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In April 1999, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) initiated a project to construct a new grade-separated interchange at the intersection of Washington State Route 500 and Thurston Way, approximately one mile from Interstate 205 in the city of Vancouver. The SR 500/ Thurston Way interchange is the first design-build project in the state of Washington, and is serving as a demonstration project to evaluate the use of this contracting method.
The design-build method presented WSDOT with the dual challenge of educating the public about the new process as well as informing and involving them in the project itself. WSDOT met the first challenge by highlighting the positive aspects of using design-build, such as the expedited construction schedule to help minimize impacts to local traffic and to the businesses in the area. This approach proved to be a successful way to educate the public as well as promote the project. As for informing and involving the public, WSDOT included well-defined responsibilities and specific tasks in the design-build contract to ensure a solid public involvement program.
Public Involvement Expectations Are in the Contract
WSDOT included specific requirements in their Request for Qualifications/draft Request for Best and Final Proposals (RBAFP) to ensure that prospective design-build contractors were aware of public information and public involvement expectations on the project. The RBAFP required that the design-build contractor implement specific tasks related to the public (see sidebar), including appointing an experienced public information specialist for the duration of the contract. Key responsibilities of this specialist included working with WSDOT staff to help promote public involvement and satisfaction with the project. WSDOT's responsibilities in the public involvement effort included finalizing and issuing press releases, providing spokespersons to the media, newspaper articles, radio and television announcements, interviews, media tours, and the release of information on closures and detours to the media. WSDOT retained overall control of all public information and involvement activities. The RBAFP and the ensuing contract clearly delineated the roles of the design-build contractor and WSDOT in carrying out the public involvement tasks.
The design-build contract was awarded to a partnership of construction and design firms. As required by contract, the design-build contractor appointed a full-time staff person to implement the public relations and involvement component of the project, in close cooperation with WSDOT public relations staff.
Using All Available Tools to Keep the Public Informed
Prior to formally putting the project out to bid, the public involvement team developed an interactive website to provide updated information on the project and obtain and respond to e-mailed comments from the public. At key project milestones, the website is updated to provide the public with current information about the project. WSDOT also distributed a newsletter to households, local businesses, and neighborhood groups in the project vicinity. The newsletter outlined the project and the traffic problems targeted for solution. The newsletter provided contact and project schedule information, and invited the public to participate and stay informed on coming events by joining a mailing list for future newsletters. The newsletter also included a short paragraph on "What is Design-Build?," in which the difference between the usual design-bid-build process and the design-build method was explained.
The first public involvement event after the awarding of the contract was a 'ground-breaking' ceremony attended by state Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison, representatives of the design-builder, WSDOT staff and the public. Informational signs were erected at the limits of the project site, providing the hotline number in large type, easily visible to anyone traveling through the area. The signs also highlight the partnership between WSDOT, the design-build contractor and the City of Vancouver. The April 1, 2001 ceremony, heavily advertised in local media, gave an important boost to the public profile of the project.
Additional project newsletters, distributed as the project progressed, included information on the project construction and schedule, temporary holiday intersection configurations and road closures, upcoming open houses, how to keep informed about the project, and an invitation for comments. WSDOT also utilized brochures, flyers and post cards to provide project updates, publicize open houses, road closures and a travel lane reconfiguration. A telephone hotline was set up, and responses are returned to all callers within 24 hours.
Project open houses have been held at Westfield Shoppingtown, a regional shopping mall immediately adjacent to the project site. The mall - its ownership, management and tenants - is considered a major stakeholder in the project. Access to the mall is expected to be substantially improved by the project. Holding public involvement events at the mall has proven to be very successful, for more than 500 residents, shoppers and local business owners have attended these events. WSDOT staff used large aerial photos, CD-ROM displays and concept drawings at the open houses to illustrate the proposed improvements to the intersection, and to stimulate discussion with the public of the implications of the project. The open houses have served as forums for public comments and suggestions, all of which were recorded in a database.
In addition to the open houses during the construction phase, WSDOT has placed displays throughout Westfield Shoppingtown to provide the public with information on road closures, travel lane reconfigurations and project schedule.
The project team has met with the local agencies, the City of Vancouver, local realtors, local businesses, and a local condominium board to provide information on the project and discuss key issues such as construction phasing, noise impacts and road closures. Articles about the project have appeared in the Express, the Vancouver Business Journal, and The Columbian. According to WSDOT, the majority of the public input on the project has been positive. Comments recognize the need for an overpass at the intersection, and while the construction is causing traffic delays in the area, the public sees the long-term benefits of the project. Local businesses are pleased with the design-build approach since it allows for a compressed schedule and will only impact one holiday shopping season, versus the two holiday seasons that the more traditional design-build-bid process would impact. Business leaders have also expressed that WSDOT and the design-build contractor have shared information and met stated project phasing deadlines. This has enhanced the agency's credibility with both the businesses and neighborhoods in the project area.
Make public involvement part of the contract
WSDOT's public involvement efforts were developed from a sound foundation - the project contract itself. Requiring specific public involvement tasks in the RBAFP ensured that prospective design-build contractors were aware of WSDOT's requirements at the outset and could therefore allocate adequate resources for public involvement in their bids. An important element here is that the RBAFP and contract clearly defined the roles and expectations of both WSDOT and the design-build contractor with respect to public involvement, thus avoiding overlap and conflicts.
Involve the public as early as possible
WSDOT began its public involvement efforts before even putting the project out to bid. Newsletters and an open house served to introduce the project to the public. Once the design-build contractor was on board, a groundbreaking ceremony helped focus media attention. With design-build, early involvement can mean early attention to stakeholder issues. A direct benefit of WSDOT's efforts was the early identification - and alleviation - of a particular stakeholder concern. At the first open house, residents and business owners had expressed concern about project-generated noise. WSDOT responded by incorporating a requirement for construction of noise barriers as a 'first order of work' within the design-build contract.
Careful selection of meeting venues can boost attendance
WSDOT has held its open houses at the Westfield Shoppingtown, a mall near the project site. Allowing the public an opportunity to combine attendance with a shopping trip helped boost numbers and ensured increased public exposure. It is likely that many attendees hadn't previously planned to attend the open house, but once there at the mall, decided to stop in and see what the project was all about. Typical venues for public meetings - schools and other public buildings - do not usually allow for such 'spontaneous attendance'.
Ensuring that public concerns are reflected and incorporated into the project is a continuing challenge for WSDOT and the design-build contractor. Keeping the public informed during project construction and responding quickly to stakeholder issues plays a key role in making the project a success. Education about the design-build process is also key. Highlighting the positive aspects of the design-build method, such as the flexibility and expedited construction schedule, has been proven to be a successful way to promote the project and should continue.
Another significant challenge is the maintenance of communication and cooperation within the public involvement team as construction continues. Finally, since this is a design-build pilot project, WSDOT will need to set up mechanisms to evaluate the success of their public involvement strategy.Contact
Theresa Weil, WSDOT
Washington State Department of Transportation
PO Box 1709
Vancouver, WA 98668-1709