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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - July/August 2004

Great Expectations

by Tom Sorel

Meeting or exceeding public expectations is the key factor in earning public trust and confidence.

untitledIn the transportation community, meeting expectations means knowing and understanding customers and stakeholders. A snapshot of some comments by citizens and other stakeholders shows their perspectives during construction:

"They need a little more understanding of these people [who] are all of a sudden thrown into a situation that changes their whole life and upheaves them."

"The business owner retold his complaint that [the State] DOT had made promises in response to community input but then recanted on at least two of the three promises. He said, 'If they don't put that turn lane in front of my business, I'll be dead.' He was angry, 'Why did they have these meetings if they weren't going to do what they promised?'"

"They come out and one month they show you this map, and the next month they show you another map with the lines drawn a little different, and the next plan is a little more different. There [are] people near me [who] are on the bubble half the time whether they're going to lose their front yard, or lose their whole house, or lose nothing ... They owe it to us to come out with a pretty firm plan before they start just floating ideas in the community to see what's going to stick."

"All of a sudden you come up and see signs maybe 10 feet before the cones start. That's not enough information for a person to [choose to take a different route]..."

The quotes above were taken from a broad customer satisfaction survey report commissioned by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and a State department of transportation (DOT). Megaproject managers might come across similar types of comments illustrating various customer expectations during project construction. In general, customer satisfaction surveys are a wake-up call to any organization, offering opportunities to address customer expectations.

On a micro level, transportation megaprojects disrupt the lives of individual citizens everyday—temporarily and permanently—and encompass travel routes, noise, debris, congestion, safety, property issues, business operations, public transit, the environment, and more. On a macro level, megaprojects might affect tourism, the economy, congestion, the environment, freight and transit operations, and public trust on a national level. Although the public customer wants and needs the solutions that result from megaprojects, the process of getting there can make all the difference between meeting customer expectations and creating customer dissatisfaction and a lack of public trust. A combination of project management best practices, community involvement, and communications can help agencies set and meet customer and stakeholder expectations.

Managing Expectations

No matter what the project or product, customers have expectations about a host of different criteria from project functionality to project features, project availability, delivery, and project packaging, price, and operation. Managing expectations is critical to developing and managing the public's trust and confidence in the ability of the project delivery team—including participating agencies at Federal, State, and local levels—to deliver a megaproject. Just as negative publicity can tarnish or hurt the reputation and image of a business, public trust and confidence lost during a megaproject can shift to other projects being delivered by the agencies involved. Once public trust and confidence are lost, they are difficult to recover.

Megaprojects have multiple customers and stakeholders who will have different expectations. Expectations will change during the life of a project. Similar to change management, setting and managing expectations is a cyclical process, which is constantly in flux during the various stages of a megaproject.

Over time, agencies can have a positive effect on expectations by involving customers and stakeholders in setting expectations; ensuring that all parties involved understand the expectations and any boundaries; setting realistic and accurate performance goals and measurements (time, money, scheduling, and delivery); communicating goals; evaluating performance; communicating any changes; resetting expectations and re communicating new expectations if necessary. Every new project phase offers transportation agencies the opportunity to produce or reinforce customer satisfaction by meeting expectations.

The T-REX project near Denver, CO, uses variable message signs like this one located along the project corridor to meet the traveling public's expectations for timely, accurate information.

Opportunities for Meeting Expectations

  • Establishing preplanning meetings for community/stakeholder involvement
  • Partnering with stakeholders
  • Considering the environment
  • Making budgets thorough and accurate
  • Using budget ranges when applicable
  • Utilizing innovative contracting and financing methods
  • Setting and meeting project goals, benchmarks, and schedules
  • Communicating project phases, schedules, and changes
  • Minimizing impact on mobility and surrounding communities
  • Getting the word out about new routes
  • Labeling work zones clearly
  • Creating communication systems and using radio, television, newspapers, newsletters, videos, Web sites, meetings, variable message signs, posters, and banners

Developing Public Support

Public support for a project is a key factor in assuring a successful outcome, both in the short and the long terms. As soon as the concept for a major project is released, elected officials, the media, and the public begin to develop expectations. The Federal Transit Administration's Building Professional Capacity in ITS: An Assessment of ITS Training and Education Needs: The Transit Perspective (FCOOPA-OP-99-033) says that managing expectations is "making sure that realistic assumptions are made about the project's ultimate performance and communicating these to elected and appointed officials and agency staff." This viewpoint also applies to megaprojects.

The Federal Highway Administration's Deputy Administrator Capekchard Capka outlines the basics for meeting expectations: "Promise what you can deliver and then deliver what you promise!" He continues, "It also follows that all interested parties must understand what is being promised, and what is being delivered. Effective and accurate communication is key."

Obtaining buy-in from the public for a project is a crucial step in gaining support. "Citizens no longer tolerate being kept in the dark when it comes to important issues and projects," says Matt Sheppard, vice president for public relations at Charles Ryan Associates, a communications firm specializing in transportation projects. "It's important to listen to the people who will be affected by the project from the very start and keep them involved throughout the duration of construction."

