Summary of the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration’s Transportation Planning Information Exchange Webinar – Online Public Involvement Tools for Transportation Agencies: Rationale, Best Practices, and Case Studies

May 7, 2015
1:00 - 2:30 PM (ET)

These notes provide a summary of the webinar’s presentations and the question-and-answer session that followed the presentations. Copies of the speakers’ presentations are available for download in the webinar recording or from the contacts listed below.

A complete audio recording of the webinar is available at:




Contact Information

Jody McCullough

Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
Office of Planning

(202) 366-5001

Dave Biggs


(604) 317-6200

Lynn E. Merenda

Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization for Transportation

(813) 273-3774

Jessica Clark

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

(717) 787-6284

Leanne M. Doran

McCormick Taylor, Inc.

(412) 922-6880


Approximately 160 participants attended the webinar.

Introduction to the Webinar

Rae Keasler
Transportation Specialist, FHWA Office of Planning

James Garland
Team Leader, Planning Capacity Building Team, FHWA Office of Planning

Dwayne Weeks
Director, FTA Office of Planning Methods

Jody McCullough
Community Planner, FHWA Office of Planning

Ms. Keasler welcomed participants to the webinar, part of the FHWA-FTA Transportation Planning Information Exchange webinar series. The FHWA Office of Planning, in partnership with FTA, organized this webinar. Mr. Garland and Mr. Weeks provided opening remarks, with Ms. McCullough introducing the webinar presenters and moderating the discussions.

The purpose of this webinar was to introduce the benefits of online public involvement for transportation agencies. Using insights from agency and industry presenters, the webinar focused on exploring the taxonomy of online public involvement tools and providing case studies demonstrating planning situations in which each tool can be used.

Overview of Online Public Involvement Tools

Mr. Weeks provided an introduction on the benefits of online public involvement tools for transportation agencies and its connections to recent Federal legislation.

Developing transportation plans and projects often relies on feedback from stakeholders, and increasingly, transportation agencies are using innovative technologies to enhance the public involvement process. While there are many ways to solicit stakeholder input, online public involvement tools are particularly useful in reaching a broad audience.

The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), along with other recent Federal initiatives, includes a focus on performance-based planning and programming. Transportation agencies are collecting performance data, selecting performance targets, and working together to identify regional priorities. The Federal Every Day Counts 3 (EDC3) effort aims to coordinate regional planning activities across metropolitan transportation organization (MPO) and State boundaries, sharing data to conduct joint processes across multiple jurisdictions. The Ladders of Opportunity initiative works to identify and resolve gaps, such as connections in the transportation network or knowledge about the transportation planning process, to provide more opportunities for low-income and minority populations. As transportation agencies seek to collect performance data to meet MAP-21 performance-based planning requirements, tools such as online crowdsourcing and surveys can enable agencies to secure input from a wide variety of people in a cost-effective way. Agencies are finding value in using online tools to reach a larger and more diverse portion of the population and address current challenges in transportation planning.

Online Public Involvement Tools for Transportation Agencies:
Rationale, Best Practices, and ROI

Dave Biggs
Chief Engagement Officer, MetroQuest

Mr. Biggs introduced the purpose for online public involvement tools as well as several different types of tools available to transportation agencies during the planning process.

He first acknowledged that many agencies often find it challenging to engage a representative cross-section of the community through public meetings, as often only a few citizens attend—or, when many citizens attend, they are often upset and/or represent a single demographic. To combat this problem and create a more successful public involvement process, Mr. Biggs suggested that transportation agencies address the following needs:

  • Engage more people: Increase the quantity and diversity of participants through cost-effective methods.
  • Gain insight: Secure quality insight that is also quantifiable, so agencies do not have to sort through thousands of comments one-by-one.
  • Build support: Increase community support for plans through early coordination and outreach.

Mr. Biggs explained that meeting these needs requires understanding the target audience. While community members who greatly dislike or support a particular plan may take the time and effort to attend a public meeting, securing input from the more neutral majority requires lowering the barrier to participation. Online public involvement tools help minimize this barrier and enable the greatest number of community members to participate.

