Sow Grassroots Strategically

Back in the 1990s the city of Oklahoma City leaders realized they needed a change in how they were trying to attract new residents and businesses to the city after years of trying financial enticements failed to yield desired results. At that point, leaders opted to take the money used to try enticing businesses that really couldn’t envision doing business in the city and instead decided to put it back into itself under the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) initiative so Oklahoma City became the type of city businesses wanted to locate in.

But like almost all public initiatives, success on such investment needed engagement with the community and getting grassroots organizations to get on board with these initiatives.

“We’ve been in a renaissance here since the early 90’s,” said Michael Scroggins, public information officer for Embark, the city’s mass transit system. “We’re on our third MAPS vote where we’ve taxed ourselves one cent and it call goes towards capital projects.

The first MAPS vote yielded the city a downtown trolley system and the third vote brings in $770 million in capital projects, including the construction of a downtown modern streetcar system.

The payoffs for the investment in transit infrastructure has made such projects popular with municipal leaders as well, who even chipped in an additional $1.3 million in the last budget year to pilot night bus service in Oklahoma city, which that city has never had.

However, building support within the community for these projects isn’t always easy.

“The one thing I’ve observed is that there can seem to be a lack of organization when you have various people within the coalition that are going off on their own tangents when a unified front is going to get the best results,” Scroggins said. “The messages are mixed or are not messages we need to focus on. We really need to focus on just a couple of issues because otherwise sometimes it can dilute and really create so much noise that it’s really hard for our elected officials to make sense of what’s really needed.”

A powerful advocate

In Pinellas County, Fla., the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is working implement the Greenlight Pinellas plan, which would increase bus service by 65 percent and begin plans for a future passenger rail system connecting St. Petersburg, Fla., to Clearwater, Fla., with the implementation of a 1 percent sales tax.

Just across Tampa bay in Hillsborough County, Fla., the specter of the failed 2010 referendum still looms and Greenlight supporters remember it vividly.

Joe Farrell, campaign manager for Friends of Greenlight, said his organization got together to get a large swath of people from across various groups and industries to come together in support of the plan, so it can pass in the November general election.

“Well I can’t take credit for (getting them together). The issue takes credit for that, so it’s very impressive,” Farrell said. “But with a lot of these groups you can get too many cooks in the kitchen, so you have to set aside your egos a little bit and come together and work on this. I’ve been very lucky from the start because this really hasn’t been one bit of an issue. This is a once in a generation thing in our community and we all have to join together.”  

While the transit agency can’t coordinate with Friends of Greenlight, Farrell said PSTA provides information that’s useful to the electorate and the coalition takes that information out to the community and educates them about the benefits of the transit plans.

“We don’t really community and we don’t coordinate. We’re not allowed to. I don’t know the exact laws on that, but we do run a very transparent campaign,” Farrell said. “We just got out there and do this. They presented this plan and worked with the community. We think this plan is a great idea.”

Farrell said PSTA has been very available and willing to represent the plan and its facts at a moment’s notice anywhere in that area, which has been very important in helping educate the community about Greenlight’s objectives for the future.

In July, a poll stated 59 percent of voters would support the plan, which is an encouraging sign for the initiative and local government agreed to end double taxation for transit if the sales tax passes. But Farrell said the real victory comes in seeing those working within the coalition to push the transit initiative forward.

“In my mind we really have a good chance looking at the cross section of support,” Farrell said. “I look around the room at a meeting and the different people supporting this are from across the spectrum and I really thought this is key. Sitting in the same room are environmental groups and utilities  and realtors and unions and chambers of commerce and they’re all in the same room all talking about this. That doesn’t happen very often in politics.”

Scroggins said transit officials keep the lines of communication open with local coalitions supporting initiatives, but it’s important to not end up in a situation where the agency is pitted against them. They’ll remind them sometimes if their message has lost its focus on the message with the best chance of getting through to elected officials.

While many transit agencies are reaching out to grassroots campaign to get support for a project or funding, the city of Cincinnati found itself in a different position when it came to building a downtown streetcar line.

Paul Grether, manager of rail services for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), said unlike most streetcar projects, the Cincinnati streetcar was an initiative started by grassroots community members, which got city leaders on board with the project.  

“At least from our perspective at Metro, you can’t and you shouldn’t try to control the grassroots because this is a democracy after all,” he said. “There are times you have to engage with a group and whether you agree with the viewpoint of the group or not, they’re entitled to the information paid for by their tax dollars, so we try to keep them informed.”

Although the idea for the 3.6 mile streetcar system came from the grassroots, it doesn’t mean the effort to build the system has been an easy task, so how grassroots organizations have been engaged has evolved through the course of the project.  John Deatrick project executive for the city of Cincinnati, said when he came to the city and began his work on the project about one year ago, it has changed from neutral to somewhat positive to a very negative atmosphere surrounding it, brought on by a December election of city leaders who opposed the project.

Deatrick said grassroots groups came to the rescue of the streetcar project and got it on the ballot so prove to leaders who felt they were elected with a mandate to kill the project that it was indeed not the case.

