Winning transit ballot measures via good community outreach



by Lyndon Henry

It’s one thing to pull together a good, plausible, workable, affordable plan for a new urban rail transit system in your community. But that’s only the first hurdle. The next big hurdle is pulling in public support — voter support — behind your proposed project.

Addressing that challenge was the focus of a paper I presented a few years back to the June 2007 Transit Initiatives and Communities Conference sponsored by the Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE), a major national U.S. public transit advocacy organization.

Based mainly on my experience with rail transit ballot measures in six different cities over roughly a seven-year period, the paper is titled Advancing Transit Improvement Measures Through Effective Community Outreach (click to access full paper in .DOC format).

My PowerPoint version can still be accessed at the CFTE website here:

From the PowerPoint presentation, here are some excerpts that summarize particularly crucial issues:

Rail Transit Ballot Measures Are Very Different!

• Not like most electoral campaigns
• Rail (and sometimes Quality Bus) is usually unfamiliar
• Rail conjures images of freight trains
• Prominent – attracts intense scrutiny
• Impacts an entire corridor of neighborhoods
• Unites diverse range of opponents
• Well-funded brigade of professional critics

3 Main Allies in Transit Improvement Efforts

• Grassroots pro-transit groups
• Transit agency leadership and staff
• Local civic leadership

Transit Coalition Strategy

• Transit agency’s image is important
• Make sure accomplishments are emphasized
• Don’t miss opportunities
• Don’t promise the impossible (“Rail project will solve congestion”)
• Emphasize value of real-world, achievable goals (“Rail line will carry 30% of peak travel in the Lamar corridor by 2020”)
• Always assume it’s an uphill struggle
• Grassroots organizers critical – it’s not all mass media and official forums
• GOTV – and don’t forget early voting!

Responding to Critics

• Don’t ignore them
• Don’t miss opportunities, including debates (“ostrich” tactic doesn’t work)
• Don’t echo opponents’ slogans (They say “Transit Sucks!” We say “No!”)
• Don’t try to respond to every single detail
• Avoid confusing, mind-numbing “numbers trivia“
• Focus on refuting 2-3 critical points to establish credibility – try using humor
• Supporters’ credibility vs. opponents’
• Keep larger vision and message in view
• Beware late-campaign “bombshells” (endorsements, “research reports”, etc.)

Here are summaries of the paper’s conclusions:

Grassroots Pro-Transit Groups

• Major role in informing, “educating”, and mobilizing the public
• Valuable source of ideas and information for transit agency
• Need to avoid adversarial role with transit agency
• Need to understand dynamics of transit agency
• Need to learn art of persuasion

Transit Agency

• Need to respect & listen to grassroots input
• Transit agency’s image is important
• Make sure accomplishments are emphasized
• Provide facts & figures
• Avoid “answer panic”
• Be aware of informational resources

Civic Leadership

• “Grand Vision” important – but so are facts
• Public & voters expect some solid answers
• Focus on 2-3 most critical or vulnerable issues
• Don’t echo opponents’ slogans
• Don’t miss opportunities, including debates (“ostrich” tactic doesn’t work)
• Organize & coordinate campaign and message – ensure everyone “on the same page”

And there’s more! So if you’re involved in promoting urban rail for your community, I strongly encourage you to access both the paper and the PowerPoint presentation and check out all of this valuable information.


One thought on “Winning transit ballot measures via good community outreach

  1. Say ‘No’ to Urban Rail in Austin, TX!

    It’s a senseless idea and waste of taxpayer dollars!

    I’ve been here a few years now, and I drive from Southwest of South Park Meadows over to work every morning near the Airport.

    I-35 is the biggest problem here in Austin. It needs to be widened everywhere here… more lanes, and possibly elevate it totally over the city.

    As a DV, I can use most TX toll roads for free, though these are few and far between… and the newest one here in Austin is out-of-the way (extra miles, saving no time for my daily transit to and from work).

    I’d be willing to pay a few more tax $$$$ to expand I-35 or add another overpass, but there’s no way I’d pay a cent towards an Urban Rail System available only to the few in the inner-city. Regardless, it would make more stops and take even longer to get places.

    People are still going to drive their vehicles! Through-traffic is still going to clog-up I-35. The road system needs to be improved as priority #1.

    From: Mike Harris, loyal TX Veteran

    (gotta love Texas)!

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