Mr. Biggs then told webinar participants that agencies typically have seven seconds to secure community members’ attention. Therefore, the images and headlines advertising the public involvement campaign must be clever enough to cause passerby to stop, figure out what the campaign is about, and become invested enough to participate and/or spread the word. Mr. Biggs showed examples from the Nashville Area MPO, which, to great success, showed pictures of children and the line, “It’s time to pick,” to encourage citizens to provide input on future transportation scenarios for the city. The Atlanta Regional Commission also engaged 5,000 people using the catchphrase, “What do YOU think,” for their public involvement process.

After securing the public’s attention, agencies have about seven minutes to present the necessary information and secure feedback. Mr. Biggs presented three types of online public involvement tools agencies can use to accomplish this goal:

  • Social networking tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, promote the public participation process by enabling community members to share articles, survey links, and other relevant information and engagement opportunities with their networks. For community members to share a link or article, the content must be fun, fast, and meaningful.
  • Crowdsourcing tools are useful in the early stages of the planning process because they enable the public to be creative in proposing and discussing new ideas. One example of a crowdsourcing tool is mySidewalk, which allows users to ask questions, offer suggestions, and vote on questions and suggestions that other users have provided.
  • Survey tools enable agencies to collect information about the public’s values, priorities, and other input that will directly inform the plan at hand. Agencies can customize these tools to solicit specific input. Examples include simple multiple-choice tools, such as SurveyMonkey, as well as smartphone-based apps like Textizen, which allows agencies to text multiple-choice questions to users who then text back an answer.

MetroQuest is another example of a survey tool that is accessible via computer or smartphone. Agencies can use MetroQuest to target large numbers of people by placing electronic kiosks in public places or even passing around handheld technology amongst groups of people on the street. MetroQuest allows users to choose among a variety of different options to provide input, including ranking their priorities for a particular planning process, completing visual preference surveys, weighing in on various policy options, and marking issue areas and priority areas on a map of the community. The tool also includes an option for users to vote on corridors and projects in the region while staying within a target budget displayed on the screen.
Mr. Biggs concluded by saying that online social networking, crowdsourcing, and survey tools can help transportation agencies engage a larger and more diverse portion of the public in a cost-effective way. More successful public involvement can, in turn, better inform planning efforts and lead to projects that have community support and best meet community needs.

Imagine 2040: Hillsborough MPO’s Multi-Award Winning Public Engagement Campaign

Lynn E. Merenda
Public Engagement Specialist, Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization for Transportation and Planning Commission

The Hillsborough MPO for Transportation (Hillsborough MPO) used a variety of public involvement techniques extensively through its Imagine 2040 effort to create a multi-layered approach for a multi-modal plan.

Ms. Merenda began by describing techniques used during outreach for Hillsborough MPO’s 2035 long-range transportation plan (LRTP), which preceded Imagine 2040, the name of its 2040 LRTP. For the 2035 plan, the MPO primarily used open houses and public meetings to collect public input. For Imagine 2040, the update to the 2035 LRTP, Hillsborough MPO recognized the importance of building in multimedia and online opportunities into its public outreach activities. Through its outreach campaign, the MPO reached out to over 80,000 households.

The Hillsborough MPO used creativity throughout its outreach campaign:

  • It created a citizen’s guide for transportation planning best practices, Recipes for Transportation Planning Succession: Your Guide to What’s on the Horizon with the MPO, modeled after The Joy of Cooking. The MPO used a recipe analogy to demonstrate how transportation planning, coordination, and investments, similar to quality ingredients, are needed to produce effective results.
  • The MPO also conducted market research after its 2035 LRTP and a local referendum to help guide the development of Imagine 2040. In 2012, the MPO received the American Planning Association Florida Chapter’s only award of excellence for this market research. The MPO researched voting patterns from the referendum votes to learn more about the respondents’ transportation preferences. The MPO then used this information to educate decisionmakers and to integrate feedback into Imagine 2040.
  • In addition, the MPO incorporated emergency preparedness resiliency information into its outreach and engaged local cable stations to promote Imagine 2040 activities.

