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January 1999

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Getting the Message Out: Transportation Symposium Features Strategies for Successful Communications

How do you prepare the public for a 2-year, 8-mile major highway reconstruction project? What's a winning strategy for attracting more riders to a public transit system? And how can you explain the often complex technical subjects of the transportation industry in an easily understandable manner? Participants at "Getting Our Message Out: Elevating Public Awareness of Transportation Issues," a symposium held December 3-4, 1998, in Alexandria, Virginia, heard answers to these questions and more. The emphasis throughout the 2-day event was on finding ways to be more proactive in communicating with the public, rather than just responding when transportation is interrupted by construction projects, accidents, or natural disasters.

The event drew more than 300 participants with a range of backgrounds, including public outreach/community relations staff, public affairs professionals, State and local transportation decision makers, and persons responsible for technology transfer. Participants also represented all sectors of transportation, including highways, rail lines, transit services, air travel, and the cruise industry.

Symposium sessions covered such topics as building transportation's image, increasing public involvement in transportation projects, working with the news media, and introducing the public to new technologies. Among the highlights was a look at award-winning transit campaigns that are successfully educating the public about the positive contributions of transportation organizations. Examples include the Long Beach (CA) Transit image campaign, which promoted its theme of "Working harder, making things easier," through ads on cable television, in local newspapers, and on billboards.

Other highlights included case studies of highway agencies that are leading the way in planning rehabilitation projects that put as high a priority on public education as they do on pavement mix design, resulting in fewer delays for motorists and more satisfied communities. These projects include Pennsylvania's 22-Renew program, which involves the reconstruction of an 8-mile section of State Route 22 through the Lehigh Valley, a four-lane expressway that carries an average daily traffic of 85,000 vehicles. To keep drivers informed and the project running more smoothly, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (DOT) developed a comprehensive public education program, which included distributing a motorists' guide and a "survival guide" highlighting suggested alternate routes during construction. The DOT also developed a Web site (www.22renew.com) listing information on construction progress and traffic conditions that is updated hourly during the business day. "We wanted to make sure that every single person in the Lehigh Valley was reached by this campaign," said Tricia Charlesworth, Pennsylvania DOT's community relations coordinator for the project.

Improving communications with the public means not only publicizing transit services and big transportation projects, but also helping the public understand new technologies that will change the way they travel. Such change "can end up making people's lives better," said Frank Wilson of Frank Wilson & Associates, but it is alien and often unsettling in the beginning. In a session on technology deployment, Wilson described his work in introducing drivers to the 91 Express Lanes in California. Motorists in the express lanes, which opened in 1995, are charged a toll that varies depending on the time of day and traffic volumes. To enter the express lanes, motorists must have a transponder, which electronically tracks the time of entry and exit to calculate the toll. "Car pool lanes require us to change our behavior and do something differently. [Transponders require] an even bigger leap," said Wilson. Although drivers were skeptical at first, more than 125,000 transponders are now in use. Because there are no toll booths to jam up traffic, drivers enjoy faster commutes and more predictable travel times.

Whether discussing ways to make new technologies more user-friendly or the best approaches to incorporating public opinion into transportation decisions, conference hosts and participants recognized that no matter how good the research is or how important the project, it is all for nothing if the information cannot be communicated to the traveling public. "If you can't communicate the results," said conference speaker David Bolger of the U.S. Telephone Association, "you might as well throw it all away. You're throwing your money away."

A short video summarizing practical tips for improving public communications was distributed to all conference participants. To obtain a copy, contact Deborah Vocke at Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), 202-366-4855 (fax: 202-366-7909; email: deborah.vocke@fhwa.dot.gov).

Conference sponsors included the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, American Public Transit Association, National Association of County Engineers, and FHWA, among others.

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