Public Affairs and Highway Projects
Americans seem to have an enduring interest in the Nation’s roads. One reason, perhaps, is that road construction is very visible and often inconvenient for motorists. And traffic continues to be a point of discussion on news programs and among individuals. Communicating about the status of construction projects, highway congestion, roadway incidents, and related news is a top priority of the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Office of Public Affairs and State and local departments of transportation (DOTs).
FHWA’s Office of Public Affairs strives to build understanding of, and support for, the agency’s programs and policies. The office provides a variety of services, including developing the agency’s com-munications strategies, writing and distributing press releases, responding to inquiries from reporters, drafting speeches, and coordinating special events, such as groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings for highway and bridge projects.
One of 2010’s most visible examples of the coordination of special events was the dedication of the $240 million Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge at Hoover Dam last October. For months leading up to the ceremony, FHWA public affairs staff worked with reporters, the project team, State DOTs, and the Secretary of Transportation’s office. The public affairs staff helped develop the event agenda, pitched story ideas to reporters, coordinated interviews with senior DOT officials, and handled logistics for local and national media. The event drew nearly 2,000 participants and generated major national and international news coverage. For more about the bridge’s construction and recent unveiling, see “A Majestic Showcase” on page 2 in this issue of Public Roads.
Just as engineers constantly explore new technologies, materials, and techniques to build better and safer roads and bridges, the U.S. Department of Transportation and many State DOTs are embracing new social media technologies to improve communication with the public. Fast Lane, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation’s official blog, is an online forum for dialogue on transportation issues and is the most widely read Cabinet blog. Through it, Secretary Ray LaHood and guest contributors share news, event highlights, and project updates. Readers can leave comments, post entries to their own blogs, or share the item on Digg or Twitter.
States also use creative strategies to reach the public. For a major reconstruction project on Interstate 64 in St. Louis, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) cohosted a weekly one-hour chat room on the Web site of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I–64 Live” became the newspaper’s second busiest chat room, exceeded only by its sports chat room. The chat room was so successful that it lives on, even after the project’s completion. Now called “The Road Crew,” it provides a venue for MoDOT, city, and county officials to share information on regional road issues. For more on this project, see “From ‘Carmageddon’ to Complete Success” on page 20.
The media world changes rapidly, but cutting-edge tools like these help public affairs professionals communicate quickly, efficiently, and effectively. FHWA will continue to use innovative techniques to reach stakeholders where, when, and how they want to be reached -- whether in person at a public event, through television and radio, online, or through handheld mobile devices like smartphones. Though it may not be as visible as the interstate system, the information superhighway is fueling a communications renaissance, leaving public affairs professionals more excited than ever about what lies beyond the horizon.
Cathy St. Denis
Office of Public Affairs
Federal Highway Administration