Grassroots organizing set the foundation for transit victory


Much has been written in recent days about the passage of the historic transportation investment bill. A variety of leaders who helped ensure the bill’s passage have been given credit, rightly, for this achievement. But, there’s another story that needs to be told: the long struggle by nonprofit advocacy groups and ordinary citizens to advance transit to the top of the legislature’s agenda.

Not for Public Recognition, but for the Public Good
These transit advocates will not likely be remembered by the media or other political commentators because their grassroots efforts operated at a lower altitude in the public arena. But they didn’t toil for transit to grab news headlines – they did so because it is in the public interest. I could never identify every individual that played a role in this story, but I can start with some core partner groups. First, let us praise Transit for Livable Communities. TLC is the pivotal organization that brought everyone together to talk about the need for investment in public transit in Minnesota. Started over 10 years ago by a group of concerned bus riders and rail advocates, TLC quickly became the go-to group for sound research and strong testimony at legislative hearings.

Building a Grassroots Movement
TLC quickly realized that it wasn’t enough to be armed just with good facts and figures– they needed an army of transit supporters clamoring for bus and rail investments. In 2000, they chose a brilliant but simple organizing strategy: target suburban districts with popular sometimes overflowing, Park & Ride lots.

They went to these transit stations and signed up bus riders. They attended dozens of hearings during the years of transit cutbacks and signed up more riders. They tabled at the opening of the Hiawatha light rail line and they reached out to allied groups. In a few short years, they had organized more than 9,000 people who had a stake in the transit system and who could be counted on to contact their local officials, state legislators and the governor.

This allowed TLC and its allies to target suburban decision-makers who didn’t understand that residents of their districts had a need for and a stake in a better regional transit system.

Coalition Organizing
Then Transit for Livable Communities reached out to other allies to build their ranks, forming the Transit Partners coalition with the goal of securing a permanent, dedicated funding source for transit. A stable stream of funding had long been the “holy grail” for transit organizers and the coalition pursued this goal with a vengeance.

Groups like the Sierra Club signed on. They had been working on transportation and land-use issues for nearly two decades. With well over 10,000 members in the metro region, the North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club brought with it a formidable membership base of suburban volunteers and a sophisticated system of activating them. Over the weekend preceding the Monday showdown, the Club generated over 1000 local constituent calls to the four metro-area Republican House members, asking them to stand their ground and override the Governor’s veto.

The faith-based organization ISAIAH was another key partner. They had thousands of members who were active in more than 90 congregations in the metro region and St. Cloud. ISAIAH brought with them a flair for engaging the media , the ability to turn out hundreds of members on short notice, and a reputation for disciplined and energetic organizing. These congregant leaders were like bulldogs – never letting go of their moral vision to wield state investments for the common good.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a respected policy and research organization, became an important and trusted ally. They helped crunch more numbers about our state’s transportation financing system, provided comparative analysis of other metro regions, and built new relationships with business leaders.

Rounding out the Transit Partners coalition were advocacy groups like the Minnesota Senior Federation, Fresh Energy, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 and several key coalitions: the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, the Minnesota Public Transit Association, and the Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Changing Times
As light rail evolved from a controversial idea to a proven success along Hiawatha Avenue, the political debate started to give way. Yearly public opinion surveys by the Met Council revealed that citizens were becoming more impatient with increasingly congested roads. Passage of the motor vehicle sales tax referendum in 2006 proved that transportation was a high public priority. And future historians will no doubt point to the tragic collapse of the I-35W bridge as the crucial tipping point that motivated a veto-proof majority in the state legislature to do the right thing.

The transportation bill will yield roughly $5.5 billion to fix our state’s neglected road and bridge infrastructure. It also secured, at long last, approximately $1.1 billion to expand the state’s public transit system. This money will help to:
• Construct eight new dedicated transitways (light rail; commuter rail, and bus rapid transit)
• Double bus ridership by 2020
• Create better transit facilities and new park and ride capacity
• Provide revenue to local governments for bicycle and pedestrian projects
• Expand transit in Greater Minnesota

The landmark veto override was made possible, in large part, by the foundation laid by transit advocates. As a contributing partner in this campaign, my organization has been privileged to watch what was once a small grassroots effort grow into a statewide movement.

Russ Adams is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, a coalition that focuses on eliminating racial and economic disparities in land-use & development decisions.