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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 62· No. 2 > Building a Bridge to the Public: The Alaska Experience

September/October 1998
Vol. 62· No. 2

Building a Bridge to the Public: The Alaska Experience

by Marti Dilley and Thomas J. Gallagher

The public is demanding the achievement of multiple and often conflicting goals, while at the same time having less faith in the ability of institutions to achieve them. In an era of increasing needs and limited resources to meet those needs, the public is holding transportation professionals more accountable for their actions. The degree of success or failure of these actions will determine the future level of public confidence in the profession. The transportation profession needs to translate this public concern into an understanding of the specific issues and programs on the transportation agenda. - Walter H. Kraft, ITE Journal, October 1992

Communication between transportation departments and the public is no longer an option - the public demands it and legislation requires it. The need goes far beyond traditional public relations to a "dialogue bridge" - two-way communication - between those of us who plan and design and those who use the transportation system we build and maintain.

In Alaska, we in the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (ADOT) engaged the public in designing the dialogue bridge, also known as the public involvement procedure (PIP). Then, we used the PIP the public helped design to engage them in writing both the statewide transportation plan, which sets policy, and the state transportation improvement program, which selects projects.

In this article, we first review the background of public involvement in Alaska; then describe how we engaged the public in developing the PIP; followed by how the process worked in developing the statewide transportation plan; and finally, we offer some insights about our experience.

Background on Public Involvement

Historically, we at ADOT have known that our relationship with the public is important. Too often, however, we thought the way to develop a good relationship with the public was through a limited view of "public relations," which often amounted to telling the public what a good job we did for them. At best, it made the department appear self-absorbed; at worst, it encouraged public cynicism about how we were spending precious transportation dollars, undermining public support.

We recognized that ADOT had depended, like many other state transportation departments in the nation, more on a one-way flow of information from us to the public than on a two-way flow, which is the central characteristic of effective communication and the foundation of true public involvement. As a result of this early strategy, the department had garnered several major critics and a good deal of public criticism about our ability to listen. We recognized that we needed to truly communicate with the public by encouraging and developing public involvement.

Public involvement engages the public in the decision-making process. It goes beyond "public information" which strives "to educate them so they think like we do" and far beyond an invitation to comment on a pro forma draft plan that the public had no voice in developing.

Public involvement has emerged incrementally over the past four decades as obligatory for public agencies. Beginning with legislation in the 1950s, Congress has added the requirement for citizen participation to controversial bills which extended federal programs. Most notable, of course, was the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, which began influencing transportation planning directly. In 1976, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) published its two-volume guidebook, Effective Citizen Participation in Transportation Planning. Although federal transportation projects have required Environmental Impact Statement-based participation for several decades, the requirement for involvement in state policy-making arrived in earnest with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991.

ISTEA is often associated with shifting the focus of transportation policy from system expansion to system management. Part of this shift includes greater emphasis on how the public is involved in management decisions. Federal regulation 23 CFR 450.212, implementing the planning provisions of ISTEA, reads: "Public involvement processes shall be proactive and provide complete information, timely public notice, full public access to key decisions, and opportunities for early and continuing involvement." Before, the focus was on "getting things built," and public concerns were peripheral. Now, the focus is on making the system work and getting the public involved in the decision-making process of managers.

In a joint memorandum of FHWA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), dated December 1994, titled "Interim Policy on Public Involvement," these agencies stated their commitment to public participation. Based on these policy initiatives, we derived a list of six participation objectives. They are to:

  • Promote an early role for the public.
  • Promote a shared role for the public and decision-makers in defining goals.
  • Engage the public in the public involvement procedure itself.
  • Identify and involve those traditionally underserved.
  • Use a combination of involvement techniques to meet the diverse needs of the public.
  • Provide explicit consideration and response to public input.