In beginning the Imagine 2040 initiative, the Hillsborough MPO partnered with the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, which supports land use planning for Hillsborough County and the cities of Tampa, Plant City, and Temple Terrace. The region is home to 1.3 million residents, with 500,000 more residents anticipated by 2040. In terms of land use, 25 percent of land is agricultural, and 87 percent of development has occurred within the urban service area over the last decade. In terms of transportation, the region has limited bus service and significant traffic congestion.
The Hillsborough MPO created three scenarios as part of Imagine 2040. Each scenario had different elements on which the MPO asked stakeholders to vote and share their input. The three scenarios were:

  • Suburban Dream, which focused on “What can we expect if we continue to grow outward as we have over past decades?”
  • Bustling Metro, which addressed “What can we expect if we focus growth in our cities and towns and invest in transit?”
  • Corporate Centers, which looked at “What can we expect if we focus on business growth along major highways with express toll lanes?”

As part of outreach effort for each scenario, Hillsborough MPO asked stakeholders “what’s important to you?” Respondents identified traffic congestion, job creation, and transit availability as top priorities. The MPO then integrated these priorities into the scenarios. In addition, the MPO asked stakeholders how transportation investments should be funded (e.g., through special assessment districts, one-time fee on new development, gas tax, etc.). To collect input, Hillsborough MPO used kiosks, community meetings, paper surveys, iPad stations, social media, and a website. The MPO also leveraged creative partnerships with local television stations, newspapers, and the Florida home show. As a result of its outreach, Hillsborough MPO collected 3,529 responses, which resulted in the development of a hybrid scenario based on the original three.

In Part Two of the Imagine 2040 effort, the Hillsborough MPO asked stakeholders to share their feedback on how to invest in future transportation programs. The MPO’s website allowed visitors to answer questions about four different spending options related to preserving the system, reducing crashes and vulnerability, minimizing traffic for drivers and shippers, and having real choices when not driving. The MPO also encouraged participation through community open houses, health fairs, back-to-school events, and handouts and mailings. Through its outreach, the MPO received over 6,000 responses, its largest response ever. Results found that the majority of respondents would be invest $7-9 billion for transportation. With the current budget approximately $5.4 million, the responses showed that potential new funding would likely be needed in the future if all of the transportation investments identified by respondents carried forward. These results also provided an opportunity for the MPO to foster a discussion in the region about transportation investments and needs.

In closing, Ms. Merenda shared best practices and tips for public and online engagement, including:

  • Use technology and storytelling to reach a broad range of stakeholders. The Hillsborough MPO used technology extensively in its outreach to connect with stakeholders both in person and online.
  • Consider using an incremental approach to illustrate scenarios and funding options. The MPO used a two-part approach to collect input on growth, land use, and transportation scenarios before asking about funding and investment preferences. The information obtained through this approach became the foundation of the MPO’s LRTP.
  • Consider how to make the case for investments. Performance measures can be one way to show measurable progress towards safety, maintenance, traffic management, and other goals. Hillsborough MPO’s scenarios included performance metrics to track how transportation priorities impact future investments.

 Tell Us What You Think: PennDOT’s Modernized Public Engagement Process

Jessica Clark
Transportation Planning Manager, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

Leanne M. Doran
Senior Public Involvement Specialist, McCormick Taylor, Inc.

Pennsylvania’s transportation network is one of the largest in the country, with the fifth largest highway system and the third highest number of State-owned bridges. Given the State’s extensive transportation network, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) coordinates closely with its partners, including the State Transportation Commission (STC), to support the efficient movement of people and goods.

