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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 68 · No. 1 > Building Public Trust

Jul/Aug 2004
Vol. 68 · No. 1

Building Public Trust

by Jim Sinnette

The road to public confidence is paved with accurate cost estimates and schedules, community involvement, progress tracking, and effective communications.

Each year the U.S. Congress entrusts the transportation community with billions in Federal-aid highway funds to meet the needs of the traveling public. "Conscientious stewardship of these resources is a challenging and vital responsibility," says Administrator Mary E. Peters of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). "Stewardship can be thought of as managing another person's property or investment, implying trust and confidence, accountability, efficiency, effectiveness, and quality."

Work being done at night on bridge.
Work on Virginia's Springfield Interchange project went smoothly, due in part to an extensive outreach campaign that prepared residents and visitors for the overnight and weekend detours around a section of closed interstate highway.

Megaprojects—major transportation endeavors with estimated price tags greater than $1 billion—might be thought of as "megatrusts," which inherently attract public attention. Through all the complexities—from funding and raw materials to contract management and environmental impacts—transportation officials need to maintain public trust and confidence. Remaining in good standing with the public underlies effective project management and enhances the credibility of agencies and the transportation community in general.

Without trust, public outcry due to dissatisfaction can lead to calls from residents and legislators, missed deadlines, and unplanned costs, not to mention other consequences and unknown impacts on transportation projects. Opportunities for affecting public trust permeate all aspects of a megaproject, including estimated and actual costs; time to completion; environmental, cultural, and historical impacts; access to local businesses and residences; contract management; and public safety.

"The American public must feel confident that a dollar given to the transportation team is a dollar 'best' invested—not through a publicity campaign, but by results they can see, such as reduced traffic congestion, fewer lives lost on U.S. highways, seamless delivery of goods across the Nation, improved livability, and greater environmental protection," says Administrator Peters.

Estimates and Accuracy

Estimates about megaproject costs and completion dates are usually the first pieces of critical information that grab the public's attention. "Initial estimates of time and cost become the mark on the wall against which the project will be measured years later," noted FHWA Deputy Administrator J. Richard Capka during the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in January 2003. "Once a megaproject is underway, cost escalation and time delays become fodder for media attention and public dissatisfaction."

Many organizations are examining the difficulties involved in cost estimating and creating systems that improve the final product. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), for example, are honing innovative tools that help remove the surprise factors that can lead to public distrust. Though quite different in approach, WSDOT's Cost Estimate Validation Process (CEVPTM) and VDOT's Dashboard solve similar problems by documenting multiple levels of data, simplifying information sharing, and serving both transportation officials and the public.

Optimism and the Perception Of "Lowballing"

Is the discrepancy between estimated and actual costs for transportation projects a result of random error? Authors Bent Flyvbjerg, Mette Skamris Holm, and Søren Buhl attempted to answer this question through systematic statistical analyses. Their article, "Underestimating Costs in Public Works Projects: Error or Lie?," published in the summer 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Organization suggests that underestimation of major transportation infrastructure projects cannot be explained as error but rather as "strategic misrepresentation."

The study compares estimates and actual costs for 258 transportation projects worldwide, totaling $90 billion in U.S. dollars. Based on their findings, the authors arrive at a number of conclusions that reveal a significant hurdle that transportation agencies will need to overcome to improve and maintain public trust. The main cause of underestimation, they postulate, cannot be attributed to technical inadequacies, such as imperfect techniques, honest mistakes, or lack of experience, which opens the possibility of deception as a possible cause for lowballing cost estimates to initiate large projects and make them appear more desirable. Or, initial cost estimates may be overly optimistic, based on best possible scenarios, rather than considering the likelihood of delays or scope changes. The article concludes with this possible consequence, "The misrepresentation of costs is likely to lead to the misallocation of scarce resources, which, in turn, will produce losers among those financing and using infrastructure, be they taxpayers or private investors."

The study suggests that additional analyses should be performed on an even larger sample. But for transportation officials, this might serve as a wake-up call—an incentive to create better and more accurate cost estimates and to monitor costs and project phases more carefully.

How to Overhaul Cost Estimating

In the late 1990s, WSDOT struggled with growing public mistrust. An estimate in 1990 to expand State Route 167, for example, was $150 million. Ten years later the cost of the project had grown to $972 million. Over time, land originally valued as farmland had become an industrial area, and that, coupled with inflation, had driven up the purchase price for the rights-of-way.

