Media Center

Oct 23

Union effort links buses and ballots

By Jessica Meyers, POLITICO
10/22/12 7:06 PM EDT

Eager to pair message with scene, lawmakers have stumped everywhere from booths to backyards. Now they’re going for buses.

Several dozen congressional candidates are jumping on mass transit and the Amalgamated Transit Union’s effort to prioritize public transportation — and pick up some votes.

The labor group has launched a get-out-the-vote campaign this week to emphasize the value of transit as ridership soars and funding shrinks. The event, a first for the union, underscores the fears of an industry finally starting to sense a national impact.

“There’s an odd combination of largely increased ridership and vastly diminished services or higher fares,” ATU president Larry Hanley told POLITICO, pointing out that 85 percent of U.S. cities have raised fares or cut services in recent years. “This isn’t just an electoral strategy to build rider coalitions, but to convince riders to hold election officials of every political stripe accountable.”

The union, which has endorsed President Barack Obama, plans to pass out more than 750,000 leaflets encouraging voters to back candidates who support mass transit. The group will focus especially on the swing states of Ohio, Colorado and Florida.

Lawmakers, including Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) to Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), will rally voters at transit stops or ride through routes along their district.
Democrats make up much of the list, in part because urban areas tend to go Democratic, Hanley said. But Republicans in denser regions also have joined the chorus to spare transit funding. That split appeared most visible earlier this year when some Republicans protested their party’s suggestions to pull transit spending from the gas tax.

“It’s a huge part of daily life down here,” Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) told POLITICO about his district, caught between Philadelphia and New York. “Let alone it’s a safe form of transportation and an energy-efficient way to move people around. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to support things like that.”

Runyan has called for an expansion of funding, although he said he doesn’t “have all the answers” when it comes to figuring out how to pay for it. “Obviously, we have to find a way to make it work,” he said. “We’ve got to get the rest of Congress on board.”

Transit talk has received scant attention from the presidential candidates. It’s garnered only slightly more traction in congressional races, where specific issues like California’s high-speed rail prove hot-button topics. So voters have started taking action themselves.

A referendum in Baton Rouge, La., earlier this year spared seismic cuts in the public transportation system. A Seattle ballot item has led to a whole new light-rail system. And in western Wisconsin, on the same day voters narrowly decided not to recall Gov. Scott Walker, they overwhelming backed an initiative to restore transit service.

A September poll by the National Resources Defense Council found that 66 percent of Americans want Congress to spend more on public transportation.
“You see that more and more communities are talking about funding public transit through the ballot box because sources at the state and federal level are shrinking,” Americans for Transit executive director Andrew Austin said. “And generally speaking, these efforts are successful.”

Austin said initiatives like ATU’s National Transit Voter Week demonstrate how mass transit is inching its way into public discourse. “More and more as we see stronger networks of advocates and transit riders it’s getting forced into congressional and state races,” he said.

Just ask the candidate on your next daily commute.