The Politics of Transit

Posted on December 7, 2011 by Alan Wulkan

Once again voters across America have expressed their support for public transit. This past November, approximately 80% of the transit initiatives on ballots across the country passed. The results were impressive by any measure, spread among large urban areas like Cincinnati and Seattle as well as smaller communities like Durham, N.C. and Vancouver, Wash. And, what is most impressive is this happened during what everyone agrees is still one of the most economically-challenging and uncertain times in our nation's history!

So the question is, why do we see so many local and state transit initiatives, which include bus, rail, streetcars and other improvements like high-speed rail, continue to pass, and yet, the support in Washington, D.C., seems to be disconnected from what is happening at home? If, as Tip O'Neil said, all politics is local, why has the overwhelming local support not translated into broad-based, non-partisan support in Washington?

One of the answers can be found in the politics of transit. Local initiatives pass because transit supporters get involved in politics. Each of these initiatives, to some extent, has to have a political campaign behind it. Local champions are identified, campaign contributions are raised, local transit board members and elected officials take political positions either in favor or against the initiative. Each campaign develops messages that resonate with voters; riders get engaged; and partnerships are formed between the business community, nonprofits, neighborhood groups and others. As in any political issue, people are forced to make a decision, get involved and held accountable for their positions.

However, the transit picture is different in Washington. While most interest groups continue to play politics in Washington on their issues, the transit industry seems to take the position that we can't play in the political arena since we have some higher public interest involved. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), for example, does an excellent job of advocating for its public positions but does not have a political action committee (PAC). Unlike the railroad industry and others who have developed powerful national public marketing campaigns and messages to sway political opinion, the transit industry has done relatively little to develop a national political campaign. One exception to this was a series of "political" ads run by APTA last summer that featured Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton clips, which did have an impact on getting the attention of key congressmen and helped move the debate on re-authorization. This relatively small campaign demonstrated how effective playing politics can be.

It is time to harness the unparalleled political support at the local and state levels for public transit into a national political campaign. The transit industry needs to play politics, utilizing every means available to make change happen in Washington. Just a few of the actions that are needed include:

  • Develop a national transit vision.
  • Identify national champions.
  • Create a PAC.
  • Fund a nationwide marketing program.
  • Implement a transit riders' social media political network.
  • Hire a campaign manager.
  • Develop partnerships to support the campaign.

This is not an effort targeted at re-authorization. It is a long term political strategy to ensure that public transit, in all its forms, becomes a major issue in Washington and attracts bi-partisan support for the next 20 years. Authorizations, then, just become periodic mechanisms by which to fund a long-term, stable and growing transit program.

As we have seen through the political successes at the local level, when bold, well-thought-out, transit political issues are put in front of voters, they will almost always vote to increase their taxes to support a better transportation system and choices for the future. It is time to take this proven political strategy for transit and apply it to Washington.  If in fact all politics is local, the politics of transit is certainly a winner!

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "'Miracle on 34th Street" here.


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