Transit Agencies

Transit agencies themselves are a major political player in the battles over rail transit. In addition to being members of APTA, the agencies often hire their own lobbyists at both the state and federal levels. The agencies will also spend hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars on “education” prior to elections on rail transit projects. Technically, government agencies are not allowed to lobby the public, but so long as they don’t happen to mention the ballot measure in their advertising, or if their publications can be considered educational rather than propaganda, they usually get away with it.

Agency involvement in ballot measure campaigns probably began in 2000, when Salt Lake City voters were asked to support light-rail projects. Prior to the election, Utah Transit ran a television ad showing a lone car driving down a freeway. The ad concluded with a brief glimpse of a light-rail train and said that light-rail takes thousands of cars off the road so everyone else can drive in uncongested highways. The ad never mentioned the ballot measure, but it certainly influenced the outcome of the campaign. Prior to that ad, the vast majority of rail ballot measures lost, but after that ad, other transit agencies used similar tactics and an increasing number of measures won.

Citizen efforts to stop such agency lobbying have usually been in vain. However, a group in Florida scored one minor success. When Pinellas County’s transit agency had a light-rail measure on the 2014 ballot, the agency received a $500,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security that was supposed to be used to alert transit riders to be on the lookout for suspicious packages or activities. Instead, the agency used most of the money for television ads promoting light rail. When this was uncovered, the agency claimed the grant was for “more than just about bombs and terrorism.” As it turned out, the Department of Homeland Security did not agree and demanded that the agency return the grant, which it did–but by that time the ads had already been broadcast.