“One of the larger philanthropies, the Hale Foundation, took it upon itself to be the voice of those in the businesses and philanthropic community who supported the project and they engaged them substantially,” Grether said. “At least from the Metro level, we talked about what the impact to Cincinnati it would be if the project had been cancelled, especially in terms of Metro and the bus system by defaulting on a FTA contract. That would’ve been a nuclear option for SORTA. It would’ve just lead to a lot thing that would’ve been not very nice for SORTA.”

One grassroots supporter John Schneider even flew some out to Portland, Ore., to see that city’s streetcar and the potential impact it could have on Cincinnati.

Schneider, chairman of the Alliance for Regional Transit in Cincinnati, has worked to educate people in the community the benefit of having rail transit in the region, such as flying people out to Portland to see the benefits of the system. So fare, 31 trips have been taken with another planned in fall.

Cincinnati has political distrust over infrastructure projects, he said, due to cost overruns associated with the Cincinnati Bengals new stadium, which made many leery of big government projects. Schneider said his group even did its own research to show the impact on streetcars in other communities, such as finding the population impact along where newer lines were built.

“It’s about letting people know this isn’t an amusement park ride,” he said. “This is a serious transit tool to help repopulate neighborhoods.”

Schneider said grassroots success getting the project back on track after the election shows the role organizations can have in pushing initiatives forward. With media reports showing an interest in city leaders willing to start planning of a second phase of the streetcar progress, he said the people will need to keep working hard to hold political support as the project advances.  

“We were able to turn a supermajority against the project because of the turnover in the last election into a super majority in favor.”

The Power of business

Scroggins said the local chamber of commerce has been a huge partner in helping Embark trying to find different ways to engage the public and community leaders and even doing social media outreach campaigns. The organization had its own committee on public transit, which had been more of a “talking head” committee, he said, but it has since evolved to be one of “holding their feet to the fire,” in their work to support initiatives.

“Don’t mistake them for non-grassroots,” Scroggins said. “They have a very great effect in helping lead the policy changes that are needed to keep these efforts going.” 

Being part of the city government, Embark employees can’t be actively doing advocacy work while at work, but they can in their personal time. Scroggins said the employees also don’t take leadership roles within an advocacy group. However, the agency is willing to share its plans with the community and provides groups the information they need.  

Katharine Eagan, interim CEO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), located across the bay from PSTA, is wedged in between counties pursuing transportation referendums so the agency is watching closely to see how they turn out given HART’s failed referendum attempt just four years ago. 

After 58 percent of voters turned down the 2010 referendum, Eagan said the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization looked into factors that influenced the vote and discovered there was a lack of understanding with the electorate on how the transportation plan could impact them. HART had a late kickoff on educating the community before the vote, Eagan said.

“You can’t just parachute in and try and build these relationships,” she said. “You have to spend a lot of time educating them.”

Eagan said HART officials work to attend various community outreach opportunities to build relationships with residents, or go on AM talk radio shows and participate on panels to get the word out about what they do and how transit benefits the community. The agency even works with summer camps for children and work to educate them about buses or new technology, such as compressed natural gas vehicles, so when they get home and they see a bus, they’ll even tell their parents about what the bus offers. 

“The service, it belongs to the community,” Eagan said, “It’s not our routes, it’s their routes.”

In the past two decades, Eagan said HART has worked with local nonprofits and community groups on education outreach, but in recent years the agency has begun reaching out to the business community to see what its needs are and what employers want from the agency. Some ask about shuttle buses or private buses similar to Google’s employee buses in the San Francisco Bay Area, of improving amenities on buses, but Eagan said many of them see videos on YouTube of improvements at other U.S. transit agencies and want to know why Tampa doesn’t have them as well.

“It’s pretty interesting,” she said. “It proves there are some pretty high expectations out there for transit.”

Even with the Cincinnati streetcar project proceeding, there’s still many outreach efforts the city is doing with businesses and residents to communicate the impact of construction and those looking to start new businesses along the future line, Deatrick said.  Some areas have even begun talking about potential expansion of the line, but he said right now project planners are concentrating on the operations of the initial line.

Deatrick said he’s still worked to reach out with all grassroots campaigns, even those opposed to the streetcar project.

“I’ve attempted to reach out to all the community councils by sending out printed copies of our monthly reports and website and offering to come out and do a briefing on the project, but I’ve had very limited success,” Deatrick said. “I’ve attempted to reach out to all the community councils, including some with the most negative feelings and I get a nice litte ‘we’ll check and see if we can work you into the agenda,’ but it never happens, so I think we’re still struggling with that piece.”

Streetcar planners also look out for supporters or detractors who make claims in the media in reference to the project that aren’t fully true and reach out to them to let them know if there was an issue on a claim, while making sure to not become the person calling every time there’s something about the project in the media.

“There has been a tremendous amount of media coverage and one of the most interesting things with this being such a grassroots driven project the FTA has historically been very insulated from local grassroots politics because our regional office is located in Chicago and most of the staff is in Washington, but this is a case where some of the grassroots have begun reaching out to the FTA,” Grether said.  “So we’re managing the grassroots relationship and the FTA relationship while they’re reading all the local articles about the project and the media’s interpretation of what’s going on in the project or the media’s interpretation of what a well-intentioned grassroots persons may say that’s not entirely correct because the FTA is keeping an eye on the project and what we’re doing.”