WSDOT works under the supervision of a State legislature that provides its budget on a line-by-line, project-by-project, and phase-by-phase basis. In addition, grassroots initiatives influence resource allocations for transportation projects. The State's constitution directs motor fuel taxes to pay for the construction and maintenance of State, county, and city highways, and about half of the revenues generated go to WSDOT. In 2002, 62 percent of Washington voters rejected a $0.09 increase in the gasoline tax through Referendum 51. (Although the $0.09 gas tax increase was not approved by the public, the State legislature passed a $0.05 increase in the gas tax in the spring of 2003.)

Aerial view of the Evergreen Point Bridge.
WSDOT used its Cost Estimate Validation ProcessTM to develop a range of cost estimates for a project to replace the Evergreen Point Bridge, which carries State Route 520 over Lake Washington near Seattle, WA. Shown here is the western segment of the existing bridge.

According to Linda Mullen, communications director for WSDOT, Washington State Transportation Secretary Douglas B. MacDonald realized that something would have to change to demonstrate that WSDOT was planning transportation projects wisely and using public resources sensibly. To start, the very foundation of the large projects—cost estimation—needed an overhaul. In response, WSDOT developed CEVP, an innovative process for building cost estimates that involves three teams gathering and analyzing project-related data. The results are shared with the public through easy-to-understand summary sheets that identify the risks involved and present the estimates, not as single numbers and hard dates, but as ranges of possible costs (estimated for the midpoint of construction) and timeframes.

Screenshot of Dashboard on VDOT's Web site.
Dashboard, available on VDOT's Web site, enables the public to access project details and contacts who can answer questions. By conducting its business more openly and being responsive, VDOT is gaining public trust.

Like WSDOT, the Virginia DOT also struggled to maintain public trust in the face of past cost estimates that did not match reality. In fact, many transportation projects were delayed or cancelled due to underestimated costs associated with the massive Springfield Interchange construction in northern Virginia.

VDOT's solution to managing information more effectively and improving cost estimation is known as Dashboard. Created as a result of VDOT Commissioner Philip A. Shucet's charge to improve project management within a 4-month timeframe, Dashboard is a centralized, Web-based system that documents 16 critical steps in the following 4 phases of project development and completion: advertising, contract deadlines, contract awards, and work orders. With Dashboard, the public can access the information online anytime and send questions via e-mail directly to project managers.

These efforts started as a way to improve internal processes and communication and then metamorphosed into tools that facilitate sharing information with the public.

"Transparency has proven to be as essential to the estimating process as the steps taken to gather the figures," says Donna Purcell Mayes, VDOT's assistant public affairs director for education and outreach. "We are all becoming champions of first getting to the truth behind the estimates. It is only right, then, that we share the information with the decisionmakers and public."

 

Beams being place on a structure for the Springfield interchange at night.
The successful placement of these immense beams on a structure for the new Springfield Interchange was essential for maintaining the hard-earned public confidence in VDOT's ability to deliver the project on time and on schedule.

Involving the Public

In addition to information management tools, States rely on face-to-face contact with the public to build and maintain trust. In June 2003, the Virginia Transportation Research Council (VTRC) produced a report for VDOT called An Assessment of the Virginia Department of Transportation's Public Involvement Practices and the Development of a Public Involvement Toolkit: Phase II. The report assessed VDOT's performance in terms of community involvement and outlined alternative approaches, such as drop-in centers, hotlines, focus groups, and media outreach. The study recommended improving in-house planning and evaluation of strategic communications for major projects and encouraged VDOT divisions to collaborate on ways to increase the public's understanding of the planning, project development, and public involvement processes.

Polls conducted among VDOT staff revealed that a high percentage of respondents believed that the public was unclear about the planning and development process for transportation projects. Most of the citizen respondents, in turn, admitted that VDOT's public involvement procedures were either "unclear" or only "somewhat clear to most people." Further, the polling revealed confusion regarding the goals and expectations for public meetings. For example, although VDOT engineers supported involving the public early in the planning process, they found that the community members often were frustrated by the lack of tangible information available during the concept stages. The surveys found that high-quality and informative newsletters were a preferred method of communication among citizens and VDOT staff.

The report features data on how, when, and why the public seeks information and its preferences for receiving project news. Half of the citizens surveyed at VDOT project meetings and hearings responded that their motivation to attend such events is either to express views (positive or negative) about local projects or to show general interest in community affairs. In some cases, the information-sharing goals of the DOT may be at odds with some attendees who are looking for a venue to speak out.

One source of help for VDOT staff is the comprehensive policy manual for public participation in transportation projects, Project Participation: Working Together for a Better Community. Published in 2003, the manual outlines procedures for public hearings and meetings, which provide opportunities for free and open discussions about issues and concerns prior to developing the final design and before the project reaches a point beyond which it becomes costly and impractical to make modifications. The manual also provides templates to help VDOT staff create effective brochures, mass mailings, and videos.

