Know the best time to get transit's message to your legislators

Nancy Butler
Vice President – Federal Relations



No timing like the present.

Timing is everything. And with legislators, the best time for promoting transit and its myriad of benefits is . . . all the time. But it’s important to know how to approach legislators and their staffers to ensure that transit gets its legislative due.

Know Before You Go

As transit proponents, we want to advance our agenda effectively. With Congress, the first step is to do your homework. Are the Congressional members you’re approaching newly elected? Do they have a voting record? Have they been a transit supporter? If not, what do they support? You need to know.

Follow Your Knows

What do you hope to gain from the relationship? What do you want the legislators to do? Do you want them to support more funding? Block crippling overregulation? Is this a “friend-building” meeting for some future vote? Know before you go. In addition to knowing what you want, know the lay of the land.

Is there a transit bill on the floor or in committee? Is there a funding vote pending? Know what’s going on in Congress when you approach legislators of interest, and know their role in the process.

The Congressional Staycation

Everyone inside the Beltway knows when Congress leaves town. But most people don’t realize this is an ideal time to approach members and their staffs. The members are both required and naturally inclined to return home frequently; they need to stay in touch with the concerns of their constituents. Those district visits are also excellent opportunities to spend quality face time with a legislator. They’re a perfect time to share your passion for transit’s virtues. And don’t forget their staff members.

A Staff Affection

While their bosses go home, Congressional staffers stay in Washington to do the work they had little time for when Congress was in session. But they must also eat lunch, and they thrive on useful meetings. So sit down with staffers and get to know them. Share your passion for transit. Why? Because Congressional staffers are some of the most important people in Washington.

Congressional staffers are the gatekeepers. They control the flow of information to Congresspeople. They control who gets to see the Congressperson. They set the daily agenda. They draft memos and even legislation for their bosses. Staffers keep Congress running. They have an inside track on everything happening in Congress. Establish a working, professional relationship with Congressional staffers. Treat them with the respect they deserve. It is an investment that will pay dividends for your transit agenda.

What a Face

Today, many people think email can deliver your message to Congress. Do you want your transit system’s funding riding on an email? Nothing replaces a face-to-face meeting. Sit down with the Congressman or Senator. Get to know them. Let them get to know you. Even if they don’t support transit now, you might be able to help them with another part of their agenda. And that could bring them around to supporting transit.

Is Mr. Smith Still in Washington?

Though we’d all love to have Jimmy Stewart serving as our advocate for transit on the Senate floor, some situations call for professionals. Lobbyists are not intrinsically bad. In fact, they are an essential part of the political process. Congress could not function without them. Use them. Work with consultants and lobbyists to shape and advance your transit agenda.

Timing is everything. And there is never a bad time to advocate for transit. But there are strategic methods for reaching Congress, and they are your best way to ensure transit is given its legislative due.


Kate Breen Manager, Government Affairs
San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

Inspired by the old adage to “vote early and often,” it is frequency in communication along with timing that work best in advocacy with legislators. When it comes to advocating for critical transit projects and policies, you can never underestimate the amount of education and information that is necessary. In this era of instant news, term limits and tweets, attention as well as memory can be short. Over the life of a large project, many different legislators may be elected to represent a jurisdiction whether at the local, state or federal level. Thus, regular and ongoing communication of transit’s message is important.

On a practical level, it is important to pay attention to the legislative process which is driven by the legislative calendar. Is there a hearing or pending action that needs advocacy or engagement? Are there allies or stakeholders that can be engaged to deliver the message or request so it’s many voices?

Beyond these considerations, however, one of the best times to communicate your message and transit’s overall agenda is outside of the formal legislative framework. Oftentimes, meeting with an elected official at a community meeting or in their district office will be more effective than stalking the halls. There is less competition for attention and, sometimes, a relatively more relaxed environment for communicating.

Another key time point is when announcing a major milestone or achievement. Transit has so many good stories to tell. Whether it’s the opening of a new line or making sure that the system you have is as good as new by reinvesting in state of good repair projects, it is important to remind legislators of the economic benefit of transit investment. Invite them to join you in celebrating your success and let them know how they helped you get there!

With these points in mind, here is a quick refresher on how to work the legislative process:

  • Get to know your legislators and their staff. Establishing a relationship will pay off when the time comes to deliver your message. Know what issues are most important to them and what their concerns are.
  • Do your homework. Know thoroughly what your problem is and how you propose to resolve it. Be the best resource on the subject or issue.
  • Build a coalition. Find out early who supports your issue and meet with others who share your common goal in an effort to establish a unified position.
  • Know the opposition. Understand why others may object and work to mitigate issues as much as possible. Opponents may at least be persuaded to take a neutral position.
  • Be prepared to negotiate. In some cases it is better to compromise than end up with nothing.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. You can call, email, write or meet in person; be concise and accurate. Don’t leave anyone wondering where you stand on an issue that you care about.

During these tough economic times, when funds aren’t flowing quite so readily as they may have in the past, it is critical to stay positive in our legislative efforts and remember that the legislative process is the path to many things — good policies, news ideas and a better future.


