Case Study: Public Involvement and the Hiawatha Light Rail Transit Design-Build Project

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The Metropolitan Council and Partner Agencies


The Hiawatha Light Rail Transit (LRT) project will serve the Hiawatha Avenue corridor in Hennepin County, Minnesota, from downtown Minneapolis to the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport to the Mall of America in Bloomington. The first LRT project in the state of Minnesota, the Hiawatha LRT is the beginning of a planned network of light rail, commuter rail and busways to serve the future growth of the Twin Cities. The 11.6-mile, 17-station line will serve 24,800 daily passengers by the year 2020.

Snapshot of Hennepin County
  • Population: 1,116,200
  • Racial and Ethnic Composition:
    • Hispanic or Latino: 4%
    • White: 79%
    • African American: 9%
    • Other: 6%
Source: 2000 U.S. Census
Trains will run every 7.5 minutes during rush hour and every 10-30 minutes during non-peak periods. Ground was broken for the project on January 17, 2001. The line will be open for partial service, from downtown Minneapolis to Fort Snelling on April 3, 2004, with full service by the end of 2004.

The use of the design-build method presented the Metropolitan Council with several public involvement challenges. As their first design-build project, there was no roadmap for the Council to follow in its public involvement efforts. While the expedited project schedule led the Council to involve the public in station design prior to bringing a design-build contractor on board, this required careful management of the public's expectations about influencing the final design. Maintaining continuous public communication over a shorter timeframe was also a challenge. To meet these challenges, a multi-agency and multi-organization effort (see sidebar) was launched to develop and implement a strategic plan for public awareness and public participation activities.

What Happened

A Strategic / Action Plan Was Created to Guide Communications and Community Involvement Efforts

The Hiawatha Corridor Strategic Plan for Communications and Community Involvement and Action Plan for 1999-2000 was developed by the Hiawatha Corridor Communications Steering Committee and Land Use Committee (see sidebar) to serve the communication and information needs of the project and the community. The plan sets goals, identifies key audiences, defines agency roles and responsibilities, specifies tasks to be carried out, and sets a budget for each activity. An important component of the plan is an evaluation program wherein focus groups are employed to gauge the effectiveness of community involvement and public awareness strategies and guide future activities. Given the limited resources for public involvement, a corridor-focused grassroots effort was chosen.

Agencies and Organizations involved in Public Awareness / Involvement Effort
  • Metropolitan Council
  • Minnesota DOT
  • Metro Transit
  • Hennepin County
  • Minneapolis Community Development Agency
  • City of Bloomington
  • City of Minneapolis

A Community Advisory Committee Was Formed to Ensure Continuous Dialogue

A 40-member Community Advisory Committee (CAC) was empowered by statute and charged by a Corridor Management Committee to: 1) advise policymakers on a full range of issues with a direct community impact, 2) lead on citizen participation, and 3) recommend the structure of communications. The CAC is supported in this effort by the Hiawatha Corridor Communications Steering Committee and Land Use Committee.

The CAC is responsible for keeping community residents, transit riders, the general public and other interested parties continuously informed and involved in the project, and for facilitating two-way communication between the project and neighborhood groups. The CAC also advises the CMC on a full range of community issues such as station area land use, station design, feeder bus routings, and Impacts on residential and business communities.

The CAC influenced station locations, site plans, aesthetic design guidelines, bus connections, cost containment, public art and community involvement in station design. Committee members track community actions, attend meetings and offer input. Typical attendance at CAC meetings is about 50 persons. Since July 1998, the CAC has contributed over 7,000 hours reaching out to stakeholders, evaluating plans, raising issues and recommending action regarding how the LRT would affect livability along the line. For their contributions, the volunteers were recognized at a special ceremony by the Governor and Metropolitan Council chair who indicated that the "volunteers' leadership in participation helped shape plans for a world class rail line with public support."

Community Advisory Committee
  • Neighborhood representatives
  • Transit advocates
  • Businesses within one mile of LRT corridor
  • Convention & Visitors Bureau
  • Metropolitan Council Members (appointed by Governor)
  • Elected officials from Minneapolis and Bloomington
Corridor Management Committee
  • Elected officials from Minneapolis, Bloomington, Hennepin& Dakota Counties
  • University of Minnesota
  • Metropolitan Airports Commission
  • Metropolitan Council Chair

Outreach Techniques Were Tailored to Engage Stakeholders

The CAC conducted outreach along the Hiawatha corridor to engage, educate and inform residents about the development of LRT. They identified stakeholder groups within communities to ensure that the information was extended to all interested parties. A variety of communication and community involvement tools were tailored to best meet the needs of the particular audiences being addressed. The following information dissemination tactics were used to reach specific audiences:

  • Fact sheets posted on bus shelters
  • Newsletters mailed to community residents and businesses
  • Website postings
  • Public information flyers posted on bulletin boards in malls, local shopping centers and religious centers
  • Cable network programs
  • Advertisements in local newspapers
  • Door-to-door canvassing with foreign language interpreters

An e-mail newsletter, "E-Lert", informed those stakeholders who signed up to receive this mailing of any breaking news related to the project. The e-mail newsletter was usually sent out before project-related news appeared in the local papers. Over 350 persons signed up to receive "E-Lert"; several commented that they felt they were on the "inside track."

