Photos: SunRail/HNTB

Photos: SunRail/HNTB

Transit projects can take years to plan, design and build, and in that time, many factors have the potential to unfavorably affect a project’s duration. These factors can include funding challenges, complex approval processes, changing political agendas, cost overruns and inadequate resources.

If well managed, the political, public and stakeholder engagement process — where all of the key people involved are vested in the vision and goals of the project — can form the groundwork for timely project delivery.

Some organizations approach the stakeholder engagement process with a “smaller is better” framework, believing that it offers them a greater level of control over decision-making. Certainly, projects have been successfully delivered under this type of model.

However, larger, more complex projects with a higher potential to be derailed by lack of consensus, dissipation of focus over long implementation periods, disjointed decision-making or electoral change in the decision-making structure can over time benefit from a broader, more inclusive approach.

Creating a strong foundation for stakeholder engagement is one of the keys to success, as has been shown with transit projects in San Jose, Portland, Denver and many other cities across the country. While there isn’t a single “right” structure or process, key components of successful stakeholder engagement generally include:

Photos: SunRail/HNTB

Photos: SunRail/HNTB

Selecting a Project Champion
On a large project extending over many years, it is often a challenge to keep up momentum to advance the project. This is where a Project Champion is needed to keep everyone interested and engaged.

The Champion can be a respected individual or a small group made up of ranking political people, business leaders, and/or well-positioned community leaders. The Champion(s) raise the visibility of the project in the community and work to hold the coalition of supporters together to deliver the project vision over time.

Creating a Project Charter or MOA
A Project Charter or MOA (Memorandum of Agreement) outlines the vision for the project, defines key goals and objectives, lists responsibilities for each agency that is significantly affected by the project, outlines a schedule for completion, describes structures and processes for approval, and puts together a framework for costs and funding.

By deciding on these points, the key approval agencies come to an agreement on the project scope up front. Then, if there are questions down the road, agencies can refer back to the MOA to see what everyone agreed to. But the memorandum isn’t just a tool to hold everyone accountable — it also brings the key decision-makers together to build the relationships and trust needed to keep the project moving forward.

Photos: SunRail/HNTB

Photos: SunRail/HNTB

Laddered Review and Approval Process
Oftentimes, there is more than one agency that needs to approve a project. Creating a laddered review and approval process allows the project to gain approval from the proper agencies while continuing to advance. This ladder is often made up of five teams or an alternative structure that includes individuals at all of these levels.

Executive Steering Committee (ESC)/Policy Advisory Board (PAB)
The ESC/PAB is responsible for setting the project’s overall policy framework and making recommendations to the approving bodies (Transit Agency Board of Directors, City Council, etc.). Like the Project Champion (who may be a part of this group), the ESC/PAB supports keeping all eyes on the long-term vision. It also takes on the role of making recommendations for overall direction and resolving key disputes between agencies and stakeholders. Members of this body are high-level individuals including CEOs, mayors and council or board members of the agencies involved.

Project Development Team (PDT)
This group is comprised of high-level staff from the cities and agencies involved. The PDT is responsible for providing direction to the project technical team, decision-making within their authority, and making recommendations to the ESC/PAB regarding decisions that are not within their authority or are particularly contentious issues.

Project Technical Team (PTT)
The PTT is responsible for the advancement of key technical issues associated with the design, environmental clearance and approval of the project by outside agencies. The PTT is comprised of high-level staff from planning, public works and engineering departments of the affected agencies. This group also coordinates and works with city, state and federal agencies with permitting authority over the project.

Community Advisory Committee (CAC)
The CAC is made up of representatives from business, labor and environmental and community organizations. The members of the CAC are tasked with identifying community concerns and working to resolve conflicts within those concerns, as well as providing recommendations and input to the PDT.

Community Working Groups (CWG)
Large projects often travel through very different types of communities or neighborhoods, each with their own concerns, ideas and desires. To ensure that all those voices are heard, one or more CWGs are organized to provide input to the CAC. The organizations included tend to be neighborhood-focused groups and can include small businesses, educational institutions, ethnic or religious community organizations and the like.


The Benefits
This more inclusive stakeholder engagement structure results in:

  • Transparency and full engagement in the process supporting consensus building.
  • Shared responsibility for success in delivering the project on-budget, on-schedule and in accordance with the agreed-upon vision.
  • Broad opportunity for issues to arise and be resolved early, mitigating opportunities for detractors to derail the project later in the process.

Complex transit projects require the buy-in of many stakeholders to be a success. By developing a more inclusive structure that allows for consensus up front and charts out a route for decision-making, all parties involved have agreed to work together towards a singular vision. Having that unified, broad-based support in place means the chances of delivering a successful long-term project on time and on budget are much higher.

This article was contributed by HNTB Corp.

**This article was originally published in September 2016