Ms. Clark and Ms. Doran focused their presentations on how PennDOT used a comprehensive public engagement process to collect feedback for its 2015 Twelve Year Program (TYP) update. The STC, comprised of 15 members, leads transportation policy in Pennsylvania. For more than 40 years, the STC has conducted biennial public meetings to collect feedback on the TYP, the State’s multi-modal, fiscally constrained transportation improvement program that covers a 12-year period. State law requires that PennDOT prepare, update, and submit Pennsylvania’s TYP to the STC every two years. In addition, PennDOT works with the State’s 4 rural planning organizations and 19 MPOs as part of their transportation improvement programs, which feed into the statewide transportation improvement program (STIP). The STIP reflects the first four years of the TYP. With a long history of public meetings, over time, participation had fallen; in 2011, only six representatives of the general public attended five public hearings across the State. PennDOT then decided to reevaluate its public engagement process for the 2015 TYP update.

Starting in 2013, PennDOT began a pilot to modernize its public engagement process. The goals of the pilot were to:

  • Extend the range of public involvement techniques to increase input;
  • Use modernized tools and techniques;
  • Educate customers and increase awareness; and
  • Reduce overlapping public meetings and hearings between the STC and regional planning partners.

To accomplish these goals, PennDOT launched a new interactive website (, offered an online survey using MetroQuest as well as a traditional survey for those without web access, hosted a statewide webcast public meeting, and collaborated with partners. The new website became PennDOT’s portal for information-sharing and survey results. Visitors can learn about the STC, the transportation planning process, and how they can get involved. The surveys asked respondents to rank transportation priorities and featured a mapping tool to help respondents identify project concerns. PennDOT’s webcast meeting allowed for broader participation in addition to face-to-face public meetings, which were held whenever possible.

The 2013 promotion campaign also included new techniques to build awareness and promote responses to the survey. PennDOT used a variety of approaches, including a press release to media outlets, an email blast and flyer campaign, social media posts, and QR codes on all promotional materials. To share information with legislators and elected officials, PennDOT developed a toolkit, which organizations could then use to add links on their websites and add articles to the e-newsletters and online publications. PennDOT branded the campaign with “Tell Us What You Think” to further connect all of the outreach efforts.

Through its updated public engagement process, PennDOT received 2,238 responses to its online and paper surveys, had 100 people attend the webcast public meeting, and collected project forms from 48 people. Using an online platform also allowed PennDOT to track the level of participation across the State and identify areas with higher or lower rates of participation. In addition, the survey tool helped PennDOT collect more than 7,000 transportation project suggestions, which it then visualized and posted to its website. Users to the website could view a map of the State and zoom in to see the project suggestions on a more local level. PennDOT also made the raw data available to its planning partners and others upon request for their own planning needs.

Overall, PennDOT found several successes in its pilot effort, including:

  • Increased accessibility and participation through the online and paper surveys and webcast public meeting;
  • Increased awareness through its new website, which has approximately 10,000 visitors annually; and
  • More connections between planning outreach efforts in Pennsylvania, including more data-sharing between STC and planning partners.

PennDOT is now preparing for the next update of its TYP. The comment period extends from April through May 2015. PennDOT again held a one-hour webcast public meeting and used features such as closed captioning, video recording, and customized notifications to provide for a user-friendly experience. From the 2013 pilot, PennDOT learned that holding a meeting too close to the dinner hour reduced participation rates; for the 2015 meeting, PennDOT changed the meeting time and was able to increase its participation rate by one-third. PennDOT will also offer a survey using three different forms: online, in writing, and by phone. The online survey allows users to rank transportation priorities for the TYP, indicate preferences for budgets and resource allocation, and identify transportation issues (e.g., for bridges, freight, pedestrian/bicycle, roadway, safety, and transit) in a specific region.

Lastly, Ms. Clark and Ms. Doran shared lessons learned from the PennDOT public engagement effort, particularly relating to developing and using an online survey as part of the outreach. These lessons learned included:

  • Allot time in your budget to analyze and visualize data;
  • Recognize the importance of having GIS, Excel, database development and analysis, and graphic design support and expertise in the effort;
  • Include instruction tabs for users who may not be as familiar with the tool;
  • Ask demographic questions;
  • Limit free-form questions with verbatim answers; and
  • Understand that asking the right questions will help generate quality data.

