates to support this.”

A project list that will resonate with voters—and truly reflects the desires of the community—is key to ensuring the measure succeeds at the polls. Although agencies have increasingly recognized the importance of using digital tools—not just public meetings—to get public input, doing so is even more critical in the context of a ballot measure.

For example, Phoenix used a website called TalkTransportation.org to gather feedback from the community. “The days of asking people to come to you are gone,” Hyatt said.

Taking public input seriously wasn’t just good politics, Hyatt noted. It also made for a better package of projects. “They told us, ‘We walk to the bus stop, and there’s no shade; we get to the bus stop in some areas and there are no sidewalks; we like to bike there but there’s not a safe bike path’,” Hyatt recalled. Those comments convinced leaders to allocate funding not just to public transit but also to street improvements.

Experts advise that, along with providing a project list, it’s wise to make voters aware of accountability measures so they’ll have confidence that an agency will spend money wisely.

For example, UTA passed a resolution pledging to spend funding the way the community wanted and subsequently used online dashboards to show how the agency is spending the money. In San Francisco, the ballot language included a commitment to have an oversight board and the city review the bond spending.

The public needs to be clear about what they are voting for and that the project sponsors will be accountable for making good on their commitments, Guzzetti said.

Defining Roles
Which organization can—and should—do what tasks?

Public transit agencies cannot play a role in the advocacy campaign, decide which advocacy organizations will take up their cause, which consulting firms will run a campaign and how each will operate.

Agencies can, however, play a critical role in defining the need for funding, engaging with the public and promoting their organizations, but advocates and political campaigns can pursue a wider variety of tasks—recruiting supporters, raising the profile of the issue, building databases of volunteers, raising money, conducting polls, testing messages and leading get-out-the-vote efforts, for example.

“Transit elections are both an art and a science,” Guzzetti noted. “CFTE is a way to learn the tactics, strategies and messages used in other elections. The CFTE workshop, to be held in Seattle May 21-23, is a great opportunity to learn and network,” he added. (Find details here.)

In Utah, for example, the political campaign was led by the aforementioned Utahns for Responsible Transportation Investment, affiliated with the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. “Our transit agency did an exceptional job laying out the plans and working with communities to develop the plans,” said Albrecht. “We were able to use that and push it to the general public.”

In Phoenix, Mayor Greg Stanton and other elected leaders established the political campaign that urged residents to increase taxes for public transit. Javelina, an Arizona political consulting firm, staffed the campaign. Its role was to lay the groundwork for grassroots support, get support from the business community, mine data on likely voters, canvass for votes and engage with the public via social media. Educational materials developed by the transit department supported much of that work.

In some cases, the agency might have an informal seat at the table, but it’s a limited role, and generally agencies are not permitted to share information with a campaign if that information hasn’t already been made public.

A gray area is just how involved an agency’s staff and board members can be. In San Francisco, Reiskin said he helped with the campaign—after work hours, on his own time. “If as an individual I wanted to participate, I did so,” he said. “But I can’t ask my staff to do that. It’s not legal or proper.”

In Utah, the agency’s board members—some of whom were local elected officials—pushed hard for a “yes” vote, but they did so in a personal capacity, UTA leaders said. And in Phoenix, ­Stanton often discussed the ballot measure during his re-election campaign. Transit department staff, Hyatt said, “can do anything on our own time as long as they’re not representing the city of Phoenix,” she said. “But we have to be very careful about it.”

Getting to ‘Yes’
Successful messaging is key to a project’s success, since campaign experts say undecided voters tend to vote “no” on ballot measures. Both agencies and the political campaigns advocating for passage work in this area.

In Seattle, Sound Transit has assembled maps, charts, infographics and other media online to show exactly how the agency will use the funding on the November ballot. “We’ve gone well out of our way to develop summary materials that are accessible and clear,” Patrick said.

But not every messaging campaign is easy, especially when it doesn’t involve a high-profile capital project. In Utah last year, officials pursued a package that emphasized smaller-scale transit improvements. Residents had long been accustomed to the agency developing big, ambitious light rail projects; this time, UTA’s efforts were focused on things like improved headways and sidewalk repairs. It was the agency’s first referendum focused on service improvements—as opposed to big capital projects—since 1974, said Matt Sibul, the agency’s chief planning officer.
“This isn’t sexy, and it was a hard sell,” Albrecht said. “We had to explain to voters why the need was there. Our point was, if you ever ride transit, you will benefit and so will your neighbor and your neighbor’s neighbor.”

Ultimately, the political campaign’s message focused on the potential for less congestion, reduced air pollution, an improved local economy and less wear and tear on vehicles.

Guzzetti also pointed to the desire for transportation choices: “In regions that undertake scenario planning—where [participants] chose the future they desire—the pendulum always swings to more public transportation. It is the vision that sells.”

Albrecht said agencies and campaigns should also avoid underestimating their opponents. “They were loud, and people will listen when there’s opposition,” she said.

CFTE similarly recommends some basic opposition research to identify likely critics and arguments. Before a ballot campaign is underway, Jordan said, agencies may have to have “uncomfortable conversations” about their political assets and liabilities.

Agencies can ameliorate challenges by conducting polling on their reputation long before a campaign is underway and by maintaining social media campaigns and other outreach efforts to highlight their successes even when a ballot measure isn’t in play.

One of the fundamental issues facing most public transit agencies is encouraging voters to support something many don’t currently use. In the Flint area, about 50,000 to 60,000 residents use public transit out of 450,000 in the service area. That underscores the need of the agency to lead ongoing awareness campaigns focused on the benefits of the service—even when it isn’t facing a vote.

