Transit Governance Part 1: Advocacy Relationship

In my quest to encourage transit agency and advocate collaboration to increase transit equity, I need to take a moment to talk about transit governance.

Who does a public transit agency work for? The idealistic answer is the public. But the real-politik answer is important to the relationship between transit advocates and an agency. This answer lies in the intersection of where the agency’s funding comes from and who appoints the leadership (Board and Chief Executive). Another way to ask this question is what elected officials should be held accountable for a transit agency’s performance or decisions.

Governance structures for transit agencies vary across the US and often get very complicated. There is utility in having the funding source directly connected to the governance board. There are arguments for making an agency clearly the responsibility of a single elected official or elected body so that accountability is easier. But both can limit the representation and lived experiences on the board (which should be addressed).

Understanding the governance structure is critical for advocates to know where the decision-making power lies and how to direct their advocacy. And it is also important to understanding what role advocates need to play and what role the transit agency can play in making change.

In my personal experience most transit professionals are in their jobs because they want to improve public transit. It is a mission-driven organization and the stress is too great to stay if you don’t care. So in all likelihood transit advocates share some common goals with the workforce and middle management of the agency. I believe pushing change forward requires inside/outside collaboration. Governance defines how that collaboration can work because it determines the roles of the different players in making change.

How the agency can advocate for itself depends on the governance model. My personal experience is in Boston (working for the MBTA) and in Atlanta (as an advocate for MARTA). In Massachusetts the MBTA works for the Governor and the majority of the (non-fare) funding comes from the state. When I lived in Atlanta MARTA was funded by the City of Atlanta and two surrounding counties and the Board was appointed by those jurisdictions (and some seats by the state).

MARTA was able to advocate for itself at the state legislature (see photos in this post) and work directly with community groups to support more funding. But it didn’t get any operating funds from the state of Georgia (due to racism, but that is a story for another day). The MBTA is functionally part of state government, so is unable to advocate for itself as an entity separate from the rest of the administration. But it does get state funding. I worked with the same General Manager in both places so know the difference isn’t solely about leadership.   

This means in a region like Boston, one of the main roles for advocates is to speak-up for the transit agency in a way that the agency can’t. Asking the MBTA leadership to go against the position of the Governor (whoever it is) is like asking someone to publicly contradict their boss. It is tempting, but not really a recipe for success. This might be frustrating for staff and advocates, but it is the existing reality.

Regardless of the governance, advocates should hold the agency accountable for the decisions that are in their control and push (or change) the relevant elected officials on decisions that are out of the agency’s control. And at the end of the day advocates are always playing a supporting role, it is the transit agency that has to implement any changes and have the trust of the public to spend public funds.

Advocates, your role is to push transit agencies into the stars we need them to be! This can be hard to remember when you are trying to get your voice heard and secure funding for your organization, or if it feels like you are fighting the bureaucracy. But you are a supporting character with the goal of organizing yourself out of being necessary. Understanding your role within the existing governance structure (or trying to change it) is critical to helping the transit agency shine brighter.

(Agency staff, if you missed it, check out my posts about accountability and movement building inside.)

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