Summary of Questions and Discussion

Following Ms. Clark and Ms. Doran’s presentation, Mr. Biggs moderated a question-and-answer period to address questions received during the presentations. Key questions and insights from the presenters are outlined below. To facilitate readability, the answers presented here are summaries and are not direct transcriptions of what occurred during the actual webinar proceedings.

  • Do you know of any conference opportunities to learn from best practice MPOs?

Dave Biggs: The Association of MPOs (AMPO) National Conference has been making an effort to promote best practices for online engagement. Here is a highlight video from the 2014 conference:

  • How are organizations paying for this level of public involvement?

Leanne Doran and Jessica Clark: The Pennsylvania STC project had a limited budget. Promotions may be handled very cost effectively by asking stakeholders and especially regional planning partners to help spread the word. We only had to frame the message and provide a few simple tools, email content, and flyers. A statewide press release through the PennDOT press office provided us with coverage on the major media outlets.

  • Do any of the crowd-sourcing tools include smartphone apps?

Dave Biggs: Many of crowdsourcing platforms are smartphone compatible. Generally, people are not willing to download a specific app for the planning process and instead favor smartphone-friendly websites.

  • What was the outcome of the Hillsborough MPO Imagine 2040 initiative?

Lynn Merenda: The Hillsborough MPO and Planning Commission teamed up to take a whole new approach to the planning and public involvement process, joining land use and transportation planning to achieve a vision that would guide the 2040 transportation and comprehensive plans using a broad spectrum of techniques to attract a diverse audience. This creative approach made relevant and relatable what could have been a dry topic.

Forecasting performance measures as part of Imagine 2040 also gave more meaning to the public dialogue about the long-range, cost-feasible plan. It can be difficult for citizens and elected leaders to conceptualize the benefits of the big-ticket investments that often appear in such a plan. Performance measures give people something to relate to, especially when compared with present day conditions. This gives both citizens and decision-makers a basis to consider potential funding sources to meet not only today’s needs in a time of declining funding, but also to address the expanded needs coming with future growth―a challenge facing planners and communities across our country.

Finally, the outcomes included the approval of 2040 plan and the fact that the vision the citizens helped develop is now guiding development in the county. Imagine 2040 also created lots of discussion around and support for including transportation-related referenda in the next election.

  • Have you conducted a cost benefit analysis on the many varied types of public involvement techniques to determine what method has the best "bang for the buck”?

Lynn Merenda: We have not conducted an official cost benefit analysis, but our Imagine 2040 initiative was our most cost effective process for meaningful public engagement, by far. Nearly 6,000 citizens actively participated in creating the Imagine 2040 Vision, which included kiosks and community meetings in areas and for groups of the traditionally underserved. Working together with our marketing partners, great community volunteers, Hillsborough County, and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace, and Plant City, Imagine 2040 was very cost effective. Our public-private partnership with Florida’s Largest Home Show and coordination with the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser and Tax Collector allowed us to reach significantly more people than ever before. Negotiated partnerships with the Tampa Bay Times, Osprey Observer, and The Patch also allowed us to extend our reach far beyond our budget.

MetroQuest doesn’t cost much more than a town hall meeting and we got so much more data out of it than we would have out of a traditional public meeting.

Dave Biggs: We have done research on the cost per participant rates for engagement. For traditional public involvement processes, it is not uncommon to have rates of $1,000 per participant, and hundreds of dollars per participant is quite common. For online engagement, the rate can be as low as $1 or 2 per participant.

  • Did the Hillsborough MPO pay for the Florida’s Largest Home Show booths and presentations or were the spaces donated by Home Show organizers?

Lynn Merenda: Our relationship with Florida's Largest Home Show does not cost Hillsborough anything and is an ongoing public-private partnership designed to involve people who are trying to improve their homes while improving the quality of life in their communities.

  • How much do the kiosks cost?

Dave Biggs: They cost about $1,500 each to rent for couple month period.

  • What was the LRTP budget overall and what portion of it was dedicated to public involvement? What was the cost per population for public engagement? What portion of the planning/project implementation budget went to this outreach in addition to actual dollar costs?