Sheppard adds, "Anything that takes time away from the project can affect the timeline and budget. Adverse PR [public relations] can do that. You're not going to be able to please everybody all of the time, but often just listening and explaining the project to them can turn a contentious issue into a positive outcome."Horseyohn Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, notes, "More and more U.S. infrastructure projects are megaprojects as our major infrastructure ages and as the price of all projects rises over time. These projects are crucial to our mobility and economic well-being, so it's well worth the investment to keep the public informed before and during construction and again when the project is placed in service."

So, how can an agency meet expectations? The process starts in the preplanning stage with meetings, surveys, and other types of communication methods to understand the needs, wants, and perceptions of customers and stakeholders (such as transit and freight agencies, municipal organizations, associations, businesses, etc.). In Change Management in State DOTs, Steve Lockwood of Parsons Brinckerhoff says: "Formal and participatory planning, involving a wide range of stakeholders, has proven to be a valuable method of determining stakeholder expectations, assessing departmental capacities, and prioritizing and programming related activities. At best, three principal payoffs have been achieved: a sharpened customer focus through the interaction process to obtain customer/stakeholder perspectives; a refined set of priorities and their use as a guide to align and coordinate other strategic activities; and a clearer and shared understanding of organizational values and priorities on the part of both staff and customers. Inclusive communications and activities help people feel 'ownership' of infrastructure and projects."

Daytime lane and highway closures have not been used on the T-REX project because of their potential to cause delays. To minimize inconvenience to motorists,jobs such as this bridge girder erection are required to be completed overnight, with lanes opening in time for the morning rush hour.

Accuracy and Honesty

If members of the local community are persuaded that the megaproject ultimately will improve the quality of their lives, and if they are informed accurately about the costs involved in making those improvements both financially and in terms of the physical disruptions—then buy-in will be easier to achieve.

"You have to be honest in your expectations and honest with the public on what the reality of the situation is," says Larry Warner, project director of Denver's Transportation Expansion Project (T-REX) for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).

Carl Gottschall, project administrator for Boston's massive Central Artery/Tunnel Project with FHWA's Massachusetts Division, points out the importance of providing the public with advance notification to establish accurate expectations: "If people know that tomorrow you're going to start demolishing something and there's going to be a bit of noise, but you're going to shut it off at 10:00 at night so they can sleep, if they know that ahead of time, the public will put up with it until 10:00 at night. But if it's 9:00 and you're banging away and people think it's going to go on all night, the phones are going to start ringing off the hook."

Utah DOT used several types of promotional materials, like this brochure, to keep the public engaged and up to date on the I-15 project.

Being as accurate as possible in reporting the cost of projects is also essential to maintain public support and confidence. "If there's been any criticism of some of these large projects," says Larry Heil, planning and program development manager for FHWA's Indiana Division, "it has been that during the early stage of development a small amount of money is presented to the public and the elected officials, and the decision is made to move the project forward based on what is sometimes an inaccurate estimate of the actual cost." (See also "Accounting for Megaproject Dollars".)

Heil says that prior to issuing the final environmental impact statement for the Louisville-Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges Project in the Louisville, KY, area, planners conducted a cost estimate review, bringing together a multidisciplinary team of experts from FHWA, State DOTs, and outside consultants. "That resulted in several revisions to the estimate of the project cost," Heil recounts. "It went up pretty substantially. But it was a number that we as a peer review team felt was going to better reflect what it was actually going to cost. It was kind of like, 'Take your licks now or take them later.' So we decided to take our licks now."

Some stakeholders expressed concern about a cost increase, "but it wasn't an increase. It was just what we thought, more realistically, it was going to cost," Heil says. "This exercise really builds in what we believe are reasonable contingencies for design and construction, so you've got an honest cost."

Getting the Word Out

Having adequate communications and using a professional public relations firm have been beneficial for effective outreach in some megaprojects. "We had a very strong public involvement process," says Michael L. Morrow, P.E., field operations engineer with FHWA's Utah Division, about Utah's Interstate 15 Corridor Reconstruction Project to upgrade I-15 prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics. "This was one of the first projects where Utah used a professional public relations firm," says Morrow. "They were on staff the whole time to get the word out on what roads would be closed and when. The firm used a variety of methods: press releases, TV interviews, the Internet, mailings, variable message signs."

Denver's T-REX project also uses a variety of tools to communicate to different constituencies, including making extensive use of its Web site,, to provide updated project information. Warner notes, "You can get real-time traffic information now for the [project] corridor and travel speed. We're installing cameras, and eventually you'll be able to see live shots of traffic flow." (See "T-REX: What's in a Name?".)

Toni Gatzen, a CDOT employee who is public information manager for T-REX, says that project staff communicates with residents near construction sites by distributing door hangers—information cards that are attached to the doorknobs of residences. Local business owners are given brochures that they can copy and distribute to their customers. T-REX staff reaches out to commuters through roadside message boards that alert motorists to highway closings and other disruptions. To share information with elected officials and the business community, the project team publishes the biweekly newsletter "Inside T-REX." And the project supplies information to The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News for their T-REX update columns, which the newspapers developed on their own as outgrowths of their coverage of local transportation issues.

