Management & Operations

Community Outreach Strategies Reduce Friction in Rail Projects

Posted on August 1, 2004 by Steve Hirano, Editor

The construction of a light rail line can infringe on the lives of merchants and residents along the corridor for several months or even years, depending on the nature of the project. The noise, dust and access problems can be aggravating. Frayed nerves are common. Complaints generally follow. The governing agency and its contractors seek to mitigate the damage.

Public involvement programs are key to their success.

Transit systems in Salt Lake City and Dallas have employed community outreach strategies that have minimized the discomfort suffered by corridor-adjacent residents and businesses. Phoenix transit officials are gearing up for their own public involvement campaign as construction gets going on an ambitious light rail project.

This article discusses methods these agencies have used in conjunction with light rail projects to improve communication with the public, attract media attention, promote affected businesses and teach rail safety.

Seek community input
A common strategy is the creation of a task force or community advisory board. This group, usually composed of local residents and business owners, is chartered with the mission of providing critical input during the construction process.

"Creating a task force committee of key constituencies, political leaders, businesses and transit agency representatives is a top priority," says Rose Reichman of Reichman Frankle Inc., a community outreach consultant in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

"The committee members need to meet regularly to identify issues of concern and to establish a communication program that meets their needs," Reichman says. "Good ideas will come from this group, and problems will be identified before they grow."

Valley Metro in Phoenix will begin in-street construction of a 20-mile light rail starter line early next year and has put together what it calls Community Advisory Boards (CAB) to represent stakeholders along the corridor. The agency formed five boards by soliciting volunteers from people who attended public meetings on the rail project.

"This board isn't always composed of people in favor of the project," says Valley Metro spokeswoman Daina Mann. "You need the members to represent the feelings of the people." She says the boards will monitor construction activity along the route and provide input on how well the contractor is minimizing impact.

This input could be used to determine the size of the contractor's bonuses, Mann says. Valley Metro borrowed this idea from the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), which allowed a 15-member Community Coordination Team (CCT) to make recommendations about the size of the incentive fee given to the contractor that worked on its 2.5-mile University Line extension in 2000 and 2001. The CCT's recommendation was given equal weight to those of the UTA and the Salt Lake City Council, with the average being used to parcel out quarterly bonuses ranging from $165,000 to $189,000 to the lead contractor.

Mann says she also studied public involvement programs at TriMet in Portland, Ore.; Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose, Calif.; Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART); and Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County.

Don't reinvent the wheel
"We visited businesses in Salt Lake City and Houston during and immediately after construction and asked them what was most helpful to them," Mann says. "We learned a great deal from their responses."

Subsequently, Mann asked business owners along the route to participate in focus groups "to see if we were on the right track." She was surprised at what she found. "We thought these people were going to say, 'Just give us money,'" she says. "But what they said was, 'What we really want is good communication about what impacts to expect and when to expect them so we can plan around that.'"

This was an important discovery. Anxiety over impending construction could be alleviated by keeping business owners in the communication loop. To that end, Valley Metro assigned a public involvement coordinator for five different sections (approximately 4 miles each) of the route. There is also a 24-hour construction hotline with an operator to address any construction emergencies, complaints or concerns. In addition, construction updates are posted on the agency's Website.

Reducing the fiscal pain
Communication is just one part of the equation, however. Business owners also fear that the construction will reduce their income because it could make it more difficult for customers to reach their doorsteps.

The UTA took an aggressive posture in meeting this challenge. Justin Jones, the agency's media relations specialist, says the UTA community advisory team was allocated approximately $300,000 for impact mitigation.

One of its suggestions was to provide the community with incentives to visit affected businesses. To accomplish this goal, the UTA created 4th South Bucks (named for the downtown thoroughfare that the light rail extension runs along). Each 4th South Buck was a one-dollar coupon that could be redeemed at any of the businesses along the alignment.

"We had more than $75,000 in 4th South Bucks distributed to the public," Jones says. "The coupon was a great incentive for the public to visit the businesses and, of course, spend their own money as well."

Valley Metro's Mann says the agency has adopted a program similar for outreach to the 3,500 to 4,000 businesses located along the light rail line. Instead of a coupon, the agency will help business owners market and distribute a discount card. Mann says 600 businesses have signed up for the program, expected to launch early next year.

"All the businesses have to do is provide some kind of discount," Mann says. "The idea is to build their walk-in business base. It can be as simple as a free drink with every sandwich purchased."

Mann says the agency will also subsidize a signage program that will help keep the public aware that businesses are open during construction. The outreach program also offers counseling and access to loans through the Small Business Association, the Small Business Development Center, Service Corp. of Retired Executives and the School of Business at Arizona State University.

The key, Mann says, is for business owners to maintain a positive attitude during the construction. "I think everyone's got their eye on the long-term prize, but they know they're going to have to go through some inconvenience and change to get there."

Beyond marketing In Salt Lake City, the UTA used the media to its advantage during the construction of its University light rail extension. "To get that third-party endorsement was a major part of our success," Jones says.

Jones says milestones, such as the first weld of the tracks, were pitched to local newspapers and TV stations. "We tried to make every step of the process a media event," he says. "TV loved it because there was action. It became news that lent credibility to the process versus just a marketing campaign."

The UTA also encouraged its advisory group, the CCT, to talk to the media about the project's status. This generated a positive spin on the construction, especially since it didn't come directly from the admittedly biased transit agency. "Those were some of the things that worked very well," Jones says.

Fear of the unknown
The problems encountered in Phoenix and Salt Lake City are familiar themes in Dallas. DART experienced its growing pains in the mid-1990s when it was constructing its first light rail line, which has since stretched to 44 miles and 34 stations. "At the time, no one in Dallas had any experience with trains," says Lawrence Meshack, DART's community affairs manager. "No one knew what to expect."

To quell the anxiety, DART officials launched an awareness campaign. Community events were held regularly to answer questions about noise and other bothersome side effects of the construction.

Once construction neared completion, DART officials focused on other concerns, such as long-held fears that the rail line would drive down local property values. "We had to counter that premise and talked about the benefits of economic development," Meshack says. "And people were very receptive, especially after they saw the completed project."

Now, Meshack says, residents and business owners in the Dallas area have embraced the development of the extensive light rail system. "The whole mentality has changed," Meshack says. "Now everyone wants it in their backyard."

But concerns about safety are still an issue. Where the rail line runs near elementary schools, parents voice concerns about their children's safety. "We go to PTAs and tell the parents that the system is safe," Meshack says. DART also sponsors a transit education program that sends emissaries to elementary schools to teach children about rail safety. "When we were hot and heavy into that program, we used to visit 20 schools a day," he says.

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