For more than a decade, FHWA’s Every Day Counts (EDC) program has promoted proven but underused innovations that enhance roadway safety, improve project delivery, and reduce traffic congestion. Across the country, agencies attest to the value of adopting these new technologies and processes, along with creative strategies for innovation deployment. As the transportation community participates in EDC round seven, Innovator is featuring articles that reflect on the program’s accomplishments.

Effective public engagement offers opportunities for agencies to obtain meaningfulnput from the community and advance equity in transportation planning and project development. Engaging the public early and often is also a key strategy for reducing project delays and improving overall success. Traditionally, most of this outreach has occurred at in-person meetings. Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic largely halted indoor meetings, prompting agencies to quickly expand their virtual public involvement (VPI) approaches to keep transportation plans and projects moving.

Fortunately, several agencies had already been experimenting with virtual tools and, in 2019, FHWA included a VPI initiative in round five of Every Day Counts (EDC-5) that promoted supplementing in-person engagement with virtual strategies. The EDC-5 effort identified and promoted the most effective VPI tools, and during the disruption caused by COVID, these tools became a necessity.

“Prior to 2019, most every agency was doing something in terms of using digital technologies for outreach, but it wasn’t their focus,” said Kevin McCoy, U.S. DOT Volpe Center and member of the EDC-5 VPI implementation team. “When people really needed it, EDC had resources to help them adjust quickly.”

Bob Washington, FHWA Office of Project Development and Environmental Review and EDC team co-lead, said that in the early days of EDC-5, agencies were mostly interested in experimenting with different technologies and new techniques. “Once the pandemic occurred, it was an awakening,” he said. “Agencies needed to continue to conduct business, and they saw virtual strategies as a viable tool to further transportation plans and projects, while achieving their public engagement plans.”

Building a Community of Practice

VPI strategies include telephone town halls, online meetings, pop-up outreach, story maps, cell phone videos for quick project footage, survey tools, and visualizations. These tools and others not only improve access but can also enhance community understanding of proposed projects and plans through engaging visuals and interactive activities.

The VPI capstone video illustrates the benefits of virtual public involvement through examples from agencies across the country.

Credit: FHWA

 

During EDC-5, the VPI team learned what works with different tools and methods for sharing information virtually, then incorporated these lessons into outreach strategies for States and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). For example, the team determined that most participants responded better to short online meetings. Breaking the meetings into small segments helped increase participation and offered more opportunities for engagement because it enabled customization and the use of different techniques.

A big challenge for the EDC team was helping transportation agencies find strategies for incorporating virtual methods in rural areas. Lack of broadband access was one obstacle, so they identified approaches such as using hotspots, inviting people to libraries and government buildings where public Wi-Fi was available, and holding telephone townhalls to provide the public with an alternative to internet in rural areas, allowing them to engage in transportation plans and projects. The team also addressed overcoming accessibility issues to help improve outreach to community members with disabilities and expanding outreach to environmental justice populations.

During this time, the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) had developed an all-in-one, online platform called the Public Involvement Management Application (PIMA) that documents and tracks public comments throughout all phases of project delivery. Iowa shared information on PIMA and made it available to other States during EDC, then began a partnership with other agencies to enhance and grow its capabilities. “EDC helped jumpstart the collaboration, and now 24 agencies are actively expanding it on their own, which is ultimately the mark of success,” said Washington.

Mack Frost, FHWA Office of Planning, Stewardship, and Oversight and EDC VPI team co-lead, said MPOs have also been eager to adopt and use VPI. “It supports the many touchpoints they have with the community,” said Frost, “MPOs are adept at surveysstory mapping, and GIS, and they are documenting their methods through public involvement plans, just like the State DOTs.”

When FHWA continued VPI during EDC-6, the team placed an emphasis on helping agencies institutionalize VPI by adjusting policies and practices for disseminating information and collecting feedback to be consistent across projects, then adding these policies and practices to agency public involvement plans.

“EDC-5 helped build a community of practice for using different virtual technologies,” said Washington. “This enabled the transition during EDC-6 to institutionalize a menu of strategies.”

During EDC-5 and EDC-6, the team engaged with agencies in at least 35 States, including more than 4,000 webinar attendees, 400 workshop participants, and 7,000 case study views. This broad reach helped expand use of VPI tools and practices to agencies across the country who are now using these technologies to make public involvement more convenient, meaningful, and equitable.

Agencies are also reporting increases in public participation numbers when employing VPI tools, illustrating how using a variety of methods to communicate different types of information can expand outreach.


MORE INFORMATION

Contact Bob Washington, FHWA Office of Project Development and Environmental Review, or Mack Frost, FHWA Office of Planning, Stewardship, and Oversight, for information and technical assistance.

Visit the FHWA virtual public involvement website to access a VPI toolkit, case studies, and videos.


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