Public involvement effort strengthens Oregon’s state bridge program and wins community support
Most Oregonians are not bridge engineers or bridge builders. For many people, a terminal expansion joint is where they board an airplane, the C-line is their morning train, and scouring involves more elbow grease than forces of nature. Yet average Oregonians with little to no engineering expertise play a vital role in one of the largest infrastructure projects in their state’s history. By 2012, the Oregon Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) $1.3 billion OTIA III State Bridge Delivery Program will have repaired or replaced 365 of the state’s bridges.
One of the keys to the success of the bridge program is an unprecedented amount of public involvement at the community level. At every phase of bridge repair or replacement—planning, design, and construction—ODOT is proactively engaging Oregonians, asking them to weigh in on topics ranging from how a bridge will look to how traffic restrictions should be structured.
Stakeholders—businesses, communities, and special-interest groups—are an integral part of the process, and their needs, concerns, and input are carefully considered in the development of projects. So far, hundreds of community members and other stakeholders have provided feedback at dozens of public meetings and events throughout Oregon.
Proactive community outreach
The 2007-2008 construction season will be the busiest to date in Oregon’s history. The brisk pace is possible in part because of strong public involvement practices. Long before any heavy equipment or construction crews arrive on site, ODOT and its public involvement teams research how the project will affect the local community. The initial result of this research is a list of community members, government representatives, and other key stakeholders that ODOT continually updates throughout the life of the project.
After creating the stakeholder list, ODOT develops a plan to directly engage and involve members of the affected community. Public involvement teams use a variety of techniques—from mailings and news releases to one-on-one meetings and public events—to notify the affected community that a bridge project is under way.
As the first plans are drawn, ODOT sends out engineers, project managers, and public involvement teams to garner further input from community members. At open houses, town hall meetings, and school events, ODOT teams display preliminary drawings and answer questions attendees have about their local bridge project. Personal conversations and comment forms have proven to be effective ways for attendees to provide feedback.
The public involvement team compiles comments gathered from stakeholders and community members after each event and provides the information to engineers, mobility planners, and construction contractors to use as a resource. Even after an event, the public can still provide input by e-mail or by calling the public involvement representative or public information officer.
Intensive public involvement in the design phase was perhaps most critical in the historic Columbia River Gorge National Scenic area along Interstate 84, which winds along the banks of the Columbia River and skirts the shadow of Mount Hood. It is a lifeline that brings commerce, as well as tourists, into and through the Gorge. This corridor contains 26 bridges slated for repair or replacement. Each offers a vantage point from which to observe the beauty of the Gorge and also provides a critical economic link for local communities.
Before design began in the Gorge, ODOT worked closely with community members, stakeholders, and representatives of state and federal agencies to gather input and secure buy-in on design elements ranging from abutments and railings to landscaping and wildlife crossings. The resulting I-84 Corridor Strategy provides a framework of design guidelines to help ODOT manage and improve the interstate in ways that meet public safety and transportation needs while also meeting National Scenic Area provisions. The I-84 Corridor Strategy generated national attention, too: The American Council of Engineering Companies recognized ODOT and its partners with the 2007 Engineering Excellence National Recognition Award for the design guidelines.
On all bridge program projects, ODOT provides information to the public throughout the bridge design process through news releases, newsletters, and small public gatherings, and solicits input via these channels as well. For example, before design teams plan construction activities that will affect traffic, ODOT will ask community members when the best time for such mobility impacts would be.
After bridge designs are finalized, ODOT broadcasts announcements that construction is about to begin. Newsletters, news releases, flyers, door-hangers, and ads in local publications continue to inform area residents about the bridge project, along with a weekly update distributed to local media. This method of outreach and involvement helps garner public support and defray opposition, thus helping to keep projects on time and on budget.
Responding to local communities
From the start of the bridge program in 2003, ODOT recognized that community members are an essential resource. Because of this, the relationship between ODOT and community stakeholders and citizens continues to strengthen, and the results point to the value of listening to and involving them early and continuously throughout the life of bridge program projects.
One example of the successful collaboration between ODOT and community members occurred near the Oregon coast on U.S. 20. After a public involvement team visited the area, they determined that the access road to a family’s home would need to close intermittently during the construction of a nearby bridge. Typically, construction teams assume that nighttime work is less disruptive. But after meeting with the family, ODOT learned that the residence housed an emergency medical responder who was often on-call at night. Based on this feedback, the ODOT construction team planned only daytime work near the family’s home, benefiting not only the homeowner, but public safety.
Other success stories span the state. After project leaders and public involvement teams met with local business owners in Cottage Grove, Ore., ODOT reduced a bridge replacement schedule from 12 months to nine to limit impacts to local restaurants and hotels, as well as a nearby convenience store that depends on through-traffic for business.
In Ashland, Ore., public involvement teams engaged a slightly younger group of community members—Ashland Middle School students. At this unique public involvement event, students used gumdrops, toothpicks, and crackers in a bridge-building activity, complete with detailed plan sheets and three expert bridge engineers on hand to guide the way. Parents were invited to view students’ work at a subsequent public open house held at the school, where public involvement teams explained to attendees the construction plans and requested input on closure times and preferred communication methods on an upcoming bridge project. The result was increased community awareness and involvement, and a memorable learning opportunity for more than 100 students.
"My sixth graders built bridges under the direction of ODOT folks, and a bridge of partnership was built between our school and ODOT," said Bonnie McCracken, sixth grade teacher at Ashland Middle School. "We don’t have the expertise that they have; yet we teach the future engineers. [This experience] gave our students a glimpse into all that is involved in planning and constructing bridges."