Dave Biggs: For MetroQuest, the total cost is typically in the range of $12,000 to $20,000. What Lynn described was a much more comprehensive public involvement process that included MetroQuest as well as many other public engagement strategies, so I'll defer to her for overall costs.

Lynn Merenda: The overall costs for the Hillsborough MPO Imagine 2040 initiative were approximately $260,000 (for both Part 1 and Part 2), including outreach and all planning consultants over a 3-year period.

  • What was Hillsborough MPO’s MetroQuest survey response rate?

Dave Biggs: The response rate for the MetroQuest survey was 66%.

Lynn Merenda: Overall, we ultimately reached 6,000 participants. We wanted to reach 10,000 or 20,000 thousand participants, but to do that, we would need a bigger marketing budget to get the word out even more.

  • Is there a way to prevent one person from providing input an unlimited number of times?

 Dave Biggs: Yes, people at the kiosk are asked for their information at the end of their session, when they are most engaged. There are other ways we have, as well, to make sure people aren't voting multiple times. For example, we have a fraud detection system built in that prevents people from voting repeatedly.

  • Apart from the usual newspaper notices, how did Hillsborough MPO get the word out to the citizens about the available online input options?

 Lynn Merenda: We had interns come in to help with the “meeting-in-a-box.” We also scheduled community presentations, worked with county TV stations to run the public service announcement for us for free, ordered and distributed fortune cookies with the survey link on the paper inside, promoted the initiative through our Facebook and Twitter accounts and got many people to tweet and retweet about it, went on radio shows and televisions, and asked small print and online media sources in the community to feature the process. It’s all about extending your reach.

  • What platform did PennDOT use for their webcast public meeting?

Leanne Doran and Jessica Clark: For the statewide webcast, Pennsylvania STC used OnStream Media with Commonwealth Media Services for video stream.

  • Did PennDOT find the webcast public meeting more effective than a traditional public meeting?

 Jessica Clark: Absolutely. We reached far more people during the web-based meeting as opposed to only six community members in the public meeting. During our 2015 update, our webcast meeting reached 137 participants. We’re pleased with this result.

  • You said you hosted the webcast meeting at a convenient time for community members. At what time of day did you hold the meeting?

 Leanne Doran: We shifted the meeting back to 7pm and over 200 people registered, but only 100 came online, as many were still finishing dinner. To address this problem, we created a system that included more notifications to keep people engaged and remind them about the online meeting. In the future, we might also try a lunch hour meeting and/or hold two meetings at different times so more people can make it.

Closing Information

Ms. McCullough thanked webinar participants, presenters, and hosts for participating in the webinar.

Ms. McCullough also provided information for the FHWA/FTA public involvement contacts.

Participant Polling

Pre-Presentation Poll Questions

Question 1: What is your affiliation?


Number Responding

Percent Responding

Federal Government



State Government



Local Government



Regional Government



Tribal Government



Transit Provider









Private Sector






Question 2: How did you find out about this webinar?


Number Responding

Percent Responding

FHWA/FTA Transportation Planning Capacity Building Program Email



FHWA/FTA Transportation Planning Capacity Building Program Web Site



FHWA Division or FTA Regional Contact



Stakeholder Association (i.e., AASHTO, AMPO, APA, APTA, NADO, NARC, etc.)









Question 3: For today’s webinar, how many people are sharing the same connection with you?


Number Responding

Percent Responding

Just me



There are two of us.



There are three of us.



We are in a room with more than three people.




Mr. Biggs’ Presentation Poll Questions

Question 1: Have you used online engagement software for any past projects?


Number Responding

Percent Responding

Yes, several times



Yes, once or twice



Not yet



Question 2: Do you have one or more projects coming up that require broad public input?


Number Responding

Percent Responding

Yes, several



Yes, one



Nothing specific




Ms. Clark and Ms. Doran’s Presentation Poll Questions

Question 1: Pennsylvania, with its 40,000 miles ranks ___ in the nation with its number of State owned highways?


Number Responding

Percent Responding