I-15’s communications challenge

Utah DOT and Wasatch communications staffs team up to get the word out
about Salt Lake City’s I-15 reconstruction project

Highway Construction Article December 28, 2000
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Last May, the I-15 Team held an online chat session on the team’s web site, featuring Utah DOT (UDOT) officials David Downs, project director, and Tom Warne, executive director. When asked if there were any surprises during the first half of the project, Downs replied that there had not been any major surprises. "However," he said, "the difficulties of disseminating information to all those interested and in need has been a challenge and one we continue to work at."

Work at it they have. The communications staffs for UDOT and the project’s contractor Wasatch Constructors have a myriad of audiences to keep informed and updated: Commuters, residents, the business community, schools, tourists and tourism interests, state, county and local government officials and local and national media are but a handful of the publics the staffs must serve.

Well before the project kicked off with the first bridge demolition in May 1997, UDOT was at work learning about the people that would be affected by the project and how best to communicate with them. "UDOT did two stages of research before the project began," Lindsey Ferrari, public information director for UDOT, told ROADS & BRIDGES. "What was found was that most people did not know the project was going to be done so quickly."

According to Ferrari, research also showed that if the project had to be done that the public preferred to endure more pain, in the form of heavy construction activity along the corridor, and less construction time than less pain and a longer construction time frame. "That’s one of the reasons why design-build was chosen for the project," she said.

Quantitative research and focus groups have played an important role in UDOT’s communications planning and implementation efforts. "I’ve become a true believer in research," Ferrari said of her experience with the I-15 project. "Some of the results are not always realistic, such as when they say they’d like to have the project completed in one year. We take that to mean they’d like it to be done quickly, as in four years."

Sharing duties

Though from a public information perspective it is uncommon for the contractor to provide services, it was decided early on that UDOT and Wasatch would share communication responsibilities. UDOT, under Ferrari’s guidance, concentrates its efforts in two areas:

* Project vision: Why the project is being performed; and

* Progress: How it is being performed; its status.

Wasatch, led by its Director of Communications Carol Provenzano, is responsible for one area:

* Coping: Informing people of the project schedule, on-going project developments such as road and ramp closures and detours and working with them to find the best alternate routes.

"We both have separate responsibilities," said Ferrari. "Wasatch has the bulk of the day-to-day work." In essence, UDOT is charged with communicating the big picture to the public, while Wasatch focuses on specific local issues of immediate importance.

"Our philosophy is to go out and talk to people, ask them what they need, revise our plans and go out again," said Ferrari. UDOT’s communication is a three-step process: listen to the problem or challenge, work it out and communicate back.

Although their goal of effective communication is the same, because of their differing responsibilities, UDOT and Wasatch’s approaches also differ in some ways, according to Wasatch’s Provenzano. "We use targeted local programs rather than a broad campaign. Our motto is no surprises."

The Wasatch three-step communications process is similar to its UDOT partner’s: understand the project, anticipate the public’s information needs and plan to meet those needs.

"People can cope with construction if they know what we are doing and what we plan to do," Provenzano said. With the design-build project delivery method being fast-paced, keeping the public informed on a daily basis is a tall order. "You have closures, changes in alignment and night work. We have to get our information out about our detours so folks can plan ahead."

Just as Ferrari has become a believer in research, Provenzano has come to respect the importance of planning. "To me as a contractor, the planning is intensive and is the communications challenge. It’s not like design-bid-build, where I can tell you exactly when and where we will be working. With design-build, no two work activities are reacted to the same. A small closure on a side street can have a larger impact than a major closure on the corridor."

How they communicate

UDOT and Wasatch utilize a myriad of methods in communicating their messages to the public. Some of the methods include TV, radio and print media, the Internet, e-mail, telephone hotlines, daily and weekly business fax bulletins, billboards, newsletters, direct mail, meetings with residents, businesses and political leaders, presentations, open houses and door-to-door neighborhood visits.

According to Ferrari and Provenzano, the media has been the most effective method of communication. Both parties have a media relations person assigned to work with the various outlets, Joe Walker for UDOT and Michael Mower for Wasatch. "In Salt Lake City, we were the No. 1 news story in 1997, No. 8 in 1998 and who knows where we’ll be in 1999," said Provenzano. "But this project is a big story to this community. The local media sees a high level of interest and responds to it. You have to expect it, plan for it and be ready to respond."

Team members are seen and heard on TV and radio and are quoted in print. Ferrari said the team has used the fact that one radio group owns six radio stations in the Salt Lake area to its advantage. "We purchased tags on all six of the stations’ traffic reports in case they forget to mention it themselves."

The team has tapped into the information superhighway by creating a web page dedicated to the project. By logging onto www.I-15.com, viewers can find commuter traffic information and information on the project as a whole and how to cope with it. They also can e-mail questions to the team and view maps and renderings of the project. "We run almost everything in house," said Provenzano. "We don’t sub. We designed and manage the web site, as well as the 800 number."

The project actually has two 800 numbers, one is a hotline for traffic information, the other was created so that motorists could report broken windshields sustained while traveling the project.

Since May 1997, the business fax bulletins have been an important coping mechanism for businesses to receive weekly and daily updates on the project activities. "The bulletins contain the construction schedule and can be updated every day if necessary," said Provenzano.

Advanced traffic management system (ATMS) technology, which is being incorporated into the project, also has become another weapon in Provenzano’s communications arsenal (see Forecast Calls for Steady Traffic, p 34). "We’ve used the ATMS message signs on arterials," said Provenzano. "So, now you have some of our communications coming from the project itself."

While the web site makes use of modern-day technology and the telephone traffic hotline is available to everyone, Ferrari said that she expected the number of users to be larger for both. However, Provenzano is satisfied by the number of hits on web site and telephone calls. "Web users use our site," said Provenzano. "We are not developing new users through the site, but it is being used by those who use the web. We are seeing a rapid increase in hits and 800 line calls, especially during construction season."

One element not contained in the I-15 Team’s communication program is a cartoon character or mascot that often is seen these days on highway projects around the country. "You’re talking about branding," said Provenzano. "We have a look," she said, referring to the team’s black heart-shaped road emblem with gold background and red trim. "The heart represents the state’s, contractor’s and our partners’ efforts," said Provenzano.

Mascots aside, Provenzano said, "What I’m most concerned with is that people have faith in us and trust what we say."

Personnel’s personal side

The project has affected the lives of almost everyone who lives or has visited the Salt Lake City area in the past few years. Ferrari and Provenzano are no exceptions. Ferrari, who owns her own communications firm, is a full-time consultant to UDOT and the I-15 Team during the project. "I have a partner who is taking care of the rest of the business," she said. With the experience gained from her involvement in the project, she said she hopes to continue working in the field.

Provenzano came to Wasatch from Denver, bringing with her a background in environmental consulting, which included siting and realigning roadways. I-15 has been a rewarding experience for her. "Watching something get built is amazing," she said. "It’s a great opportunity to be part of a project that is coming together. I never tire of talking about it."

Performing major reconstruction on a highway such as I-15 is perhaps more difficult than it has ever been. But Ferrari and Provenzano are confident that with good, open lines of communication between those performing the work and those affected by it, the public can and will support the project. "If you tell them what you are going to do and do it, then public approval goes way up," said Ferrari. Provenzano concurred, saying, "The public is willing to work with construction if you are willing to work with them."

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