Management & Operations

Advocates Step Up Fight for Transit Services

Posted on November 18, 2010 by Nicole Schlosser, Associate Editor

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[IMAGE]MARTA-2.jpg[/IMAGE]To say that 2010 has not been a kind year to transit would be an understatement. With all the state budget cuts, from California to Missouri to New York, it hasn't appeared that many elected officials are sympathetic to, or aware of, the surge in demand for public transportation — nearly paralleling the onset of the recession, with funding shrinking all the while.

Industry professionals have countless stories about budgets being obliterated and crucial services going away, with the future of transit funding seeming pretty dire at the beginning of the year.

Still, supporters fought harder than ever to keep public transportation going. The recession has brought about a standout year for transit advocacy groups, with rallies across the U.S. this spring. The biggest success story this year was found in St. Louis.

A victory for transit

Dianne Williams, director of communications, Metro St. Louis (Metro), says that transit advocacy groups were crucial to the win in April on St. Louis County's Proposition A - the half-cent sales tax for public transit — because they were able to take tactics that Metro legally couldn't, such as shore up support for taxes or tell citizens how to vote.

Advocates were not as lucky in November 2008, when a similar measure failed. This time, though, there was a groundswell of support when the city was faced with profound service cuts.

"I think the community's need for transit became very apparent and, for many, reached a critical place where they felt like they had to do something," Williams says. "For those who sat on the side and watched last time, I think more people said, 'I must be involved.'"

Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT), an organization that leads advocacy efforts to expand light rail in the St. Louis region, began its mission to introduce Metro to the St. Louis metropolitan area more than a decade ago. The organization helped other communities set up similar grassroots organizations, and partnered with labor, church and student organizations. "Together, they really did a good job of involving their audiences," Williams says.

"The public was aware that their votes [for service cuts] had real negative consequences on the region," says Tom Shrout, CMT executive ­director.

The service cuts that had to be made, at nearly 40 percent, were staggering. Bus lines serving the outer ring suburbs received substantially less service, and train headways on each line went from 10 minutes to 15 minutes, which resulted in jammed trains and over-crowding, Shrout says.

What was critical to CMT's success was that non-riders suddenly realized they were affected. Many employers hadn't been aware of how many of their employees commuted by transit and how the cuts impeded their ability to get to work.

Shrout points to John Nations, the Mayor of Chesterfield, a St. Louis suburb, who oversaw the day-to-day operation of the campaign. Nations recognized that his community, an outer ring suburb, would potentially be negatively affected if transit service went away. "It wasn't so much his constituency getting to jobs in town as it was people getting to jobs in his community from the more urban parts of the city," Shrout says.

CMT launched a grassroots education campaign. "Advance St. Louis" was the campaign created to ask for citizens' votes.

Because of CMT's not-for-profit status as a charitable organization, its campaign couldn't say 'vote yes,' but it talked about the benefits of transit. That resonated with St. Louis County voters, Shrout says. CMT also formed a coalition of organizations called the Greater St. Louis Transit Alliance, comprised of about 50 environmental, business, labor, religious and community groups, and college students. "They provided the bulk of the volunteers. Ninety-five percent of the phone banking and door-to-door outreach was done by [them]," Shrout explains.

CMT conducted a $450,000, four-week educational campaign using television, radio, and bus shelter ads and billboards for six weeks ahead of the vote. The theme was, "Some of us ride it. All of us need it," and said to voters, "A lot of people that you may not think about use transit, even if you haven't been on a bus or train for several years," Shrout says.

The Advance St. Louis campaign did all the "Vote Yes" advertising. Additionally, Metro did a lot of public outreach about long-range plans, letting the public know what could happen if they voted yes, including restoration of service, a possible expansion of the light rail system and the potential for bus rapid transit routes.

Many agency workers volunteered their vacation time to take part in the campaign. Along with them, other organizers used their off time to make phone calls using the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) phone bank. Organizers distributed flyers and canvassed neighborhoods on weekends. "I took a day off and went to a school [with] a table of information. When I got there, there were kids walking around with buttons that said, 'Support Metro,'" Williams says.

Typically, the April vote for St. Louis County would receive a turnout of about 15 percent, Shrout says. The group's efforts — in particular, those of college students who did the bulk of the voter registration drives — bumped it up to slightly more than 20 percent. The fact that advocates had lost very narrowly on similar measures in 1997 and 2008, and the previous transit tax ballot initiative was passed nearly two decades ago in 1994, made it a major victory.

Before October, CMT did polling, which showed about 53 percent of voters supported the proposition. Experts claimed that support wasn't high enough to win a tax referendum campaign, since 'yes' voters tend to fall away as the campaign progresses, Shrout recalls. During the seven-week campaign, it picked up 10 points, winning by 63 percent. The 2008 campaign started in the same spot, and ended up with 48 percent.

As a result, service is currently being restored. In June, about 20 bus routes were enhanced. As of August, 53 additional routes either gained more frequency or were extended. "We got a temporary, one-time emergency appropriation from the state of Missouri and a lot of service came back then," Williams explains.

Had Proposition A not passed, the system would probably be half the size it had been in 2008. The routes that were completely cut came back with state money. However, they would've gone away again last August, possibly for good, without the aid of the new sales tax, which is expected to generate about $75 million per year in St. Louis County. "I don't think anybody would have tried again," Williams says. "When the measure in 2008 failed, very few people thought that there was any chance of it coming back 18 months later. But the folks who decided they wanted to be part of this just took up the banner and said, 'Let's try to get it done,'" Williams says.

Shrout adds, "It was a unique campaign for St. Louis because normally, when campaigns have been waged in the past, [members of the] business community would write checks and hire professionals, and everyone else would sit back and see what happens. That certainly wasn't the model this time. It won because a lot of non-traditional volunteers got involved."

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