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Public Roads - November/December 2003

The Public: Key to Successful Projects

by Alexandra Zetlin and Shane Ojar

Community involvement can be pivotal—witness the recent reconstruction of two New York City bridges.

How do you tell the people of a metropolis like New York City that they will spend an extra 15 minutes in traffic for the next 2 years just to travel across the Williamsburg Bridge? How do you break the news that for 30 months they will have no subway service across the north side of the Manhattan Bridge? An effective public involvement program is the key.


A view of the Williamsburg Bridge from Brooklyn.
All photos by Shane Ojar.


Over the past 20 years, something amazing has happened in the New York metropolitan area—and across the country. Stakeholders are being asked to become partners with government agencies in developing and conducting transportation projects. This level of public involvement was not always the case. Until the early 1970s, Federal, State, and municipal agencies planned roadway construction with little input from the communities affected by the work. But today all that has changed.

By involving stakeholders in the decisionmaking process, New York City has emerged as a national leader in conducting public involvement programs. The city plans and constructs transportation projects from start to finish with the public's input. The result? Everyone can live with and be proud of the roads in New York.

How does the outreach process really work? An effective public involvement program requires a strategic outreach plan and lots of teamwork. Before the program can begin, the outreach plan needs to include the following steps: identifying the target audience(s), determining what information is needed and when, and deciding on the communication methods that will be used to deliver the information.

In 2001, to rehabilitate the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) fielded a team consisting of an engineering consultant and a communications firm. Together, the two companies were tasked with reconstructing the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, educating the public about how the project would affect them, and addressing stakeholders' concerns.

Getting the Word Out

In the New York metropolitan area, as in most parts of the country, the word “construction” has some negative connotations with commuters and other motorists, residents, and merchants who may envision detours and traffic congestion. Stakeholders may be pessimistic about construction projects, fearing that the work might go over budget, finish late, and disrupt their lives. Due to the city's population density, reconstruction of existing facilities such as roadways and bridges cannot be done without disturbing the surrounding communities or interrupting the flow of traffic or the movement of subway trains. The challenge was to reconstruct both the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges with minimal impact on the public.

The most difficult challenge was maintaining traffic during the reconstruction. NYCDOT Chief Bridge Officer Henry Perahia uses an analogy: “It's like rebuilding a car's engine while the car is still running.”

Once the designers and engineers figured out a solution to the traffic flow problem, the outreach team created a strategy to inform the public about the reconstruction work, why the work needed to be performed, and, most important, alternate travel routes that could ease disruption to commuter traffic. A major part of any outreach strategy is the message. It is not enough to tell the public that, for the next 2 years, the North Outer Roadways (four of the eight lanes of the Williamsburg Bridge) will be closed. More detailed information is needed. In addition to being informed about the road closure, the public was told why the road was being closed, exactly what work was being done, and the measures taken to mitigate impacts during the reconstruction project.

The public outreach team found that providing accurate and pertinent information on a timely basis not only educated the community, but also built trust and fostered a sense of partnership among bridge users, neighboring communities, and NYCDOT. When residents became confident that the information they were receiving was accurate and reliable, they learned to trust the messengers delivering the message, and from that trust came partnering and greater acceptance of the reconstruction project.

Building Bridges to Local Residents

To reconstruct the North Outer Roadways of the Williamsburg Bridge, it was necessary to close the four North Roadway travel lanes and divert all traffic to the four South Inner and Outer travel lanes. Under this configuration, two-way traffic between Manhattan and Brooklyn was maintained at all times, but the volume across the bridge was cut in half. This reduction in traffic flow was not good news to the motorists driving the more than 140,000 vehicles that cross the bridge daily. The challenge was to present this information to bridge users and obtain their buy-in.

The public outreach team targeted bridge users and residents of local communities, both of whom had their own separate concerns. Bridge users were worried about traffic delays and traveling between Brooklyn and Manhattan, while local residents and merchants were concerned with construction impacts, such as noise, dust, local street closures, and detours.

The first phase of the outreach focused on addressing the concerns of the local community and communicating the mitigation measures that would be implemented. Although bridge users would be affected temporarily by traffic backups, they could drive away from the construction site—but residents of local communities could not. That made it important to address their concerns first, before any major traffic shifts were implemented. By targeting and engaging the local communities first, the outreach team was able to earn local acceptance and support for the project.


A motorist's view traveling into Manhattan on the inner roadway of the Williamsburg Bridge.


Methods of communication included letters, public presentations to the local community boards (similar to town planning boards), and a four-color brochure translated into Spanish and Chinese. The brochure reinforced NYCDOT's commitment to providing timely and pertinent information in a format that is easily understood and attractively designed. A total of 14,000 brochures were distributed, and numerous groups requested additional copies. Information also was available on NYCDOT's Web site, and a toll-free telephone line provided basic travel updates and allowed callers to leave messages requesting additional information.

After addressing the concerns of the local community, the public outreach team expanded its efforts by distributing information throughout the metropolitan area. Outlets included emergency service providers, such as hospitals and police precincts, and advocacy groups like the Automobile Club of New York and Transportation Alternatives. Elected officials, borough presidents, community boards, civic groups, merchants, and officials representing business improvement districts also contributed to the outreach effort.

Next, the Bridge Users

The lane change for the Williamsburg Bridge was scheduled to begin on January 29, 2001. Within a month of the scheduled change, getting the word out to bridge users became the priority. The agency planned two major events: a press conference featuring the NYCDOT commissioner and a targeted user handout event. The press conference was held on January 23, 2001, and apparently was successful because the media published no negative stories and no negative public responses were received.

The targeted user handout event took place during the week leading up to the January 29, 2001, closure date. Using a blitz approach, approximately 20,000 travel advisories were handed out to motorists crossing the Williamsburg Bridge over a period of 4 days. This distribution reinforced the NYCDOT's efforts to ensure that bridge users were well informed.


