WEB EXCLUSIVE: The advisory advantage

Roads & Bridges / November 17, 2008

The Mon/Fayette Expressway, Rte. 51 to I-376, under development by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC), is classified as a major project by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

It will stretch some 70 miles south from Pittsburgh to I-68 near Morgantown, W.V. Of the four independent, stand-alone sections of the project, the one closest to Pittsburgh extends northward from Rte. 51 south of Pittsburgh into southeastern Allegheny County, branching to two interchanges with the Parkway East (I-376). This 24-mile segment is heavily urbanized and characterized by a variety of densely populated city neighborhoods, older industrial towns and suburban developments.

Extra sensitive

In the project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the PTC identified five community areas that would require additional coordination during preliminary and final design due to their uniquely sensitive design features, potential effect on community cohesion and the high number of impacted properties. Design advisory teams were established to ensure that expressway designs were compatible with community goals and plans. Each DAT consisted of nine to 17 community stakeholders, along with five to seven technical team members, one of whom was a representative of the PTC. Within the DAT, all members had equal standing and decisions were made by group consensus.

At the first of their regularly scheduled monthly DAT meetings, the members ratified their charter, reviewed the community issues identified in the EIS and added other issues that they believed to be important. Issues that were categorized by the DAT as most urgent were those that were either highly sensitive to the community or ones that the design engineer needed to address to meet design schedule demands.

It is worth noting that the title “design advisory team” is in some ways a misnomer, as the teams were essentially “design decision teams.” PTC placed much decision-making power in the hands of the DAT and made a commitment toward implementing each team’s decisions. (Although never needed, there was a provision for addressing decisions if a DAT could not reach consensus.) This was a key to the success of the DATs as this empowerment resulted in the establishment of trust early in the process. Having been empowered, the DATs acted in a responsible manner, considering the pros and cons of decisions, including cost impacts to the project. This is in contrast to the assumptions often made by DOTs that if they give decision-making power to the public, the community will not act responsibly.

All issues decided by the DAT were documented in “decision chronicles,” formal documents that became a part of the design record. Olszak Management Inc. provided facilitation for all DAT meetings and also supported all the logistics concerning meeting scheduling and the management of intra/inter-DAT communication and exchange.

DAT advantage

There were many lessons learned from this two-year intensive preliminary design and development experience:

Developing public trust and confidence positively influences outcomes

  • Early positive experiences created momentum. Each DAT faced early challenges that tested the sincerity of the technical team and the PTC. When the technical team and the PTC responded forthrightly and positively, they instilled confidence in community members;
  • PTC placed much decision-making power in the hands of the DAT and made a commitment toward implementing each team’s decisions. This empowerment resulted in the establishment of trust early in the process;
  • As the DAT process proceeded, understanding and trust evolved between community and technical team members. This increased the likelihood of reaching consensus on particularly complex design issues; and
  • Within DATs where trust became more implicit, an increased effort in outreach to the general public was realized. It is clear that the relative enthusiasm of the DATs for their work and accomplishments was a factor in the quality and quantity of their outreach efforts. The DAT members wanted their neighbors to hear their story.

Organize from the start

  • The organization of the DAT process was carefully thought out in detail, beginning with the DAT member nomination process;
  • The detailed tracking and organization of the meetings including the systematic selection of meeting sites, recording of meeting minutes and operation of a well-organized website were all quality aspects of the support system that promoted smooth functioning;
  • Experienced and neutral facilitators were essential in managing the differing personalities within the DATs; and
  • Although attendance was not a widespread problem, clearer policies regarding absences may help DAT members feel more inclined to replace the few inactive members.

Careful DAT member selection and orientation results in committed members

  • Careful screening of potential DAT members was critical to the success of the process. In order for the process to be credible, all relevant points of view had to be represented. In order for it to be successful, all members had to be committed to the process. Strong and clear efforts in regard to selecting, screening and orienting members resulted in DAT members with the necessary characteristics. Not all DAT members supported the project itself, but all were committed to the process;
  • The establishment of ground rules for meeting behavior and consensus building created expectations of how DAT members would conduct themselves and how meetings would be conducted; and
  • Screening and orienting technical staff to understand the process and develop appropriate expectations created a responsiveness and eagerness to participate among consultants on the technical team that was critical in building trust.

Creating the right balance of technical and community DAT members is key

  • As DAT members, individuals had the privileges and the responsibility to participate fully in meetings which was not granted to non-DAT members;
  • Experience suggests that fewer technical team representatives were needed as “full-fledged DAT members.” One or two specialized technical team representatives could have participated in the process on an as-needed basis, attending DAT meetings as special guests or observers;
  • The inclusion of urban designer/landscape architects in the design process as independent sources of feedback and assistance was invaluable in dealing with the non-engineering issues regarding planning, redevelopment and aesthetics which were important to most community DAT members; and Ultimately, the balance of technical versus community members must be carefully considered so as not to overwhelm the community members nor sacrifice the technical needs of the process.

Discussing the Turtle Creek Viaduct

Direct and frequent access to designers and the owner is essential

  • Direct access to technical team members and the owner (PTC) at monthly DAT meetings helped overcome challenges in communication, improved understanding of the technical process and served to build trust between community, technical team members and the PTC; and
  • The DATs’ iterative process not only increased community members’ understanding of technical challenges and decisions, it increased the technical team members’ understanding of community concerns.

Ongoing communication and exchange facilitate decision making

  • Ongoing and open communication kept DAT members engaged when changes in schedule or expectations occurred. It is anticipated that the DATs will remain active throughout the design process into construction;
  • The input and insight of the community members into the discussion of issues improved the designs and the design process for the design consultants; and
  • Engineering design has a unique and sometimes complicated vernacular. As a result, there was a critical need for continual education of DAT members and facilitators in such areas as highway design, traffic analysis, noise and ventilation.

Thoughtful use of visualization techniques increases community members’ ability and willingness to make difficult decisions

  • Simplicity and context is important. While visualization techniques played an important role, their effectiveness was not always in the medium but rather the message and the manner in which the message was verbally presented; and
  • For complex issues, multiple visualization and information distribution efforts are required for any discussion item. Properly matching the media (i.e., aerial views versus cross sections versus graphs versus spreadsheets) to the issue was critical.

Unique characteristics of individual DATs influence decision-making efficiency

  • Although all DATs met their intended goals, the DAT process seemed to work particularly efficiently in those two DATs where the DAT area encompassed one municipal government. One other DAT represented three municipalities: two others fell entirely within a larger municipal government (the city of Pittsburgh); and one in a sparsely populated area was composed of more special interest groups than residents.
  • A strong sense of community can best be achieved, even with multiple municipal entities, when there is a balanced geographical representation within the DAT of people who reside in the various neighborhoods; and
  • A balance also must be achieved between special interest groups and residents. A preponderance of non-resident special interest group representatives over community residents decrease group cohesion and interfere with decision making.

Empowered decision making can save costs and keep a project on schedule

  • Each DAT was given responsibility for decisions without a fixed limit or budget that would curtail the search for creative solutions; the DATs in turn acted responsibly by considering the cost impact in making their decisions. The resulting designs were in some cases more expensive and in others less expensive than the EIS. Overall, the result was a net savings in total cost; and
  • Design consultants reported that the DAT process and chronicled decisions met their time expectations and design schedule. In several cases the DATs finished early.

In part two of this series, we will examine the application of this DAT process to the design of the Turtle Creek Viaduct where DAT input resulted in a dramatic change in design decisions.

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