Top 6 Tips for Transit Millage Success

Top 6 Tips for Transit Millage Success
Christina Campbell
June 12, 2015
Group of people sitting at tables

Earlier this month, we were fortunate to attend the 2015 Transit Initiatives and Communities Conference in Grand Rapids, Mich. The choice of that location by the Center for Transportation Excellence was inspired.

Over the past decade, more transit ballot measures have been won in Michigan than any other state. Michigan also features the largest number of regular ballot renewal campaigns, and we’re proud at Güd Marketing to have developed award-winning campaigns on behalf of the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA), which serves Greater Lansing, as well as the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA), which serves Washtenaw County in southeastern Michigan.

The conference provided awesome publicity for the Pure Michigan Grand Rapids experience. Grand Rapids is internationally recognized as “Beer City” for its heralded microbrewery industry. But for one week, at least, Grand Rapids became “Bus City” as attendees from across the United States gathered in the home of The Rapid, recipient of the American Public Transportation Association’s 2013 Outstanding Public Transportation System.

We all benefited from – pardon the pun – “busloads” of insightful content during the conference.

Perhaps the most compelling information we took away focused on ballot initiatives. We shared best practices with attendees based on our work with AAATA and CATA and learned about effective strategies from other millage-funded clients and marketing experts. Here are the Top 6 Tips for Transit Millage Success we gleaned from the national leaders and advocates who shared their experience with us:

  1. Always be in campaign mode. The traditional “off year” election phase doesn’t exist anymore. Many elections are won or lost before measures are even approved for the ballot. Building a millage campaign doesn’t start and end around the election; it should be occurring all the time. Your grassroots activities should be active, engaged and visible year-round.
  2. The heart of local ballot measure campaigns is a robust and diverse coalition. Transit elections typically involve a range of key organizations, and coordination among these groups is vital to success. The message that “some of us use it, but we all need it” can never be reinforced too much.
  3. It’s not just about the agency – it’s about the community. Far too many ballot proposals are defeated because community members don’t fully understand the power of public transportation. So it’s a story that must be told without pause. Explain and emphasize the “what’s in it for me” to the community. How does the community yield benefit from you? What audiences do you benefit? What’s your vision? Share what you envision as an agency, and for the community, genuinely. Tell your story transparently.
  4. Frame the voter “ask” correctly, and clearly. And when possible, test your ballot language. We have all seen, and likely voted on, proposals we didn’t fully comprehend. When people don’t understand what you’re asking, they become skeptical. Spell out the consequences plainly. Use simple, succinct language.
  5. Harness the power of campaign champions. Build your coalition by selecting the right faces within the community, based on the political landscape and areas of influence. Whether it be a well-respected faith leader, a longtime employer within the community or a popular blogger with a large following, recruit them, be specific about what they’d be championing for you and let them tell the story for you. The role of the agency and its executive is education. The role of the champion is advocacy. Third-party endorsements are invaluable, especially when they represent a demographic that benefits directly from your services.
  6. Message consistently and constantly. While the key points to be made to support a millage may get tiresome to you, don’t discredit the power of repetition. Use consistent messaging across every channel, from social media to television, in every article and speech, in paid and earned media.

Record bus ridership levels across the country reflect the surging popularity of public transportation. At the same time, fighting to ensure that government funding for transit continues will remain challenging for the foreseeable future. Successful millage campaigns that convince voters, policymakers and key stakeholders to “get on board” require a 24/7 commitment, 365 days a year.