The VTRC report suggests that a corresponding manual for the public may be valuable to citizens trying to understand the steps involved in the complex planning process for transportation projects. VDOT's Office of Public Affairs developed a two-page fact sheet, Transportation Decisions—You Can Make a Difference, as a starting point to encourage Virginians to educate themselves about existing and future transportation projects.

Illustration of man presenting a roadway drawing to a group of people.

Information Centers

The report also outlines more than 20 techniques for public involvement that are especially effective with large groups—the likely audience for communications regarding megaprojects. A quick-reference table categorizes each technique as a way to either involve or inform citizens. More detailed descriptions of each technique include advice about when to use it, pros and cons, and helpful tips. For example, the report recommends that agencies hosting drop-in (information) centers choose accessible and convenient locations and provide Internet access.

In 1999, VDOT opened a drop-in center inside the Springfield Mall, a large regional mall with more than 13.5 million shoppers a year, just a few months after the start of the Springfield Interchange Improvement Project in northern Virginia. The mall sits adjacent to the project site and easily filled the need to have the center conveniently located for public access. Now, nearly 5 years later and with construction just over halfway complete, the public information center in the Springfield Mall consistently serves an average of 5,000 to 6,000 visitors every month.

VDOT's Steve Titunik, the project communications director, attributes much of the drop-in center's success to location and availability. He and his staff of six employees are open for business Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Visitors can see a scale model of the finished interchange, historical and present-day aerial photos, and live video feeds showing customers how the project is progressing.

Another likely key to success is the broad range of services offered. The center also houses The Connector Store, which sells fares for all regional transit services and offers custom trip planning for transit commuters, carpool and vanpool applications, and registration for the guaranteed ride home service offered to carpoolers and mass transportation users. And although still focused on the Springfield Interchange, the center now offers information on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project, which also affects local commuters.

"We make this a fun place to come," Titunik says. "Our window dressing changes with the seasons, we hold holiday events, and children get balloons and coloring books. We regularly host Boy Scout and Cub Scout groups. But most important, we offer face-to-face contact with people who know they can count on us for answers to their questions about the construction."

Springfield Interchange Information Center in Springfield Mall.
The Information Center for the Springfield Interchange project in Virginia occupies a storefront in the Springfield Mall, facilitating sharing information with the public. More than 5,000 customers each month come into the Information Center to stay abreast of the project.

One Team, One Voice, One Vision

Internal communication and coordination among Federal, State, and local governments through the years of planning, design, and construction of a megaproject are also critical to success. In this issue of Public Roads, FHWA Deputy Administrator J. Richard Capka writes, "Maintaining public trust and confidence involves clear, unambiguous, and effective communications." (See "A Well-Conceived Plan Will Pull It All Together".)

Denver's Transportation Expansion Project (T-REX) with 30 kilometers (19 miles) of light rail, 13 new stations, expanded interstates, many interchange reconstructions, and major drainage improvements had the makings of another large project that would be too difficult to control. At the heart of the project's success to date is a shared commitment among the multiagency stakeholders. According to T-REX Project Director Larry Warner, from the first day, all members of the project team were instilled with the spirit of "one team, one voice, one vision."

Donna Kierstead, reviews construction details with a group of Cub Scouts and parents.
Donna Kierstead, a VDOT construction information specialist, reviews construction details with a group of Cub Scouts attending a 1-hour project briefing with their parents.

Learning from other megaprojects, the team set the following goals in November 1999: to minimize inconvenience to the public, stay within the $1.67 billion budget, provide a quality project, and complete the work on or before June 2008 (since shortened to September 2006 by the contractor). These goals were agreed to by executive committee members from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Federal Transit Administration, the Colorado DOT, and the Regional Transportation District (RTD). Today, 4 years later, and with the project 60-percent complete, the commitment is still intact.

Tough answers to tough questions have helped keep the project on track. As with other megaprojects, requests came from external third parties for additional work after the scope, budget, and construction schedule was set. Requests were denied unless the third party agreed to pay for the work, and the work would not throw the project off schedule. Internal communications are another key to success. The contractor staff is colocated with the project owner's internal staff. Issues are resolved together, and correct, timely information is passed up and down the project chain-of-command so everyone is sharing the same information whether it is with a neighbor or at a community briefing. "We have been able to maintain a high level of public trust on T-REX because we stuck to meeting our project goals," Warner says. "A big part of meeting our number one goal of minimizing inconvenience to the public is knowing the needs of our internal and external stakeholders, determining how they receive communication, and then putting a well-organized public information plan in place."

The emphasis on keeping promises made to the public, coupled with rigorous attention to internal and external communications, is working for T-REX. The most recent annual survey that keeps tabs on public opinion showed that more than 90 percent feel that the project is going extremely well.