In 1994, the two agencies co-published Innovations in Public Involvement for Transportation Planning, updating the FHWA's 1976 guide to emphasize early and proactive objectives. In 1996, this publication was superseded by Public Involvement Techniques for Transportation Decision-Making, also co-published by FHWA and FTA. The report, currently available on the FHWA Internet site (www.fhwa.dot.gov), emphasizes giving the public a real voice in transportation decision-making and describes about 100 techniques and their applications.

Applying the Objectives in Alaska

We found the shift to a public involvement program confounded by three points of discussion.

First, to what extent does public involvement replace the existing decision-making process? ADOT, like most transportation agencies, is operated as part of the executive branch of government, guided by statute, responsible to an appointed official, influenced by an elected legislature, constrained by the courts, and held accountable by federal agencies for disciplined use of public transportation funds. Clearly, public involvement is not meant to supplant our representative form of government and the existing statutes and institutions. We knew that public involvement could not be a means for those who lost the last election to dominate the discussion or for those without responsibility to take authority.

Second, we knew that transportation planning is complex and technical - that transportation planners are highly trained within their fields to execute processes and calculations that are beyond the understanding of most citizens. We knew that transportation professionals need to be engaged in the process in a way that provides them with a means to both share what they know and to learn what others think. We also knew that there are "smart publics" (including professionals outside the agency) who have sufficient expertise to challenge the department's decisions. In sum, we knew that public involvement needs to be a means to build a communication bridge between staff and citizens and not a way for the citizens to replace professionals in making decisions.

Third, public concerns are often about project-level decisions, but this PIP development procedure was about planning-level decisions. To what extent were we going to address project-specific issues? In the process, we referred project-specific comments to the Design and Engineering Services Division, where responsibility for project-level public involvement lies.

What then is our public involvement program to be about? Public involvement is to be a means to engage the public early and continuously in the planning-level decision process, but the final decision is left to the ADOT commissioner. To be "involved" means the public is encouraged and provided with methods to share with department professionals the standard planning tasks: the identification of the problem (issues and concerns), the collection of information that relates to the problem, and the development and evaluation of alternative ways to solve the problem. This provides a way for the public to share how it defines the problem, to express those values it thinks are at stake as a result of department decisions, and to propose information and alternatives that might be used by the department to develop a better decision.

Public Involvement Program (PIP).

Support for our effort to involve the public in this new way began with the election of Gov. Tony Knowles and Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer in 1994. Their "Transportation Policy Transition Team Report" set a clear goal to "improve public participation in the planning process." From this report came the momentum to prepare an interim state transportation plan, called Vision: 2020, which was completed in March 1995. In the cover letter of this plan, the ADOT commissioner stated his policy to improve public involvement in ADOT decisions and gave the department the charge to make it happen.

Support for greater public involvement also came from the public, particularly from interest groups. The Alaska Citizens Transportation Coalition, in particular, focused public attention on the ISTEA objectives and the need for ADOT to move toward achieving them. With this support, in early 1996, we initiated a process to revise the existing PIP.

Only 20 percent of Alaska's roadways are paved.

Before we revised the PIP, our first step in the statewide planning office was to reach out to ADOT's regions and divisions to form a planning team of 12 professionals with diverse experience, representing all transportation modes. This group was invaluable in providing information, alternatives, and a reality check. They also provided a way for us to communicate to the rest of the institution. This team met periodically, performed much of the technical analysis, and provided guidance and information throughout the rest of the process.

Developing the PIP

To develop a PIP, we needed a "pip" (something remarkable) - a way to engage the uninvolved public in helping to decide how they wanted to be involved. The pip needed to be effective, so we based our process to a large degree on recommendations of the 1996 FHWA/FTA publication and on concepts advocated by the Institute for Participatory Management and Planning in Monterey, Calif. Directors Hans and Annemarie Bleiker had recently provided training for ADOT professionals in participation strategies. The Bleiker strategy of public involvement includes a high level of communication and candor and is fully consistent with such FHWA/FTA guidelines as an early role for the public, involving those traditionally underserved, using a combination of techniques, and providing explicit consideration and response to public input.

