Management & Operations

UTA's quest to build public support

Posted on February 1, 2004

The U.S. Census reports that the state of Utah encompasses about 85,000 square miles, making it one of the largest states in the nation by land area. However, nearly three-fourths of the state’s 2.3 million residents dwell along a narrow, 100-mile strip of land known as the Wasatch Front. This region also happens to be the fastest growing area in the state, and the high population density has caused its share of problems. Among them are traffic congestion and air pollution — standard justifications for a public transit remedy. But for the past 30 years, the state government and other agencies, particularly the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), consistently encountered resistance when attempting to expand public transportation. Procuring the necessary funding was always the primary stumbling block. Finally, UTA decided that an increase in the local sales tax — something the agency had never before achieved — would be the best way to up the transit budget. A campaign to inform Pinpointing three counties for the sales tax boost, UTA employed the services of R&R Partners, an ad agency with offices in Salt Lake City. With its help, UTA built a comprehensive ad campaign using television spots, print advertisements and direct mail pieces. The goal was to inform and educate the public on the benefits of public transportation. “By state law, as a transit agency, the UTA is not allowed to champion any public referendum one way or another,” said Kyle Curtis, UTA account leader for R&R Partners. “But we also set up another group of concerned citizens called People for Sensible Transportation. They were able to do some of the direct lobbying for the tax increase.” The principal slogan chosen by UTA and R&R was “even if you don’t ride it, you use it.” The emphasis was on how public transportation could prevent traffic patterns from growing out of control and cut down on both congestion and pollution. One ad, for instance, described how UTA’s planned transit expansion would take enough cars off the road each day to fill a three-lane roadway bumper to bumper from Ogden to Provo, a distance of 45 miles. PR and community events Additionally, UTA and R&R conducted a focused public relations program aimed at holding special public events, including a commuter rail demonstration project and a transportation conference that gave media outlets the opportunity to provide in-depth coverage of UTA’s plan. Said Curtis, “Since part of the long-range plan was building commuter rail, we took the media on a railcar tour down the same line that the commuter rail would go on if the tax referendum passed.” Public relations integrated with advertising and behind-the-scenes lobbying proved to be the right formula, he added. Ultimately, voters in all three counties approved the sales tax increase. As a result, UTA received an additional $42 million in revenues, allowing the agency to enlarge the light rail system, improve bus service and establish a commuter rail line. State officials believe that traffic problems and air pollution have also been greatly reduced. According to both UTA and R&R, the key to success was building ongoing support among non-riders. “The campaign was special with its long-term focus that public transit benefits all of Utah’s citizens,” said John Inglish, general manager of UTA.

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