Preserving Small Towns And Historic Resources

Responding to local concerns, especially during the planning and design phases can go a long way toward ensuring the success of a megaproject. In the coming years, residents of Indiana and Kentucky will witness the construction of two new bridges across the Ohio River to connect Louisville and southern Indiana. A press release issued by both States celebrated their final agreement on the location of the new bridges, noting that thousands of residents participated in an extensive public involvement effort that influenced the options the two States considered and their final recommendation.

A lime kiln along roadway.
The Ohio River Bridges Project team worked with area residents to locate and avoid local natural and historical sites like this lime kiln near Utica in Clark County, IN.The once-flourishing industry used Indiana limestone and dolomite to produce lime for construction and agriculture from the mid-1800s to early 1900s.

Frank O'Bannon, former Governor of Indiana, praised one particular citizen for the difference he made to the small town of Utica, IN. Richard Coomes attended a meeting on the bridge project held in Utica in 1999. He noted that the proposed easternmost bridge would cut the town in half and that several homes would have to be removed from the path of construction. Louisville's The Courier-Journal reported that during that meeting, Coomes suggested that the engineers consider moving the bridge into nearby open farmland, which not only would spare the existing homes but also would place the bridge closer to the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant that was slated for redevelopment. Ultimately, the transportation agencies saw merit in his suggestion and decided to relocate the bridge, sparing Utica and several of its residences.

Transportation personnel also worked with communities to protect historic resources near the proposed project site. In the early stages of the Louisville-Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges Project the planners recognized that any new construction would affect historic properties on both sides of the river. Over a 2-year period, stakeholders representing approximately 50 organizations met every 2 to 3 months to identify historic properties that might be in the path of the project and discuss how alternative bridge designs might preserve them.

New Woodrow Wilson Bridge under construction.
During construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, shown here, project managers ensure that the public knows what to expect .The ongoing outreach effort includes Web site, a phone line for progress updates, and storefront information office near the project.

"Although we followed the common routine of providing information and soliciting feedback, we went further to ensure that the process was interactive," says Charles Raymer, deputy project manager for the project. And communication was not limited to the meeting times alone; project representatives maintained regular contact with the stakeholders through correspondence and e-mail, providing direct responses to their comments and concerns.

One particularly large historic area is the Country Estates of River Road near Prospect, KY. The site encompasses approximately 283 hectares (700 acres) and includes 4 historic districts and 10 properties listed on the historic register. To minimize disturbance to these historic resources, the project team is planning to construct a tunnel beneath the site. Also, on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, the project team committed to acquiring one of the remaining limekilns that exists near the proposed construction area, ensuring preservation of an important artifact in the State's history.

The inclusive process led to a 40-page memorandum of agreement between the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT), the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC), and FHWA. The substance of the agreement reflects the collaborative relationship that the stakeholders built over the 2-year study period. "Extremely important to our extensive meetings," Raymer says, "was the inclusion of decisionmakers from INDOT, KYTC, and FHWA sitting side by side with State historic preservation officers from Indiana and Kentucky, local government officials, and representatives of several Native Indian tribes, preservation groups, and concerned citizens." The result, he adds, was a fair exchange of ideas that led to an agreement on preservation actions that all the parties fully understood.

Moving Forward

An Internet search on the subject of "public trust" shows that many people and organizations from public agencies to private businesses are working to understand the links between their actions and communication practices, and public confidence. The bottom line is this: to gain the public's trust—be trustworthy.

Transportation agencies have many opportunities to maintain trust throughout the life cycle of megaprojects and smaller projects alike by providing accurate estimates; keeping to schedules and time tables; involving constituents in the decisionmaking processes; watching over the funding as behooves financial managers; tracking project progression; and maintaining regular communication with project team members, stakeholders, and the public. Also, successful partnerships, like those highlighted here, improve public confidence by demonstrating to community members that transportation agencies do, indeed, hear their voices and attempt to accommodate their concerns whenever possible.

Transportation projects improve the Nation's safety and mobility, but they also take root in the backyards of the Nation's communities. Conveying honesty and transparency, in actions and in words, and providing credible information are critical steps. Whether acknowledging a lone voice in the crowd at a public meeting, keeping the project on schedule, or devising new tools to share information with citizens, Federal, State, and local agencies can demonstrate their willingness to be accountable for how they are spending taxpayer dollars through each phase of a megaproject to maintain public trust.


Jim Sinnette, P.E., is a highway engineer on the Major Projects Team in the FHWA Office of Program Administration. He received a B.S. in civil engineering from the University of Maryland and began his career with FHWA's Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division in Sterling, VA. Sinnette is a registered professional engineer in Virginia.

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