Power of the people
By involving the public in all phases of a transit project, cities and counties boost the likelihood of support – and success.
Ask public transportation officials what their communities expect of their projects, and the answers move far beyond reduced travel time and enhanced accessibility. Stakeholders range from elected officials and planning boards to property owners and special interest groups – and each entity has its own expectations and concerns. Getting from point A to point B depends largely on officials’ abilities to navigate the conflicts and, through public participation, build support for their projects.
The means for engaging the public are as varied as the stakeholders themselves. By conducting interviews, creating focus groups, distributing surveys and providing a variety of forums for project explanation and feedback, transportation and transit officials are able to define and understand the issues that affect their constituents. As a result, they are able to incorporate public needs and desires into their planning and complete projects that address transportation needs as well as quality of life.
A well-planned outreach program has clearly defined goals that focus on issues important to the public. Identifying who the public is and discovering its concerns are two of the greatest challenges of effective project management.
When the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) District began building the San Francisco Airport Extension project in 1991, public involvement and support were essential to the project’s success. Connecting the San Francisco Peninsula with the East Bay, the extension will pass through five communities, adding 8.7 miles of passenger track, 6.5 miles of subway and four stations to the BART line.
“Each community has a very specific personality, likes, dislikes, beliefs about who they are and what their relationship is to the rest of the Bay Area,” says Mollie McArthur, director of community and government relations for BART. “It was very important to understand and recognize that. One community, for example, had been established before California was even a state and had certain feelings about its pioneer roots, while another community more closely identified with Silicon Valley and had a more 21st-century orientation.”
To engage the communities that would be affected by the extension, McArthur spent the year prior to construction meeting face-to-face with residents and community organizations and leaders. She attended city council and Chamber of Commerce meetings; joined civic organizations; attended neighborhood meetings; and visited each of the area schools.
“I wanted to know who I was dealing with, and I wanted them to know me,” McArthur says. “I wanted them to understand that, as we moved toward construction, we knew perfectly well that we were going to bring a great deal of frustration and disappointment by way of disruptions to the community and the construction. Knowing that, I wanted us to have a relationship.”
As a result of those relationships, BART was able to address public concerns as it moved forward on the airport extension project. For example, residents were worried about safety along the haul routes, which passed through several neighborhoods and six school districts, half of which were elementary schools. In particular, one school’s playground backed up to construction.
BART instituted a speed limit of 5 miles per hour along the alignment behind the school (which not only enhanced safety but lowered dust levels), and it erected a 20-foot-high, double barrier between the school and the excavation site. Older students worked with crossing guards to help them identify the younger students and monitor their movement.
Inviting concerns – and listening to them
As demonstrated by BART, public outreach can help ensure that a project progresses smoothly through the construction phase. Even before construction, however, public buy-in can have an enormous impact on success. It can mean the difference between a project that moves and one that stalls on the drawing board.
That was the case in Portland, Ore., when Tri-Met needed funding for expansion of Max, its light rail system. The agency wanted to add 5.8 miles of track to the 33-mile line, but, to obtain funding, it had to have voter approval.
Support for the project was split between the northern end of the city, which strongly favored the expansion, and the southern end of the city, which strongly opposed it. Those opposing the plan objected primarily to the displacement of 150 homes and businesses.
To gauge community interest and build support for the expansion, Tri-Met staff members met with more than 75 community organizations, including neighborhood associations, business committees and social services organizations. Additionally, they attended numerous hearings and comment sessions, inviting input from the public.
As a result of its outreach, Tri-Met devised a new plan for its light rail system, and, when the plan was presented to voters, it received overwhelming support (60 to 80 percent approval in each affected area). Equally impressive was the fact that voters elected to establish an urban renewal district – which would encompass the transit expansion project – and fund it with a property tax increase.
“We formed a committee of nearly 50 citizens from the neighborhoods along the new rail line and asked them how they wanted their tax dollars on public improvements spent over the next 25 years,” says Portland Commissioner Charlie Hales. “By letting the public set the project list for the new urban renewal district, we helped build support for the light rail line.”
Choosing the most effective tools
The tools and methods used to elicit public response vary from grassroots “door-to-door” campaigns to direct mail, public meetings, official briefings and workshops. Additionally, many tools now are made possible through advances in information technology.
Means of building public support for transportation projects include:
– Public meetings The traditional public meeting includes a formal presentation followed by an open-mic session, providing a forum for individuals to express their views. To encourage a broad range of participation, some local governments vary the format. For example, the city or county might sponsor an informal open house, featuring graphics and kiosks, and invite individuals to talk with transportation/transit representatives and complete questionnaires. Or it might sponsor an open forum, during which the project team fields questions, or workshops in which stakeholders are encouraged to think through the issues, set priorities and propose solutions to perceived problems. The more interactive the forum, the more opportunity for consensus-building and conflict resolution.
– Speaker bureaus Transportation departments/transit agencies can maintain a slate of speakers – agency officials, public affairs officers or project engineers – who are available to address community groups upon request.
– Exhibit booths/displays By setting up booths in public places (e.g., shopping malls, community centers, county fairs), project representatives can reach diverse groups of people – without waiting for the people to come to them.
– Web sites/e-mail Many transportation departments/ transit agencies host web sites, where they post project-specific information and solicit input via online surveys or e-mail.