We used a combination of these strategies to get the word out to the public and to interest groups about this opportunity to help us draft a new PIP. We used the traditional display advertisements in newspapers, press releases, radio public service announcements, and a mailed brochure. But we also adapted our announcement to the Alaska situation by drawing eye-catching posters to be displayed in post offices in more than 200 remote native villages. And, in addition to the standard public meetings held in regional centers, we added a statewide televised call-in program to provide a way for the state's widely dispersed rural communities to get involved. The program was broadcast by satellite to communities throughout the state from the University of Alaska, using an existing educational network. A call-in line provided the opportunity for the ADOT planning director and key staff to answer questions on the air.

In July 1996, we released the first of five project newsletters. These provided a means to inform the public about the process and ADOT activities and, through an enclosed survey, to ask for ideas on how we could involve them. We felt the newsletters were essential to create the level of dialogue needed to build trust and productive participation.

The public and the interest groups may have been uncertain at first about the intent of this early, proactive invitation to help create the PIP. Some comments indicated pleasant surprise about the department's new accessibility; others took a wait-and-see attitude. The first newsletter, sent to a list of some 2,300 groups and individuals who indicated an interest in the process, included a variety of information about the PIP purpose and schedule, a set of ADOT goals for the PIP, ISTEA guidelines for participation, and an explanation about how we were experimenting with the call-in line and the newsletter to see if they should become part of the PIP.

The newsletter generated public comments from all parts of the state - urban and rural. The comments offered a great deal of support for the call-in and newsletter methods, but to our surprise, they also strongly supported continuation of the traditional, oft-criticized public meetings. Proponents of meetings felt it was important to continue to have meetings so that they could hear others speak on an issue. Some suggestions offered by the public, such as developing an Internet site for display of materials and establishing a toll-free phone line (1-888-PLAN-DOT), were implemented immediately. With nearly 700 comments from 330 citizens and groups, we prepared a draft PIP for public review.

A major proposal in our draft PIP was to engage the public more directly in transportation planning through two committees - one large and one small. The large committee, which we called the Public Review Group (PRG), was to be self-selected so anyone could join. All you had to do was say you wanted to receive all available information and to provide comments at several points throughout the process. The small group, which we called the Policy Advisory Committee (PAC), consisted of 24 members appointed by the ADOT commissioner. The members represented key transportation issues and interests, such as freight movement, resource development, tourism, modal interests, local communities, native (Eskimo, Indian, Aleut) organizations, and interested citizens.

We established major objectives for the PIP and listed them in the draft for public review. They were:

  • Early and diverse methods to announce an impending plan or update.
  • Early public meetings in regional centers complemented by a method, such as the call-in program, to engage rural communities in the discussion.
  • Use of a newsletter to provide information to and gain information from the public.
  • Use of a "comments and responses" element in the newsletter to demonstrate how ADOT was using the comments.
  • Use of two committees - PRG and PAC - to help the department develop the plan.
  • Use of a variety of means to contact the department, including toll-free phone and fax, e-mail, and an Internet site.

PIP development timeline.

In the draft PIP, we also included themes raised by the public comments. In these themes, we attempted to capture the perspectives and often the exact words of citizens - both positive and critical. For each of the themes, we wrote a brief discussion about how the department intended to respond. By using the ideas and words of citizens and responding to their concerns, we began the process of demonstrating that we were listening and that their participation mattered.

We also assembled all public comments in an appendix that was available on request. This compendium provided a record of the diverse perspectives on transportation offered by citizens and on the difficulty that the department faced in creating a system all would applaud.

The release of the draft PIP in September 1996 initiated a 45-day review period. The length of the review period was increased from our standard 30 days in response to public comments about the difficulty of developing an interest group response in only four weeks.

The second project newsletter in September announced the release of the draft PIP. Here, we included examples of the comments we received followed by a discussion of how we considered and responded to them. In this second newsletter, we announced that when the final PIP was signed by the commissioner and distributed for review, we were going to use it to update the statewide transportation plan and the state transportation improvement program. We also announced the formation of PAC to guide the updates.