To reach the diverse ethnic communities along the corridor, students of the University of Minnesota, speaking languages such as Somali and Spanish, canvassed door-to-door to inform residents of the project in their native languages. These efforts won trust among community groups, who were more likely to express their opinions and provide input into the process in their native languages.

Sensitivity to environmental justice was also critical. When a Korean garden had to be moved for construction, it was relocated to a larger plot of land with better soil and irrigation. A Harvest Celebration was sponsored by the Hiawatha Project Office in partnership with the Korean Service Center and the Minneapolis High-rise Representatives Council.

The Speaker's Bureau made 196 presentations to civic groups such as Cooperative Older Adult Ministries, which represents 70 South Minneapolis churches and businesses.

The Minnesota State Fair also provided a forum for educating and informing stakeholders about the LRT. The early advertising campaign catered to younger audiences, enticing them with games, prizes and having their pictures taken next to a wooden mock-up of a light rail vehicle. In 2002, more than 100,000 fairgoers toured a full-size mock-up of the light rail vehicle. Their most common question was "How soon until the train comes to my community?" Throughout this fair, the latest news about the LRT project was announced and State and local agencies were on hand for informal discussion and questions.

A 2-minute video was used to describe the station design process and how communities could get involved. An Open House held in September 1998 also informed neighborhoods how they could become involved in the LRT design process. To encourage attendance, shuttle service was offered and refreshments were served.

Map of Hiawatha LRT Project Corridor
Hiawatha LRT Project Corridor. For a larger version see

Community Participation in Art, Design and Planning

Participation in public art, design and planning helped further local interest, build identity and allow communities to "share ownership" of the entire LRT project. The incorporation of public art and design enhances the LRT stations and reflects the unique character and needs of each community where the stations are located.

The CAC hosted a series of visioning sessions and station design workshops where neighborhood groups participated in station design. FORECAST Public Artworks conducted these "community visioning sessions," which took place in locations around each of the stations. Throughout the visioning sessions, residents offered suggestions regarding station themes, design for station components and related public art, and an overall theme for the corridor.

Following the visioning sessions, three station design workshops were held. The workshops were held in accessible, convenient locations in order to facilitate participation, e.g., local schools and recreation centers during evenings and on Saturdays.

The workshops were divided into station-specific working groups comprised of members of State and local agencies, organizations, and stakeholders from the neighborhoods adjacent to each station. Input from the visioning sessions was incorporated into the workshops, which included brainstorming sessions.

The workshops provided neighborhood residents the opportunity to give their input on the design, public art, and aesthetic features of each station, including elements such as: benches, railings, trash receptacles, finishes, light fixtures, landscaping, bicycle racks and pavement treatments.

A team of architects and artists developed their designs through this facilitated community input process. These artists encouraged community interaction, creativity and originality. The artwork will be located at each of the stations as well as the surrounding pedestrian corridors leading to the stations. Much of the art will be functional components of the station.

"The stations are like charms on an 11.6-mile bracelet. Each station is designed to fit into its surrounding neighborhood," stated Steve Durrant, consultant project manager for the Station Design Team.

Station art and design visioning questions:
  • Can you think of a theme that would be appropriate for the entire Hiawatha Corridor? Is there a common history or environmental feature?
  • Is there a neighborhood symbol that you identify with?
  • What's especially unique to this neighborhood?
  • If a stranger was passing through on the train, what would you want that person to know about your neighborhood?
  • What would make that person curious enough to get off the train to learn more about your neighborhood?
  • How could station components be designed to fit with these themes?
Source: FORECAST Public Artworks

The City of Minneapolis Planning Department and the Hennepin County Department of Transit and Community Works jointly engaged the community in developing station area master plans around five of the stations in the city. The purpose of the plans is to guide changes that build upon neighborhood strengths, capitalize on opportunities brought about by LRT development, and provide a common vision for each station area. The master plans focus on land uses, urban design, public infrastructure, and amenities located within a 1/2-mile of each station.

Steering committees, comprised of residents, representatives of neighborhood organizations, business groups and community institutions, provided direction and input to the planning effort. Staff from city and county agencies and the Metropolitan Council provided technical support. Each master plan is facilitated and prepared by a professional consultant team. Workshops, visioning sessions and newsletters are among the tools used in the development of the station area master plans. As plans progress and are finalized, information and documents are posted to a central website.

The nature of the design-build process has helped facilitate increased participation, for even though construction has already started, ongoing design activities have given residents an opportunity to 'get involved'.

Funding for Neighborhood Groups

Neighborhood Communications Support Grants enabled neighborhood groups to invest in communications to build public awareness, involvement and support for the LRT. These funds allow each neighborhood to be responsive to its own issues. An annual sum of $2,000 was allocated to each of the ten neighborhood groups along the corridor. Eligible expenditures are limited to production, printing and distribution costs of preapproved LRT materials, meeting notices and surveys to help recruit participation in workshops. Also, the funds may be used towards advertising and room rentals.