– Kiosks/CD-ROMs When Internet access is unavailable, multimedia kiosks can fit the bill. Assembled in public spaces such as malls or libraries, they allow users to browse information at their own pace and respond to survey questions.
– Hotlines By including a toll-free phone number in all communications – from billboard ads to newsletters and press releases – agencies are sending the message that they are accessible and available to hear public concerns.
– Videos/cable TV Videos help project managers explain the decision-making process, as well as the processes for public input and evaluation of project alternatives. Videos that incorporate renderings, computer animation or 3-D visualization programs can be used to generate “before” and “after” scenarios. They illustrate how a project will affect its surroundings, and they assist viewers in understanding a future landscape, traffic flow pattern or city street.
– Opinion research Research techniques include telephone surveys, focus groups and informal polling. A sample of the public is surveyed, and results assist the city or county in identifying key arguments and shaping communications.
– Direct mail Periodic direct mailings such as newsletters, flyers and bill inserts can provide recipients with detailed information on specific issues and encourage them to attend public meetings or use hotlines or web sites to provide feedback. Mailings can be an effective way to reach highly targeted groups.
– Ad campaigns Creative ad campaigns, incorporating posters, billboards and other media, are useful for communicating with mass audiences. While TV advertising rates are generally expensive, there are many more affordable advertising outlets. For example, by placing ads on radio during drive time, or on highway billboards, metro buses, park benches or outdoor banners, a city or county can reach the public in transit.
– Educational programs Sponsoring educational programs and contests within the public school system allows transportation departments to communicate messages about safety and services to schoolchildren as well as parents and teachers. School programs often garner widespread visibility for initiatives that otherwise might not be covered by the media.
– Advisory and steering committees Advisory committees serve to involve a cross-section of the affected community in the decision-making process. The decisions of the committee go to a steering committee, which is typically composed of representatives of organizations with some jurisdictional authority (e.g., the city, the county, public safety agencies).
– Media coverage Reporters and editors can be among an agency’s best allies for informing the community at large. Media kits (press releases, photos, etc.) that can be downloaded from project web sites, bylined columns, special media events and briefings, and press conferences can help transportation officials maintain media relationships.
An effective public involvement program can include any or all of the support-building tools and methods. The goal for each program, however, is the same: to obtain a balanced view of community interests and to assist as many people as possible in understanding the project’s purpose, scope and impact.
Making the program inclusive and ongoing
One-size-fits-all public involvement plans for transportation projects do not exist, so agencies are developing customized programs based on the size, complexity and controversy surrounding a project. Large-scale projects that affect multiple stakeholders, projects that have unusual or special impacts, and projects that have high visibility within the community generally require a broad approach to communications, involving a variety of tools.
Public participation is crucial in communities where there are well-established activist groups and the level of citizen involvement is high. Yet it is equally important to reach groups that are unaccustomed to participating, unaware of opportunities to participate or unable to take advantage of those opportunities. Contacting hard-to-reach segments of a community helps ensure that transportation services satisfy customers’ needs without undue burden on a silent minority.
Although public involvement is critical during planning, design and pre-construction, it needs to continue through project delivery as well. Residents who are alerted to design alternatives, traffic management and noise mitigation plans, and other key issues – and given the opportunity to ask questions and get answers – are less likely than uninformed residents to obstruct a project’s progress.
Additionally, by giving residents information and opportunities to provide feedback, local governments are finding that they can reduce the number of transit-related lawsuits. For example, as part of its airport extension project, BART planned construction through an endangered species habitat, and the public vehemently opposed the idea. Knowing the project would not proceed unless public concerns were addressed, BART officials amended designs and schedules, and took extensive precautions to appease the community. The agency continues to work closely with conservationists in the community.
“[Project managers] are often frustrated by these types of efforts because it costs money,” McArthur says. “They [ask], `Why should I be spending money on staff time one year in advance of construction? Why can’t we start all these projects at the same time?’ You have to fight the internal battle [because] it’s a really important battle. If you win, it definitely pays off.” According to McArthur, BART has not been sued in three years – a record she attributes directly to government and community relations efforts.
Organizing the communications campaign
Despite the benefits of public involvement, the idea is often difficult to sell to project managers in charge of construction contracts. Without a doubt, communications and education programs add cost, increase potential for early opposition and require extensive effort to implement and manage. (Some public transportation agencies report spending 10 to 20 percent of design costs on public involvement, and costs escalate for controversial projects.) However, current public attitude demands involvement in large-scale projects, and, legally and politically, public participation has become a requirement.
In an effort to centralize communications efforts and manage them effectively, cities and counties commonly assign one person to oversee their transportation or transit outreach programs. By teaming communications specialists (either in house or outside the department) with technical staff, transportation/transit departments are able to address the full range of questions from the public, elected officials and the media. In some cases, the amount of work needed to involve the public has prompted local governments to outsource components or whole programs to qualified communications consultants.
Several transportation departments have reported frustration at failing to reach 100 percent of their audiences during the public participation process. However, as a result of organized communications efforts – in which the public is provided with multiple forums for gathering information, discussing it and responding to it – their success rate is improving.
In the end, it is not just transportation that people care about, but quality of life as well. That is why any transportation or transit debate can be both emotional and contentious. When valid concerns are addressed through the public involvement process, however, agencies can do their part to alleviate the tension and build support.