“It’s all about the fact that there are people in your neighborhood who use the service and need it,” Benning said. “They might be a relative or a neighbor, or one day it might be you.”

Guzzetti had these final thoughts about the importance of public transit elections being designed to gain support of voters who may not be regular riders:

“Some of us use it; all of us need it. That’s the message that was used successfully in regions around the country.”

Holeywell is senior editor, Kinder Institute for Urban Research, a former reporter for Governing magazine and a past contributor to Passenger Transport.

New Beginnings: Bouncing Back Stronger After a Loss

Chief Executive Officer
Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority
St. Petersburg, FL

Public transit supporters across the Tampa Bay region were hoping ­Election Day, Nov. 4, 2014, would be a historic day in the western half of the region, Pinellas County.

As the most densely populated county in the state with nearly a million residents and 5 million annual tourists, Pinellas was voting on a change in public transit funding from a property tax to a sales tax, which would be paid by tourists as well as residents.

However, despite a significant public outreach effort reaching hundreds of thousands of residents at large crowd events, strong pre-vote polling and a significant privately funded pro-transit campaign, the referendum did not pass.

Those first few weeks following the failed referendum were tough on transit agency employees and elected officials, as we were all disheartened. Some supporters even questioned the viability of mass transit in Pinellas.

Here at Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), we allowed ourselves a brief mourning period, but then we started talking about what would come next for PSTA and public transit in this region.

Focusing Forward
This wasn’t the end for PSTA, but instead a brand new beginning. One-on-one discussions with the local elected officials who make up our board of directors, along with group meetings and a board workshop, helped us all find focus for the future.

Together we forged a new Path Forward ­Strategic Plan that would be our roadmap for the next few years. The Path Forward included a collection of guiding tenets, most importantly these:

* Focus on customer-oriented public transit services;
* Develop a strong governance model for ­effective transportation leadership; and
* Expand incrementally whenever possible.

Today, two years later, PSTA is more focused than ever on this strategic Path Forward. Bus service has been systematically redesigned to be more efficient, both for the riders and for PSTA. A very active legislative affairs team has worked diligently to look for new funding sources within our local, state and federal grant programs.

We decided not to decrease our pre-referendum public outreach efforts and ­actually to increase them to an even higher level by adding more public meetings, more oppor­tunities for engagement and more boots on the ground telling riders about our services.

Building New Partnerships

Most importantly, we began thinking outside the traditional transit box. Our most exciting accomplishment by far is the new first-in-the-nation partnership we’ve forged with Uber to get riders to and from the bus stop—helping solve that first mile/last mile issue that all public transit faces.

We expanded our partnership with Uber with another new program to increase transportation access for transportation disadvantaged citizens, especially those who go to and from work late at night when regular bus service isn’t available.
And now, with the recently announced award of FTA’s Mobility on Demand (MOD) “sandbox grant,” we will partner with Uber and Lyft to provide PSTA’s more than 12,000 paratransit passengers with rides to doctors’ appointments, work, school and more—in real time and on demand.

The failed referendum was certainly a major disappointment, but the resiliency of the 610 PSTA employees and our board leadership has been inspiring and has led to these innovative successes.

PSTA’s laser focus on the future will allow us to keep moving along our Path Forward. We will provide the best service we can for our community. We will continue to be a trailblazer for new ideas, new technologies and new innovations in public transit.

Get Involved: Join NAPTA
Public transportation professionals interested in advocacy efforts are invited to join the National Alliance of Public Transportation Advocates (NAPTA), a national organization created by APTA that represents grassroots transit coalitions, rider organizations and advocates that support increasing investment in public transportation.

The organization’s objectives are to

* Create a diverse, committed and visible national alliance of local public transit coalitions;
* Generate a heightened level of advocacy through constituent visits, calls, e-mails and letters at necessary and appropriate times in the congressional decision-making process; and
* Link local transit coalitions with new advocacy tools and resources.

Information on how to join NAPTA, including a directory of member coalitions, is available here.

Post-Election Webinar Nov. 15
In the aftermath of the Nov. 8 election, NAPTA and the Center for Transportation Excellence have scheduled a webinar Nov. 15 to observe how public transit ballot measures fared and discuss trends in campaigning and advocating at the local level.

This year is a historic one for public transit elections, both in terms of the number of measures on the ballot nationwide and the level of financial investment voters will consider at the polls. To register for the webinar, click here.

APTA’s Voices for Public Transit: National Network; Local Clout
Just as “all politics is local,” as the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill claimed, all advocacy is local—especially when it’s wielded in communities to support public transportation. This is the basic premise behind APTA’s initiative, Voices for Public Transit (VPT), a national network of public transportation advocates—riders, ­business owners, environmentalists, members of community organizations and other stakeholders committed to strengthening public transit at the local and regional levels.

The network, developed in 2013, was very active in the run-up to the passage of the FAST Act. In 2015, VPT advocates sent 83,763 emails to members of Congress, delivered 4,590 personalized letters or faxes and placed 4,025 personal phone calls to legislative offices. They continue to share information and remain active on social media.

The network currently stands at approximately 200,760 members and is participating in “Get Out the Vote” activities in support of local and state public transit initiatives on the Nov. 8 ballot.

APTA provides resources for VPT at its public outreach and information website, which features voter and advocate toolkits, contact information for members of Congress, public transit tips and benefits, dates of transit-related events, rider profiles and infographics, among other information.

To become a VPT advocate and to learn more, click here.
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