Management & Operations

Common Cause: Advancing Transit on Capitol Hill

Posted on February 1, 2005 by By Joey Campbell, Managing Editor

Consider the numbers. There are approximately 6,000 public transit operations in the United States and Canada, with U.S. agencies employing close to 400,000 workers and operating a fleet of more than 130,000 vehicles. Factor in private-sector suppliers, contractors, consultants and peripheral associates, and the challenge of establishing a unified industry voice is, by any definition, considerable. Of course, that is precisely the task at hand if the industry is to achieve its most significant goal — a healthy, multiyear federal funding bill. The current political climate in Washington, D.C., offers harsh reality to anyone hoping for a generous increase in the reauthorization of TEA 21. But nothing short of collaborative, industry-wide advocacy is going to move legislators on Capitol Hill. On the bright side, public transit advocates have, by many accounts, done an admirable job of educating the public and rallying key decision-makers to their side. But with TEA 21 in its sixth consecutive funding extension and the Bush Administration entrenched in other political battles, there is Herculean work to be done. Assembling the troops
First and foremost, for the transit advocacy movement to be successful, a great level of organization must exist among transit properties, which make up the bulk of the industry. However, as in any large industry, individual members are often faced with overlapping loyalties or agendas. “There is always competition among transit agencies for federal funding, since there is never enough funding to go around,“ says Kim Crawford, government relations manager for the Triangle Transit Authority (TTA) in Raleigh, N.C. “Unfortunately, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has essentially moved too many projects into the pipeline at the same time.” These internal disputes make it hard for agencies to cooperate in their efforts to win over lawmakers. The ultimate mitigators of such conflicts are strong leadership and a forum for discussion. To this end, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has put forth a powerful and influential legislative committee with dozens of programs. “We have a multifaceted approach to cover all of our bases,” says Art Guzzetti, director of policy and advocacy for APTA. “We want to gain presence through coalitions, research messages, grassroots campaigns, etc. And we are in contact daily with congressional offices and other industry organizations.” APTA‘s annual legislative conference in D.C. and periodic meetings “on the Hill” provide transit professionals the opportunity to interact and work together toward improving public policy. Through these types of functions, APTA’s 1,500 member organizations and other transit-interested parties have a tangible way to meet face-to-face and smooth out their differences. State transit associations and various other industry groups also have legislative committees, conferences and special events dedicated to bringing people together. For example, the Community Transportation Association of America hosts an online legislative action center, the Association of American Railroads sponsors “Railroad Day on the Hill” and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has an array of legislative services and meetings. For an excellent listing of these and other associations and advocacy groups, visit the APTA Website at Tailoring the message
One of the most daunting challenges in the quest for TEA 21 reauthorization has been choosing the right message. Stating that transit is an important public service in need of long-term funding may be true, but in America’s gridlocked political system, more creativity is required. Much more. Many in the industry feel that the fundamental problem right now is one of priority. Few on Capitol Hill doubt the need for a robust reauthorization bill, but with everything else going on, transportation funding as a message doesn’t possess the hot-button urgency to land it high on the agenda. “On one hand, it’s been pointed out that transit is the only multi-year program currently under consideration on Capitol Hill on which there is broad bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress,” says Cliff Henke, former editor of METRO. “On the other, there is no mood among congressional leaders to send to the president a bill he has said is excessive in spending, particularly when there is a war to pay for and a deficit to get under control — and no mood to raise taxes of any kind.” Still, the arguments for improving transportation are numerous and, by and large, flexible. According to Alan Wulkan, senior vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, public transit has an impact on so many different issues that the message itself can be customized. “Up until now, I don’t think anyone has been able to make the case effectively about the impact of not having a long-term, predictable bill. Finding more influential ways of spreading the message is what we are trying to do,” says Wulkan, who serves on APTA’s TEA 21 reauthorization task force. Finding a way of appealing to the increasingly conservative element in Washington, D.C., has become a key issue despite the bipartisan nature of transit support. “Our challenge has been to find an argument that resonates with conservative America, since that is what is controlling a number of important agendas,” says Wulkan. “One message we want to establish is that the lack of action on TEA 21 is a business issue that will hurt the private sector. And this administration has been very sympathetic to issues that affect the private sector.” Building on popular support