Michael Melaniphy

Vice President Public Sector Motor Coach Industries Inc.

Now that the 112th Congress has been seated, one of the most often asked questions is, “When is the best time to get transit’s message to legislators?” The simple answer is now. Not soon, now.

As we all know, the midterm elections brought with them sweeping change to the legislative branch. For example, of the six congressional delegates that I regularly called upon prior to November, only two remain; and one of those recently announced his impending retirement! Add to that the fact that those who survived their elections or those senators standing for election in 2012 are making significant adjustments to their legislative and messaging priorities.

Many of the newcomers to Congress did not come up through the traditional path to federal elected office. Not only is this role new to them, the whole process is new. Education and orientation should be fundamental to your message. When conveying the public transportation message, it is important to note that the environment inside the beltway, now, more than ever, is more political than technical. Your message must make a correlation to votes. It is worth noting that more than half of Congress was not even around when SAFTEA-LU was passed. If you have a facility that you can take your member through, by all means, extend an invitation.

A fundamental problem facing the industry is that the transit trust fund is not sustainable beyond 2013 at the current fuel tax levels. No one wants to discuss how we are going to pay for it, and it is a problem that is easier to ignore than to address. We should not expect any more infusions of cash from the general fund.

A theme often heard in the early days of this new Congress is that they must declare war on domestic spending. Public transportation funding IS domestic spending, and domestic jobs. Dollars spent on public transportation are an investment in this nation’s critical infrastructure. It both creates and provides access to jobs. How can we put this country back to work if people can’t get to work? Did you know that despite this country’s heightened awareness and support of the benefits of public transportation, today there are fewer transit projects under construction than there have been at any point over the last 10 years? Rolling stock production is down as well. As you plan your congressional visit, either at a local office or in D.C., think about how you might partner with a locally based counterpart in the private or public side of our industry. Multiple voices from different viewpoints articulating a common theme send a powerful message.

Another critical area to focus on is unobligated and unspent federal funds, especially ARRA funds. These funds are being targeted for reallocation. If you have a capital project that was approved for ARRA funding and you have not started spending down those funds, there are two critical steps you must take. First, clear the roadblocks and move the project forward now. Time is of the essence. Establish aggressive milestones and drive toward them. Second, bring your congressional delegates up to speed on what you are doing so that they will understand the value of continuing to fund that project. You worked hard to submit the original grant application and secure the appropriation of funds; don’t lose them now that you are this close to the finish line.

A key theme to close with would be to ask the member or his or her staff to check with you before acting on a piece of transit-related legislation. Be a resource for them. It is up to you to take that first step. Don’t just talk about it, do it.

I look forward to seeing you up on the Hill!


Andrew Aiello

General Manager

Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK)

Communicating the importance of transit to legislators is not an event, but a process. At the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK), we are continually working on this communications process. In order to be more organized and effective in our approach to legislative matters, we maintain a comprehensive government and community relations strategy that includes the following components.

Regular Agency Updates

It is critical to frequently communicate and maintain a positive image of our organization to leaders in our community. TANK publishes a quarterly “Report from the Road” which provides insights on the latest news, projects, challenges and accomplishments for transit in our region. More importantly, the report provides a clear, consistent and concise budget analysis. This analysis communicates to leaders that TANK is watching expenses closely, reacting strategically and increasing the transparency of public expenditures. The publication helps to create a more consistent message in our community about the role and well-being of the public transit system. This is the foundation upon which we can address more specific or technical legislative issues.

Community Stakeholders

Over the years, TANK has developed a group of community stakeholders to help communicate our message. This group includes many of the “usual suspects” you would find in vocal support of transit — schools, universities, social service agencies, planning organizations, environmental organizations and local governments. This group serves as a sounding board for how we plan to address legislative matters — helping to refine our message and develop our strategy. They also are on-call, ready and willing to speak or act on our behalf.

Business Coalition

A good public transit system is good for business. TANK relies upon the business community to help deliver this message. The business coalition includes many of the region’s major employers and those employers whose work force needs are inextricably linked to transit. This group can speak directly to legislators from their perspective on how important transit is to their business and for long-term employee retention and recruitment. Like most legislators these days, our representatives are focused on jobs. This coalition is critical to not only telling the story, but to ensure that someone will listen.

Personal Relationships with Elected Officials

The last piece of our strategy is to maintain personal relationships with our elected officials at the local, state and federal levels. Part of developing an effective legislative strategy is taking the time to listen to the wants, needs and concerns of our elected officials. We often want legislators to fix our problems but fail to understand their challenges and constraints in doing so. Finding time to meet with elected officials is not always easy to do, but the benefits are well worth the effort.

This strategy requires that we pay regular attention to the four components above. Then, when the opportunity presents itself for acute legislative action (e.g. funding decisions, statute changes, etc.), we can call on these components to speak at the same time and with a consistent message.

From federal transportation reauthorization to fuel prices to local ballot measures, almost every transit system will find a need to communicate swiftly and effectively with legislators in the coming months. By laying the groundwork well in advance, we will greatly increase our chances to succeed.