October 20, 2008
The 2008 APTA Annual Meeting and EXPO in San Diego was a huge success!
Read all about it.
Success at the Ballot Box? Experts Explain How
By SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor
Voters in municipalities across the United States continued their support for public transportation-related ballot measures in 2007, with approximately 67 percent of the measures succeeding during the year.
The “Successful Referendums—More Investment, More Ridership” workshop held Oct. 8 in San Diego featured Jeff Meilbeck, general manager, Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority (NAIPTA), and Keith T. Parker, chief executive officer, Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS), who reported on their ballot successes in Flagstaff, AZ, and Charlotte, NC, respectively. Another panelist, Bridget Hennessey, a program manager for the Washington-based Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE), discussed key trends in helping local leaders achieve success. Mark E. Huffer, general manager of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority in Kansas City, MO, whose agency has a light rail initiative on the upcoming November ballot, moderated the session.
Huffer described the six initiatives his city has faced in the last eight years, most of them promulgated by a transit advocate who lives in Virginia. “It’s been very interesting,” he said. “One thing all these elections have done—whether supported by us or not—has certainly been to raise the profile of transit and what we want the conversation in the community to be in terms of sustainability and livability.”
On May 20, 2008, voters in Flagstaff approved five measures on the ballot, which Meilbeck called the “Flagstaff Five.” In making his presentation, he noted dryly what one friend said to him in advance of the election: “I thought you were idealistic, I suspected you were naive, but I didn’t think you were stupid. What are you doing with five transit initiatives?”
The initiatives passed, he said, because of extensive communication information efforts. “I cannot praise good public opinion surveys enough,” he said. From focus groups to 100 community group presentations, Meilbeck said, he and others were “constantly going around town talking to groups.” They had a graphic artist who placed all the initiatives on one map, annotated to show what the initiatives would provide in terms of services and at what cost. The Rotary Club and the local Chamber of Commerce were very active, and NAIPTA set up a web page around this effort.
Another recent success took place in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, NC. Last November, 70 percent of voters stopped a proposed repeal of the half-cent sales tax that funds CATS—an even larger margin of victory than the vote in 1998 that approved the transit tax originally.
While the repeal did fail by a huge margin, Parker emphasized, that ending was hardly foreseen. In fact, there were cost overruns, burgeoning negative issues on the Internet, days and weeks of strong anti-tax rhetoric from talk radio, and a loss of confidence in Charlotte’s transportation system.
So what turned this around? By state law, transit and city employees could not advocate on the measure, so the effort relied on groups outside the transit system. What CATS could do, however, was provide information, so the system talked about the consequences of repealing the tax—the main one being a dramatic stop in bus service. This, Parker noted, would disproportionately harm minority and lower-income citizens.
The Chamber of Commerce raised more than $400,000 for yard signs and ads that successfully conveyed the essence of a potentially confusing ballot, namely: “If you want the sales tax to continue, you have to vote ‘no.’”
A major lesson learned, said Parker, was the need to spend more time communicating the value of what the transit system is doing. One way to quantify the value, he said, is to note the overwhelming success of its light rail system, with $1.8 billion worth of new development.
Hennessy explained that CFTE is a clearinghouse of information on transportation, and a key element of its efforts is to monitor transportation initiatives around the country, “to get the pulse and track the trend lines.” One of the center’s findings is that, over the past eight years, transportation measures have won at the polls at twice the approval rate (70 percent) of all the other ballot measures, even those pertaining to schools.
Her suggestions for achieving success in the voting booth included showing voters specifically what they will receive, such as maps showing where the new routes or rail lines will go, and providing public information all the time, not just in an election year. “Constantly market,” she said, “constantly put yourself in the campaign mode, so when you do have to go to the voters and ask for money, they’re going to know who you are and [want to] help you out.”
Campaign coalition building is the key to success, Hennessy said, with the community gaining ownership of the issues.
During the question-and-answer period of the session, Parker stressed the need for transit agencies and their supporters to “get out in the community and frame the conversation.” He said the first task should be to develop a group of stakeholders: “Get them involved, meet with them monthly, get them knowledgeable, so they can respond.” Parker noted that his agency made mistakes by not communicating as well as it should have, so “when the critics came in, they faced willing ears because we didn’t get the word out right.”
Meilbeck talked about the value of supportive letters to the editor, but said his agency’s most effective effort was to create a Citizen Review Commission, educating the public, for instance, on cost per trip. Such a group, he said, “inoculated us” by, among other things, convincing the Chamber of Commerce, which did not support the initiative, to remain silent.