In the case of T-REX and the Utah I-15 project, public relations professionals were retained both by the State DOTs and the contractors. Although they have carefully defined roles, the communications specialists also work together when appropriate. "I've been impressed with how they've gotten their message out before someone else created a negative message," comments Craig Actis, project administrator for FHWA's Colorado Division Office.

Gatzen says one example of this is when construction threatened the habitat of about 150 prairie dogs. Homes were found for a hundred of the animals in a nearby State park, but the remainder had to be euthanized.

"Prairie dogs in Colorado are a very sensitive issue, and there are several groups that support them," Gatzen notes. "We knew that if these groups found out after the fact that we couldn't save all the animals, they would be very upset. We knew this could be a big issue if we weren't honest and forthright up front. So what we ended up doing was faxing out a press release and meeting with the media and the organizations that support the prairie dogs."

The environmental groups "weren't real happy that we had to exterminate some of the prairie dogs, but they were pleased we were able to save some," Gatzen says. So an issue that could have been a fairly long-term public relations problem for T-REX turned into a 1-day media story that emphasized the project's success in saving the majority of the prairie dogs.

As a megaproject moves forward, periodic customer/stakeholder satisfaction surveys can provide project managers with a scorecard of how the public perceives the progress. Expectations then can be fine-tuned and communicated.

Reconstruction of the I-225/25 interchange near Denver, CO, was accomplished with minimal inconvenience to motorists. In the photo, I-25 runs horizontally as I-225 connects from the bottom left. The new tunnels under I-25 will provide connections for both the light rail and highway between the two interstates.
A special section on the Web site for The Denver Post, shown here, provides Internet users with updates on the T-REX project.

Minimizing Inconvenience

Actis states that the number-one goal of T-REX has been to minimize inconvenience to the public. "I think that goal has been carried on throughout the project," he says. "That has been pretty huge in making the public feel good about the project."

Warner says, "On large projects, there are always opportunities for misinformation. But overall, we've been very pleased, and I think the public is pleased with the minimal inconvenience they've seen. There was a concern when T-REX started that we were going to shut down the whole system and there would be gridlock and more traffic jams, but that really hasn't happened. Overall, traffic has flowed through the corridor in pretty good shape."

Gaining public and stakeholder input and managing expectations through clear and honest communication with customers and stakeholders about all aspects of a project, including costs, appears to pay major dividends for helping ensure public trust and confidence in megaprojects. Meeting expectations always begins and ends with the customer.

T-REX: What's in a Name?

Why do the residents of Denver refer to the largest highway and light rail project in the area's history as "T-REX"? The answer is branding—another way of setting expectations by creating a positive association between the project and the name that is used to communicate information about the project.

"The regular name, the Southeast Corridor Multimodal Project, just wasn't doing it for people," says Toni Gatzen, public information manager for Colorado's T-REX project. "We needed something people could identify with quickly when they heard about this project something catchy."

That's why Gatzen's employer, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), and the Denver area's Regional Transportation District (RTD), assisted by a public relations firm, undertook a 6-month-long preconstruction effort to brand the huge highway and mass transportation project.

"We had heard stories about how other projects got named by the media, and we didn't want that to happen to us. We wanted to give the project an attractive personality," Gatzen says. "So we did a lot of research, both internal and external." The internal research included a staff survey, while the external research involved focus groups in which residents were asked about their knowledge of the project and their expectations for it.

In the end, the decision to go with T-REX—it stands for Transportation Expansion Project—was made by the project's owners, CDOT and RTD, in consultation with FHWA and the Federal Transit Administration.

The name works, Gatzen says, because the project involves reconstructing two outdated highways, I-25 and a portion of I-225, and constructing light rail along the corridor. "We're transforming a dinosaur of a highway that was built in the 1950s into a modern system that provides options and moves people efficiently and allows traffic to flow with minimal congestion," she says.

That concept is reflected in the project's logo. "It has kind of an engineering look. The green is a reference to 'go,' that we're moving ahead, while the little footprint symbolizes speed," Gatzen says. "We didn't want to use a literal dinosaur because this is a project that's moving us ahead to the future."

Meeting Expectations

The FHWA Major Projects Team worked with the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) on a project entitled "Marketing Transportation Megaprojects: Maintaining Public Trust and Confidence." The project focused on ways to market megaprojects that will lead to establishing and maintaining public trust and confidence in these projects.

In theory, if a megaproject's purpose and impacts are communicated properly, meeting public expectations and achieving public trust and confidence should inherently follow throughout the life of the project. The Major Projects Team plans to release a marketing model later in the year.

Tom Sorel is stewardship/oversight group leader in the FHWA headquarters Office of Infrastructure in Washington, DC, a position that carries the responsibility of leading the agency's Major Projects Team. He is a 25-year employee of FHWA, who has served in a number of positions throughout the country. He served as the USDOT Olympic liaison in Salt Lake City and led the development of the multimodal infrastructure for USDOT in preparing for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. In addition, he served as director of planning and program development in FHWA's regional office in Albany, NY. His awards include the Secretary's Gold Award for Collaborative Leadership and the Secretary's Planning for Excellence Award.

For more information, contact Tom Sorel at