Image courtesy of Sound Transit
This post was written by TransitCenter’s Communications Graduate Fellow Melanie Marich
In March of 2022, the Washington State legislature passed one of the most progressive transportation packages in the country. The package, called Move Ahead WA, was a transformative shift from transportation plans and budgets that prioritized highways and cars to legislation that invested directly in transit agencies and multi-modal solutions.
Move Ahead WA commits $16 billion from the state’s Cap-and-Invest fund under the Climate Commitment Act to active transportation, public transit, and decarbonization efforts. Investments in active transportation include the Connecting Communities grant, which invests in communities damaged by past transportation choices, school-based bike programs, and a “Complete Streets” mandate for state highways. Direct investments in transit include tribal transit mobility grants and green transit grants that transit agencies can apply for, like funding to make transit free for anyone under the age of 18. Most notably, the legislation included a significant adjustment in transportation spending, reducing the allocation for highway expansion from 60% to 24%, which is now equal to the investment designated for transit.
Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) was one of the main architects behind Move Ahead Washington. Matthew Sutherland, the Advocacy Director at TCC, highlighted the coalition’s dedication to crafting and advocating for holistic transportation policies that go beyond traditional highway investments. Sutherland credits Move Ahead Washington’s success to years of community pressure and strategic opportunities, during which TCC worked in tandem with partner organizations. The coalition effectively navigated the intricate landscape of transportation funding, emphasizing the need for a more inclusive approach. The coalition recognized early that it needed to work closely with legislative leaders to actualize the passage of the legislation. Key legislative leaders, such as Senator Rebecca Saldaña and the Senate Transportation Chair Marko Liias, collaborated with TCC, reflecting the interconnected efforts of various stakeholders in achieving this groundbreaking transportation package.
Securing this victory statewide was particularly noteworthy, as it underscores the challenges faced by transit advocates in regions where decision-makers may not perceive transit as relevant or may even harbor hostility towards transit initiatives. Unlike in urban settings with established transit bases, achieving success across an entire state demonstrates the resilience needed to overcome diverse perspectives and attitudes toward transit.
This package could be a model for transit advocates everywhere. Here’s how these advocates pulled it off:
A strong communications plan targeting key legislators and grassroots advocates
A key component of Move Ahead WA was a communications campaign within it, called It Takes Transportation. The primary focus of this campaign was to target key legislators who had not yet signed on to the bill, as well as to engage grassroots advocates in supporting the cause. The campaign coordinated over a hundred different partner organizations to create a media strategy that targeted specific legislators and constituents.
The “It Takes Transportation” campaign relied on a multi-faceted approach, leveraging targeted advertisements and op-eds such as this one in districts where legislators had not yet committed to the legislation. This strategic communication allowed the campaign to reach both the constituents and the representatives directly, effectively conveying the urgency and importance of the transportation package.
One key element of the campaign was an open letter signed by over 100 local legislators from towns, cities, counties, and sovereign Tribal nations. In this letter, local leaders asked the state legislators to tackle climate change by dealing with the single largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions: transportation. The letter went out on November 9, 2021, and it laid out not only the benefits of this package but also the cost of not passing it for Washingtonians, which included a continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions and related climate and air quality impacts as well as continued pedestrian and cyclist deaths across the state.
Building relationships across coalitions
Long-term relationship building was a cornerstone of the Move Ahead WA campaign’s success. Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC), the driving force behind the campaign, cultivated a web of partnerships that extended far and wide. These relationships included connections with legislators who were already open to the campaign’s objectives, as well as those who were initially undecided but eventually convinced of its merits. Beyond legislative ties, TCC nurtured collaborations with climate change organizations, labor unions, indigenous communities in Washington State, and a multitude of other stakeholders.
Sutherland cited relationship building as one of the keys to getting this legislation passed. Sutherland said that relationships with legislators started many years before Move Ahead WA came about through other campaigning efforts. “I think ‘It Takes Transportation’ as a campaign was an amazing opportunity to build relationships with folks that we didn’t always have close relationships with,” said Sutherland. As a result, he said that they had built-in camaraderie going into the high-pressure environment of Move Ahead WA campaigning.
Another element of the relationship-building process was acting as a liaison between advocacy groups and legislators. “We, as Transportation Choices, often play a role that is not necessarily not speaking on behalf of, but liaising between government and community groups,” said Sutherland. “We’ve built up trust with government institutions and elected officials over time, and they look to us often to play that type of role.”
The ability to reach across different groups and maintain these connections, even through personnel changes over the years across the advocacy groups and the legislator, proved pivotal in garnering the necessary support and momentum to drive the legislation forward.
Lay foundations while the legislature is not in session
While the legislative process was the focal point of the campaign, Move Ahead WA recognized the value of using the time when the legislature wasn’t in session to lay a strong foundation. This included the strategic building of coalitions, crafting detailed budgets, engaging with friendly lawmakers, and making informed targeting decisions. These targeted decisions included outreach to legislators who were on the margins about whether or not to support the bill, using tools such as direct lobbying, working with partner organizations to talk to these legislators, and doing an education campaign. This outreach also included letter-writing campaigns from activists, making calls, and using action alerts to emphasize to these legislators how this package would work specifically for their constituencies.
Sutherland said that in working on a statewide package, each legislator and stakeholder had different goals and therefore often needed different approaches. “Things like youth ride free was a big, big selling point that helps sell this package as this transformational investment, and then being able to tie it to the Climate Commitment Act dollars, which is where we got the revenue,” said Sutherland. “Those dollars had specific goals to meet like greenhouse gas emission requirements and investments in front-line communities. These programs met those goals for the funding.”
TCC often found itself in a liaison role, connecting the legislators it has built strong relationships with to members of the coalition working towards Move Ahead WA, some of whom did not have pre-existing relationships with these legislators. According to Matthew Sutherland, this step tied in closely with building relationships and running a targeted communications campaign while the legislature was not in session. “We had this camaraderie already built in going into a high-pressure situation,” said Sutherland. “These legislative sessions are condensed. There’s tight timelines and trust is everything, so having been able to build that trust over the interim of the year outside of the legislative session, I think that proved invaluable.”
By strategically planning and working diligently outside of the short legislative session from January to March, the campaign was well-prepared to face the legislative process with a clear and comprehensive strategy, ultimately allowing it to win.
A little more than a year out from the signing of the legislation, Washingtonians under 18 are riding public transit for free, and some individual transit agencies have begun to implement flexible funding for operations costs and increased service. Many of the projects laid out in the legislation are not shovel-ready, but agencies and communities are applying for grants to implement things such as bicycle-pedestrian infrastructure projects and transit capital projects.
When asked about the wisdom he would impart to other advocates and stakeholders beyond just the tactical, Matthew Sutherland emphasized the importance of tapping into collective power. “It’s always good to remind ourselves that collectively we have a lot of power and a lot of influence.”
Sutherland concedes that the march towards a statewide victory was frustrating at times and that TCC and allies had to push for years before getting the win they needed. But, he says, “the people deserve that.”