On January 9, 2001, NYCDOT Commissioner Iris Weinshal (left) and Chief Bridge Officer Henry Perahia (right) address media representatives at a press conference to announce the lane closures on the Williamsburg Bridge.


On the closure date, the transition from eight to four travel lanes went smoothly. Again, no protests took place, and no negative stories appeared in the press. In fact, by providing information to the news media proactively, the public outreach team was able to take advantage of the media's resources for getting the message out. Instead of being the target of negative stories, the project and the NYCDOT were depicted in a positive light for reconstructing the Williamsburg Bridge and preserving a significant segment of New York City's infrastructure.

Community feedback from NYCDOT's efforts was positive. Martha Danziger, district manager for Manhattan Community Board #1, praised the NYCDOT and its project team “for executing a well-structured and proactive outreach program that addressed the needs of the community.”

We'll Take Manhattan

The Manhattan Bridge reconstruction project contained two major components that could cause concern: interruption of mass transit service and a roadway closure. The two components were scheduled to occur a year apart.

As with the Williamsburg Bridge project, the transportation inconveniences were not welcome news to the 90,000 subway riders and more than 75,000 motorists who cross the Manhattan Bridge daily. The subway shutdown began on July 22, 2001, and the North Upper Roadway was scheduled to close for reconstruction on August 1, 2002.

The subway closure occurred before the roadway closure, and the outreach team believed that gaining acceptance of the subway closure would make their jobs easier when the time came to gain community acceptance of the roadway closure. Although the roadway closure had not yet occurred at that time, gaining motorists' acceptance of the subway service interruption was essential because the occurrence of any delays in that work would affect the roadway closure adversely.


A closeup view of the Brooklyn Tower of the Manhattan Bridge shows the Manhattan skyline in the distance.


The temporary closure of the subway tracks on the north side of the bridge to reconstruct the framing structure posed one of the greatest challenges. This service interruption required the closure of the Grand Street Station in Manhattan, and, as a result, trains were rerouted to alternate tracks. The station's closure was a major point of contention for the Lower East Side neighborhood of Chinatown. Although the service interruption aspect of the project was under the purview of New York City Transit, the NYCDOT was responsible for overseeing the construction work and conducting a successful public outreach program.

The public outreach program for the Manhattan Bridge project began in March 2001 and took a similar approach to the one used successfully for the Williamsburg Bridge. One of the greatest challenges in gaining community support was to reverse any negative perceptions. The community had heard of the subway station closure months in advance and had been protesting to the transit agency, NYCDOT, and the Governor. Although the transit agency would handle notification of changes in subway service, NYCDOT needed to perform the initial phase of the public outreach program successfully and lay the groundwork for the North Upper Roadway closure that was scheduled to occur in August 2002.

The public outreach kicked off with an introductory letter to New York City's community boards. The letter provided an overview of the project, outlined the schedule, and described impacts to the traveling public. NYCDOT assigned a community liaison person to the project and installed a telephone line to handle questions from the public during nonconstruction hours. The telephone line also provided travel-related information. NYCDOT developed a brochure and a Web site to keep the public informed. Again, the brochure was translated into Spanish and Chinese and formatted for the NYCDOT Web site ( The brochures were distributed citywide to community boards, elected officials, and merchant and civic groups.


The pedestrian walkway over the Manhattan Bridge.


The North Upper Roadway of the bridge.


The project came under increasing public scrutiny in the weeks leading up to the subway shutdown. NYCDOT and the transit agency coordinated their efforts to brief elected representatives and notify the public of the upcoming service changes and impacts. The collaborative effort was important in creating a single voice to handle communications.

The results proved beneficial to all involved. A week before the scheduled shutdown, the Governor authorized implementation of a shuttle service between Grand Street and Broadway-Lafayette. The community saw this as a positive solution to handling the commuting problem. Similar to the target user handout event on the Williamsburg Bridge, the transit agency staff held an information event a few days following the shutdown, where the staff distributed thousands of travel advisories.

A Brooklyn Community Board #9 representative who called the telephone information line to inquire whether there was a misprint in the brochure regarding the date of the North Upper Roadway closure was pleasantly surprised to learn that she was being informed a year early of the intended road closure.


Detail of the "Spirit of Industry" sculpture on an arch in the plaza of the Manhattan Bridge.


The second phase of the project—the road closure—occurred as scheduled in August 2002, with the media reporting the closure as a necessary part of the rebuilding program. Hasan Ahmed, director of the NYCDOT East River Bridge program, attributes the success of the outreach effort to the “positive groundwork that was laid in 2001 and the subsequent efforts in 2002, which included the distribution of more than 20,000 travel advisories in the 5 days leading up to the closure.”

In June 2003, the reconstructed bridge roadway was reopened to traffic, 61 days ahead of schedule. Communications were the key to the success of the NYCDOT rehabilitation of the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges. Communicating messages to customers, communities, and other constituencies resulted in an outreach program that was beneficial to all involved.

Alexandra Zetlin, the founder and president of Zetlin Strategic Communications, Inc., has more than 20 years experience in the development of public/community participation programs, transportation policy planning and coordination, and media relations. For the last 16 years, Zetlin has specialized in the development and implementation of successful communications strategies to advance government agency and corporate goals. She has a master's of business administration degree from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree from Vassar College.

Shane Ojar is the manager of planning and studies for Zetlin Strategic Communications, Inc. He has more than 10 years' experience managing community outreach programs. Ojar's approaches to planning and design of construction projects involve combining the needs of diverse communities with technical components. He has been successful in developing outreach programs that identify and educate stakeholders and create consensus among diverse communities and agencies. He has a bachelor's degree from New York University.