Alex Hudson is Executive Director at Transportation Choices Coalition, a policy and advocacy organization based in Seattle, Washington. Since the 1990s, TCC has worked to build broad coalitions on various campaigns and initiatives including Sound Transit 3, a $53.8 billion plan to expand transit approved by Seattle area voters in 2016. In this episode of High Frequency, Alex shares her wisdom about the elements of a winning campaign -- how to paint a big vision, garner support from elected leaders, and build a big tent coalition. She also shares lessons about communications tactics that have and haven’t worked when talking to voters about transit.
Alex Hudson is Executive Director at Transportation Choices Coalition, a policy and advocacy organization based in Seattle, Washington. Since the 1990s, TCC has worked to build broad coalitions on various campaigns and initiatives including Sound Transit 3, a $53.8 billion plan to expand transit approved by Seattle area voters in 2016.
In this episode of High Frequency, Alex shares her wisdom about the elements of a winning campaign -- how to paint a big vision, garner support from elected leaders, and build a big tent coalition. She also shares lessons about communications tactics that have and haven’t worked when talking to voters about transit.
“A lot of the way that we talk about transit is car-oriented, and that somehow transit is about traffic when transit is about itself. Transit is about the environment, opportunity, and a mobility future that provides a healthy civic environment” - Alex Hudson
Disclaimer: Political views raised by guests on the podcast do not reflect the views of TransitCenter.
For more information on Transportation Choices Coalition, click here.
To learn more about the TransitCenter event Alex participated in, click here.
Music: “Comma” - Blue Dot Sessions
Hosted and edited by Kapish Singla
Produced by TransitCenter
Please note that transcripts are generated by a combination of automated speech recognition software and human transcribers. There may be errors in the text.
Kapish [00:00:00] From Transit Center, this is High Frequency. I'm Kapish Singla. In many American cities, raising new funds for transit depends on passing ballot measures or initiatives. Advocates in these cities need to muster votes on Election Day to enact taxes or other revenue streams dedicated to transit. This means that improving transit service hinges on building a successful campaign, mobilizing a broad coalition, and convincing voters with a successful message. What do effective strategies for a ballot initiative look like? To answer this, I spoke with Alex Hudson, Executive Director of Transportation Choices Coalition, an organization based in the state of Washington that has worked on coalition building to bolster transit initiatives at the city, county and state levels.
Kapish [00:00:54] Alex, one of the largest coalitions that Transportation Choices Coalition led was called Mass Transit Now. And Mass Transit Now was formed to support a proposition called Sound Transit 3 or ST3. Can you tell us what the ST3 package was?
Alex [00:01:13] At the end of ST3 buildout, which happens in 2041. It is a long time. We will have 116 miles of light rail. We will connect the northern city of Everett in Snohomish County, all the way down through Seattle with the southern terminus in Tacoma.
Kapish [00:01:34] What was Transportation Choices Coalition's role in crafting some of the priorities that were contained in that measure?
Alex [00:01:43] What we were asking for people in the Sound Transit district is 159 dollars per person. It's an enormous amount of taxes to ask people for in a state that has the single most regressive tax structure of any other state in the entire country. But what we knew was that we had the three things that you need in order to run a campaign like that, starting with the vision--the idea that we knew that there's this incredible tax sensitivity from people, right. Folks don't like paying taxes. That's not news. So we knew that we were always going to lose some people on the matter of taxes. Some people just don't want to do it. But we had a vision. We had this big vision. And so with the assumption that some people weren't going to like taxes, we knew that we could get more people in, not by making the tax package smaller, but by making the vision bigger, that if we were going to have to go to this large area, very disparate political sensibilities and demographics that we needed to ensure that everyone was able to look at this map and see the benefit directly to them, and that if we could sell the vision, the taxes would flow from that. The second is the elected leadership, the ability to have political leaders who understood transit, understood the value of transit and were willing to make it their top priority and be vocal about it is not to be underestimated. And then the third piece is building a broad coalition. TCC began immediately bringing together labor, business, communities of color, environmentalists, urbanists, people from all across the spectrum of caring about this issue to identify issues, come to solutions, highlight priorities, shape the package from the very beginning so that we knew that it was vetted and that it was bought in. And so when it came time to run an actual campaign, the only opposition that we had were true transit opponents and not our friends.
Kapish [00:03:48] Why was it important to bring along this broad list of coalition members that you've listed and how are you working with them on the campaign?
Alex [00:04:00] It will always be true that bringing together the broadest coalition of people who care about an issue is an advantage. One, at the basic level that people who were affected by or stand to benefit or lose from policies deserve to have a voice at the table about the decisions that can made around those policies. But two, when you have different perspectives that are highlighting different issues or questions, you're able to solve those problems in a way that ultimately results in in a better set of ideas. And then also, when it comes time to run a campaign, you've got your steering committee, you've got people who are have been involved who are ready to go to the doors. And you've got people who are not going to be in public opposition to you because they weren't heard from the beginning. So there's a lot of a lot of reasons why you build really broad coalitions. But first and foremost is because that's how you win.
Kapish [00:04:46] So the campaign is kicking off into high gear in mid-2016. And one of the keys to winning a measure like this is that you're also trying to convince people who will never use transit that they should effectively vote to tax themselves to improve transit. Can you talk a bit more about the messaging that was happening in 2016 and how that was being segmented for different audiences?
Alex [00:05:13] We had a lot of opposition starting with the paper of record for the region, the Seattle Times. The Seattle Times wrote twelve editorials undermining, challenging, and questioning our messaging and the value of the vision that we were trying to to achieve.
Kapish [00:05:31] What was the basis of their critiques at that time?