Putting the PIP Into Practice

With approval of the final PIP in late October, we used our PIP-defined methods - project newsletter, newspaper advertisements, public service announcements, and post office posters - to announce our intent to update Vision: 2020. We also used this announcement to invite citizens and interest groups to join PRG, which would participate in updating the plan. Responses to this announcement swelled the membership of PRG to more than 500.

Map showing communities that responded to PIP.

The first step in developing the updated plan - before the department did any planning work - was to engage PAC to identify concerns and issues and to shape them into preliminary policy statements we called "policy themes." At a facilitated, day-long workshop, PAC members formulated 23 themes that they felt addressed the wide variety of transportation issues in Alaska. We then submitted the themes, via a December newsletter, to the 500-plus PRG members for their review. This third newsletter also contained a brief questionnaire to help citizens review the policy themes. The questions were straightforward: Which of the themes do you like? Which themes need to be added or changed?

The themes provided PRG members with "a straw dog" - something to support or criticize. Again comments came in from around the state. We organized these comments by theme; then we brought PAC together for a second workshop. Using the PRG comments as a source of ideas, PAC prepared a set of what we now called "draft policies."

In March 1997, we made these proposed policies the core of a statewide "Call for Ideas." The "call" was, in effect, a predraft plan offering PAC's draft policies for review. The call provided a range of informational materials, and it also included citizen comments so people could see what others were saying. By providing a list of public comments organized around the proposed policies, citizens could see their comments in writing as well as see what others were saying. Again, we believe that seeing the diversity of comments with which the department must deal has an eye-opening effect on citizens. We advertised the call widely, using the PIP methods, and encouraged all citizens to request a copy, join PRG, or just send us comments.

Informational material included in the Call for Ideas showed that the professional staff of the department was doing the necessary technical analysis to produce a credible plan. Elements included a description of Alaska's transportation system, economic and demographic projections and their implications, planning considerations (the 23 ISTEA planning factors), and a transportation investment (funding) analysis.

Dogsleds, snomobiles, floatplanes and ferries are used by as much as 30 percent of the population.

In addition to the announcement, the call was supported and complemented by other PIP techniques, including regional public meetings and a statewide radio call-in advertised widely and broadcast over the public radio network. Following our earlier televised broadcast, we made the conscious decision to try a radio broadcast because radio is a popular medium for our target audience, rural Alaskans. We received more than 120 comments during the public meetings. A total of 44 persons from all areas of the state responded during the call-in program.

The call produced uncommonly useful public comments. We think the comments were more useful because the public had the draft PAC policies to review and they had the supportive information that provided context. Some comments were particularly insightful. For example, a citizen suggested establishing a policy to make repair of existing facilities a high priority rather than repairing specific roads on demand. Indeed, many citizens stated they wanted existing roads repaired before any new construction.

We think this strategy of providing draft policies and contextual information early in the process is very appropriate. The policy level of planning is not easy for the public to understand, and it is appropriate to use PAC to provide something to critique, rather than asking the public broadly, "What do you want?" These early policies, however, should not come from the department, but from the citizens themselves if the process is to be proactive.

The call also contained a brief survey, which we also distributed at public meetings and on our Internet site. More than 100 surveys were returned. All the comments were then sorted into topical groups by interns from the University of Alaska working with department staff. The comments, as noted, were particularly useful, providing support for some policies while offering instructive criticism and suggesting expansion or revision of others.

We developed responses to the public comments and used them as part of our fourth newsletter, distributed in June 1997. This newsletter also contained a new, revised mission statement for ADOT. The mission statement, which was written by the commissioner, included a strong statement on public involvement. The purpose of this newsletter was to continue to demonstrate that ADOT was indeed listening, analyzing, and responding to their comments. The newsletter also provided an update on how we were moving from the call for ideas to the draft and final plans.