Feedback Is Obtained From Stakeholders on a Continuous Basis

Satisfaction with the community involvement process is evaluated twice per year via surveys and focus groups consisting of neighborhood residents. The objective of these focus groups is to assess the effectiveness of the community involvement and public awareness strategies, determine future activities, and identify how public agencies can help neighborhoods encourage citizen participation.

The focus groups revealed that most neighborhood groups were satisfied with the overall community involvement process, however, there was a general concern that some community input was not influencing decisions. In response to the focus groups, staff realized the need to document public input and report back to the community on how their input was incorporated into the plans, as well as explain why some suggestions were not used.

Sample Focus Group Questions
  1. How has your neighborhood been involved in the LRT planning process?
  2. What has your organization done to augment the communications efforts of public agencies?
  3. How many of your residents have been involved?
  4. What can the Hiawatha Corridor Communications Team do to make your neighborhood's future involvement in the LRT planning process worthwhile?
  5. How can public agencies be more responsive to the community's concerns?
  6. What involvement opportunities are most likely to attract your residents?
  7. What communication tools have you found to most effectively deliver the message(s)?
Source: Metropolitan Council

Lessons Learned

Plan for Public Involvement

Given the compressed schedule of the design-build process, as well as the number of funding partners and agencies involved with the Hiawatha LRT, the strategic and action plan for communications and community involvement has been an asset to the project. Having clearly-defined goals, strategies and responsibilities has enabled the agencies to deliver a community involvement program within the set budget, and achieve high levels of project recognition across the region as well as overall approval of the program by residents.

Diversify Your Efforts to Extend Your Reach

As the agencies endeavored to reach all stakeholders potentially affected by the LRT, and sought their participation in design and planning activities, a wide variety of techniques was employed to ensure the broadest coverage. Beyond the advisory committees, newsletters and workshops, the agencies used techniques such as a project website, e-mail bulletins, and project 'appearances' at events like the State Fair to reach the community. A particularly innovative technique - 'community walkthroughs' conducted in the residents' native languages - targeted the diverse ethnic groups in the corridor, allowing them to have a voice and provide input to the process.

Empower Neighborhoods

Funding neighborhood groups along the Hiawatha Corridor gave the groups flexibility in determining how to effectively reach out to their constituents, thus empowering them to respond to their own unique issues. This freedom to choose ultimately increased attendance at meetings and increased participation in the design of the stations. Moreover, the most 'local' element of the LRT system - its stations - provided an opportunity to bring planning and design to the people. The integration of public art, design and aesthetics into each of the LRT stations, as well as the development of station area master plans - directly influenced by consistent community involvement and input - created a sense of identity and a feeling of public ownership.

Encourage and Document Feedback

The use of focus groups (consisting of neighborhood residents) provided the opportunity to receive feedback related to the community involvement program. To facilitate participation, the agencies provided a timeline for decision-making and community involvement opportunities. With new people continually engaging in the process, it was critical to identify decisions that could be influenced and others that had already been made. The agencies learned that documenting public input and reporting back to the community on the implementation of residents' suggestions is a must. This gave residents the assurance that their input was seriously considered, they were part of the decision-making process and their voices were heard.

Use Station Area Planning to Build Support

Light rail brings changes to neighborhoods. By engaging residents and businesses in shaping future development by choice rather than chance, neighbors were empowered to ensure that changes would be positive. Station area planning also showed people how their transit system would work and fit into the surrounding environment. Agencies learned that station area planning should be completed early to avoid costly change orders from the design-build contractor.

Prepare the community for construction

Monthly construction update meetings were essential to prepare residents and businesses in areas where construction was about to begin. Community members learned about actions they could take to minimize disruption and they appreciated a regular forum to get their questions answered. These meetings also provided an opportunity to showcase the benefits of light rail at a time when people needed a reminder of why they were inconvenienced. Meetings were successfully hosted and facilitated by community leaders who support the light rail project.

Challenges Ahead

The planning, design and construction of the Hiawatha LRT is a multi-agency effort. An immediate challenge is to sustain the spirit of teamwork necessary to see the community involvement program through the construction phase of the project. Staying within the parameters of the established plan, budget and schedule will also be a challenge due to staff turnover, fiscal conditions and other project commitments. Another challenge for the agencies involved in the Hiawatha LRT is applying the lessons learned from this project, involving multiple agencies, to those projects 'closer to home.'

Sustaining the community's goodwill is a challenge during the inconveniences of construction. To meet this challenge, the CAC has been hosting monthly construction update meetings in each neighborhood to prepare them for construction, provide a forum to get their questions answered, and to showcase neighbors who support the LRT. In addition, the station area master planning process continues at several locations, and the city and county will capitalize on these opportunities as a means of keeping the public's attention and engaging those persons not previously involved.

Jennifer Lovaasen, Outreach Coordinator
Metropolitan Council
230 East 5th Street
St. Paul, MN 55101
Phone 651-602-1493