Alex [00:05:34] Oh, my gosh. Everything. Everything from this is outdated transportation. And don't worry, because autonomous vehicles are going to save the day to it's too expensive, it's too regressive. Nobody rides transit any way. The agency is accountable. I mean, whatever you could think of, they were trying to sharpshoot our messaging.
Alex [00:05:56] So the first thing about our messaging was keep it about the value. Like if you go and you look at the first couple of pieces that we're putting out, videos and things like that, it's this peppy music and it's this growing map are the first kinds of images that you see, because we knew that what people wanted to hear more than anything was what they were going to get, what it was going to do for them. At the time, people were calling the campaign and saying things like, "Oh I just looked at your map and I just want to make sure I got this right. Light rail is gonna come to my neighborhood." and we know yes if you vote yes and tell your neighbors to as well. And so that was the very first thing is we needed to create a vision and talk to people about directly what was going to happen to them and their commute even if they weren't transit riders. Because the piece that we were quite clear about, and I think this speaks to the underlying way that we talk about transit generally is at no point did we ever tell people that transit was going to solve their congestion problems. And it allowed us to be really brave about that issue, because I think a lot of the way that we talk about transit has been very car-oriented and that somehow transit is about traffic when transit is about itself. Transit is about the environment, opportunity, and a mobility future that provides for a healthy civic environment.
Kapish [00:07:22] So in November 2016, the end result is that voters approved Sound Transit 3 by a ten-point margin. Can you contextualize why the passage of Sound Transit 3 in 2016 is just so significant and what it means for the Puget Sound region?
Alex [00:07:41] The passage of ST3 and the build-out of those 116 miles of light rail service and the BRT is the single largest infrastructure investment and by many accounts the most transformative thing that we will ever do for the Puget Sound region. There's a town north of Seattle called Lynnwood, and all that people knew about Lynwood was that there was this mall surrounded by this giant ocean of parking. They're getting a light rail station that's going to open in 2024. They've got prepared for this by creating this amazing triangle of bus rapid transit that will be serving the light rail station. It has portended a complete redevelopment of this mall area that is going to be this mixed use, mixed income, sort of highly walkable, 5-10 minute neighborhood and will be served by this incredible 18 minute service to the city of Seattle. I can't underscore how transformative that is for for just that as one example. Every single station area along the alignment is undergoing a blossoming in terms of the land use typology. It is created the fertilizer that is making these communities that it's touching, mature in a way that would never have happened if we weren't doing this.
Kapish [00:09:05] Despite this monumental when there is a backlash and that backlash manifests itself in a citizen led initiative in 2019 by a man who's pretty notorious, Tim Eyman, who is Tim? And how did his Initiative 976 work to undermine the win of Sound Transit 3.
Alex [00:09:26] Tim Eyman is an anti-tax troll. Tim in particular really cares a lot about the motor vehicle excise tax, which was the biggest taxing piece that was part of the ST3 package and has been able to manifest a general sense by some people that the valuation or the way in which car prices determined is in accurate. So he's created this rhetoric of distrust of taxes in general and Sound Transit in particular. In the case of 976, the question was whether or not car tabs across the state of Washington should put a ceiling on the value at $30.
Kapish [00:10:11] So TCC is tasked with trying to fight this initiative. And I've heard you previously categorize the 976 campaign as a defensive campaign. In other words, a campaign like this one, you're now tasked with trying to persuade voters to say no on something that sounds like something that they want. And so in this case, you're trying to get voters to say no to lowering what they owe on these car tabs. Can you explain how you created a communications strategy for this kind of defensive campaign?
Alex [00:10:46] A defensive campaign of this nature is a very complex thing to do because you're basically asking people to vote against a rebate to themselves. And so the idea of more money directly in their pocket is extremely compelling. So we knew that that was going to be a hard thing. But what we knew in crafting a campaign to fight 976 was that we could talk to people about the actual hit that this would have to them. We knew that what this meant was that there were going to be major road projects that were going to be canceled or delayed. So it makes our roads less safe. And we knew that it's not fair. The thing about the MVET valuation is that it's one of our only progressive taxing sources in the entire state. And so by creating a flat fee, we were eliminating a concept, which is that the people with more ability to pay should pay more than the people with less ability to pay.
Kapish [00:11:42] There was this loss. 976 passed by the voters of Washington state. What were you hearing from voters as you were doing the outreach on the defensive campaign?
Alex [00:11:54] To be honest, you know, we thought we were definitely doing a good job, that our messaging was working and we had this field apparatus. And I think we thought that we were, we were gonna pull it off. So I will say that it was a it was a surprising and sort of sad day.
Kapish [00:12:11] You've been a part of and a witness to some monumental wins and losses over the years. What are some of the lessons that you've learned from these wins and losses?
Alex [00:12:21] Oh, that it's it's always worth the fight, no matter what, whether you win or whether you lose. We are building momentum. We are deepening relationships. And we were talking to voters about the value of transit.
Kapish [00:12:36] And how are you taking those lessons forward in future initiatives or campaigns that TCC will be undertaking in the next four years?
Alex [00:12:45] We're setting ambitious vision and we're going for it. We're building the political will. We're building the coalitions. And we're doing the thing because we know that it's what people want. And so we are out there to not only increase the level of funding, but change the very nature of how that funding is. So that we frankly can put ourselves out of the campaign business. That is my goal is to create a sustainable, adequate, and resilient funding mechanisms for all of our transit at the local, regional and state level, such that TCC never has to run another campaign again because these taxes don't sunset and it just works. That's the goal.
Kapish [00:13:29] This conversation is part of the events program at TransitCenter, a foundation that works to improve transit in cities across the US. For more information, visit transitcenter.org