As the 45-day comment period for the call came to a close, we assembled PAC's draft policies and the public comments on policy - more than 1,000 - and drafted the department's first set of policies. These draft policies were, of course, based on and very similar to those prepared by PAC. With these policies completed, we assembled the draft update to Vision: 2020. To promote a sense of consistency, this draft plan included the same sections as the "Call for Ideas," but the sections were expanded in content and edited to reflect the department's response to public comments. Where feasible, we again used ideas and words from public comments directly in the policy statements and other sections. We made the public comments and our responses section easy to read and visually strong by using parallel columns.

An additional section that was not in the call but was in the draft concerned objectives. Working intensively with the ADOT planning team, we hammered out in-house, specific objectives to implement the policies. These objectives sometimes came from current departmental practices, but many were from the various technical analyses done by the staff or from public suggestions. By adding objectives, we gave the policies more concrete meaning and provided even more substance for public comment.

We plan to distribute the draft revised Vision: 2020 in the summer of 1998, along with the fifth newsletter, which announces the release of the plan. Following a 45-day review period, the department will consider and respond to comments and will issue its final revised Vision: 2020, including responses to comments made to the draft.

We also used the new PIP to develop the state transportation improvement program for 1998-2000.

Outcomes and Insights

Perhaps the most important outcome of the new PIP is that ADOT has a new working relationship with the public and interest groups. The department now has a group of more than 650 citizens in PRG who are more fluent in transportation matters and policy and are available to support - and challenge - department initiatives. These citizens are from literally all over the state.

It is important to ADOT that we were able to engage rural, mostly native Alaskans in the process. We received comments from residents in 96 Alaskan communities, including such remote villages as Kaktovik (population 224), Kobuk (69), Stony River (51), and Ugashik (5). We owe this success, in part, to the mix of methods: the posters in village gathering places and the televised and radio call-ins that recognized the broad dependence on these modes of communication in the village community. We held public meetings in regional rural centers such as Bethel (population 4,674), Barrow (3,469), and Kotzebue (2,751). This new relationship with rural Alaskans is vital to the welfare of these remote areas and to ADOT.

The new relationship extends in three directions from the planning office that oversaw development of the PIP and the updated Vision: 2020. First, it extends to the department's three regional offices, which often have faced the brunt of negative public criticism. As participants on the planning team for this effort, each regional office staff now has worked with more citizens and groups in their region, and the PIP process eliminates many historic complaints about lack of participation.

Second, it extends public concerns beyond planning into project-level decisions. Although there is public involvement in projects through the environmental review process in Alaska, many comments received during the Vision: 2020 updating indicate the public wants more participation in the design and construction phases of projects. The Statewide Planning Division has passed these public comments along to the Design and Engineering Services (D&ES) Division. As the two divisions work together to improve public involvement throughout the process, we have every expectation that positive change will occur. One recent change is that D&ES is posting more project development information on the department's Web site.

Third, the new relationship extends into the commissioner's office. The commissioner reports that the PIP has changed the content of incoming phone calls. Now, almost no callers say, "You didn't tell us!" and fewer calls centered on policy issues. The PIP has apparently provided the information and involvement that the public demands. However, the commissioner reports that he still gets calls about specific potholes that need attention.

Although the program has not been systematically assessed, the PIP has helped ADOT to develop a new relationship with Alaskan citizens. One member of PAC, the planning director of a western Alaska borough of small native villages with no road access, indicated that he had found working on PAC worthwhile. For him, it provided a forum to voice his area's unique concerns, and he also learned from others during the meetings. He particularly found it valuable to better understand the statewide transportation planning process and how other boroughs prioritized their transportation projects.

Another example of the public's positive response to the PIP comes from a long-time critic, the Alaska Citizens Transportation Coalition. The director of the coalition called the process of revising the PIP and updating the statewide plan "a sincere effort in reaching out to the public." She was particularly pleased that PRG was open to all, that the department provided electronic access and a toll-free phone line to receive public comments, and that PAC members represented a good cross section of people with knowledge about and concern for transportation in Alaska. In sum, she felt that the department delivered what it promised and that it met public expectations.