In creating an industry voice, the intent is not to mislead lawmakers; rather, public transit must tailor the most compelling arguments to the aims of key decision-makers. This is the case with another major piece of the transit message — the overwhelming success in 2004 of transit-based referendums in local elections. One of the recurring themes in Washington since last November has been that the majority of popular votes won by President Bush represented a “mandate from the American people.” The second-term administration, along with the newly elected Congress, has consistently emphasized the importance of popular support in its policy. Not coincidentally, in his “Public Transportation State of the Union” remarks, APTA President Bill Millar made a similar appeal, drawing on local election successes. “People have spoken loud and clear in support of public transportation,” said Millar. “The results of these initiatives show that people want more transportation choices.” The local ballot successes of public transportation have now become a linchpin in the strategy to increase federal funding. “The public recognizes the need to find a way to pay for transit options since these referendums that passed came with some type of financing plan,” says APTA’s Guzzetti. Most of the time the plan involved matching federal and local funds. Now, with 80% of these initiatives passing, much of the local funding has been made available. But many projects depend on federal funding to be sustained, so something’s got to give. “The local business leaders and the local officials get it: congestion and economic growth depend on a balanced transportation system,” says Henke. “Sooner or later, these officials will make their voice heard, just as they were so instrumental in seeing enactment of TEA 21 in 1998.” Maneuvering the media
Transit must get local agencies, employees, passengers and their families and members of local match sources to make frequent contact with people in Washington, says Joe Dougherty, director of Cheyenne (Wyo.) Transit Program. “We do this as an ongoing effort via letters, phone calls, faxes, e-mails, city council resolutions, local talk radio, press releases and any other means of communication that drives home the point.” Essentially, this multipronged approach to communicating the benefits of public transit represents the industry’s focus on grassroots campaigns. There are simply too few resources and even fewer funds for most transit agencies to establish mass media campaigns. But even from the local level, the industry can make itself heard on Capitol Hill. Again, the operative word is creativity. “We are collecting testimonials and photographs from bus riders and from users of our paratransit and vanpool programs,” says TTA’s Crawford. “We plan to use these with our legislative materials when we visit state legislators and members of Congress. Anything we can do to show how people are affected by transit in a positive way.” “I think that, nationally, the public doesn’t understand how transit is funded,” says Brian Martin, manager of media relations for LYNX in Orlando, Fla. “I know that, locally, our riders think fares cover costs, and when we explain to them that their ride is subsidized, they are flabbergasted.” Primarily through the previously mentioned associations, public transit has developed several widespread public relations efforts that have been very effective in reaching legislative leaders. Chief among these efforts is APTA’s (PT)2 program, which has placed print advertisements in Time and Newsweek, while airing commercials on cable television during the president’s 2004 State of the Union Address. The (PT)2 campaign has also generated tens of thousands of letters to Congress from ordinary citizens. Another critical aspect of transit advocacy is the spread of research, statistics, studies and other publications. Washington think tanks and research organizations frequently publish reports that can be used as support material for pro-transit arguments. For instance, the Hudson Institute, a non-partisan policy research organization, published a report in late January claiming that transportation is a catalyst for economic growth. Establishing partnerships
Public transit becomes a bigger national priority through the strength of its partnerships. The most important of these partnerships is the industry’s own network of private-sector businesses. “The business message is always very powerful,” says APTA’s Guzzetti. “Our economy works because of the productivity coming from the private sector, and the legislative community listens to that productivity.” For this reason, APTA’s business members committee is heavily involved in the association’s transit advocacy efforts. Simple actions such as meeting with business leaders to discuss legislative needs go a long way. Private businesses also offer expanded resources through their own client relationships and deeper pockets. Business sponsorships can pave the way for meetings, conferences, dinners and countless other events that bring the industry’s message to the right people. Successful partnerships also require the expansion of relationships with lobbyists and lobbying efforts. In some cases, piggybacking with other industries will expand lobbying options. “A much stronger lobbying effort needs to be accomplished,” says Alice Amrein, president of the Kansas Public Transit Association. “This means that transit agencies must find a way to work better with the construction, automotive and oil industries.” Finding highly regarded, influential spokespeople to support the lobbying effort is another important strategy. Currently, the expansion of public transit is endorsed by powerful figures such as Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Paul Weyrich, a renowned conservative spokesperson. “We have some of the nation’s preeminent conservative voices seeing the light,” says Guzzetti. “Our time will come eventually, so we will just continue to position ourselves.”

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