If the positive public response can be sustained, and developed further, it may have important implications for transportation in the state. One of the big concerns in Alaska is adequate funding of maintenance and operations. Alaska, like most states, lacks adequate state funding for maintenance and operations. Lack of public support for the department has no doubt harmed state transportation maintenance funding, which is appropriated by the state legislature. The amount of state funding for maintenance is currently about the same as 10 years ago, and even then it fell far below the recognized need.

The PIP process appears to have garnered new support for transportation in general. Avowed critics have become at least tentative supporters, and the average citizen has become more involved and informed. There appears to be a new awareness - even among special interest groups - that a balanced system is needed if transportation in general is to be funded adequately. The success of PAC meetings, where representatives of diverse perspectives worked together to draft state policy, suggests that there is common ground if the process can move people out of the divisive, posture-at-public-meetings mode.

The success of the process depends, in part, on its cost. The department considers the cost of the new PIP "moderate" - a good investment given the outcome. The monetary cost of the public meetings, call-in programs, newsletters, mailings, and responses to comments was not measurably higher than previous, less participatory processes.

The department distributed about 2,000 of each edition of the newsletter at a printing cost of $1,800 and a mailing cost of $800, including postage-paid return surveys. The televised call-in that was broadcast over satellite through a subsidized educational network cost about $4,000. The radio call-in over public broadcasting cost about $2,700.

We made a concerted effort to keep costs low by engaging department professionals - the planning team - in much of the technical analyses and by developing a cooperative agreement with the University of Alaska to engage student interns. Interns were largely responsible for development of the five newsletters and the Internet site and for the analysis of the public comments.

Conclusion

Public involvement in transportation planning is not easy. Yet, public concerns are a very real component of the planning process. To ignore the issues and concerns of the public is to ignore part of the problem; to ignore the public's comments and suggestions is to dismiss the public's very real history and experience with transportation. By not providing the opportunity for the public to be involved in the decision-making process, the department risks losing contact with its customers and political constituency. Without public involvement, the department at best appears paternalistic and at worst appears "out of control." In either case, in a world of limited funds, failure to provide real public involvement may well mean loss of public support.

The change for ADOT has been profound in many ways. Since the early days of statehood, we have been busy building. We were - as Robert Moses said of his public works department in New York City more than a century ago - "getting stuff built." We have had a public involvement program in the past, but now we engage the public in a decision-making process that they designed. It works!

Getting the public involved early and proactively - and keeping them involved - provides the basis for a new relationship that involves trust. This sort of public involvement requires that the department share its experience and knowledge clearly, that it magnanimously give credit to the public for good ideas, and that it candidly and carefully explain why some ideas aren't used. For transportation professionals, it is a chance to teach and a chance to learn. It is a chance to reach collaborative decisions in which transportation professionals and the public work together to create something better than either of them could produce alone.

ISTEA ushered in a new era, shifting the mission from building the interstate to managing the system. It also shifted transportation irrevocably toward public involvement as an expectation of both the public and the state highway agency. We have built a bridge from the department to the public, and with regular maintenance, this bridge will continue to provide the link to ensure positive and productive public involvement.

Dr. Marti Dilley is project manager for the Statewide Transportation Plan, Vision: 2020, in the Division of Statewide Planning, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. She also coordinates the Public Involvement Procedure for planning-level activities for the department. She previously coordinated the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program. Dilley has made presentations on Alaska DOT's public involvement program at regional and statewide transportation conferences. She received her doctorate in sociology from the University of Missouri in 1971.

Dr. Thomas J. Gallagher is director of program development at the Western Rural Development Center at Oregon State University. He previously was with the University of Alaska where he provided consultation to agencies in the area of public involvement. He is the author of several papers on public involvement in agency decisions, focusing in particular on cross-cultural aspects of public involvement. Gallagher received his doctorate in natural resource management from the University of Michigan in 1977.

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