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October 19, 2021Episode 19. Can We Talk? How meaningful engagement can create public support for transportation projects.
FEATURING: Tina Geiselbrecht
The idea of engaging the public on decisions about how to spend public transportation dollars seems perfectly reasonable, but it’s not how things were always done. Senior Research Scientist Tina Geiselbrecht tells us how federal legislation 30 years ago made transportation planning a lot more user-focused.
About Our Guest
Senior Research Scientist
Tina Geiselbrecht, CP3, focuses her research on innovation in public engagement processes. She supports agencies in conducting meaningful public engagement to facilitate transportation planning and policy decision making. Ms. Geiselbrecht was credentialed by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) as a Certified Public Participation Professional (CP3) in 2018. She serves on the IAP2 USA board of directors and is a member of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Public Engagement and Communication committee and the Transportation Demand Management committee.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:15):
Welcome. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another, and what it takes to make that happen. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:32):
The way that we built our surface transportation system took a sharp turn 30 years ago. New federal laws and practices intended to move the nation into the post-Interstate Highway age by focusing not just on highways, but more on how to integrate all modes of transportation. New laws also sought to ensure more public involvement in the transportation planning process. As sensible as it would seem to involve the public in how public money was spent on roads and bridges, that was not the way things had been routinely done up to that point. Tina Geiselbrecht, a senior research scientist at TTI, studies public involvement processes, including how to make those processes more effective. She joins us for this episode to talk about some of what she’s learned. Tina, thank you for sharing your time with us.
Tina Geiselbrecht (guest) (01:29):
You’re welcome. I’m happy to be here.
Bernie Fette (01:32):
So, engaging the public on decisions about how to spend public money … engaging the public on decisions about how to spend specifically public transportation dollars. That seems pretty sensible, pretty reasonable, right?
Tina Geiselbrecht (01:47):
One would think so.
Bernie Fette (01:47):
Yeah, but it’s not the way things were always done. Why is that?
Tina Geiselbrecht (01:52):
Well, for a long time, policy-makers, decision-makers in general thought that they were the most knowledgeable about a particular topic. You know, how to build a road, how big to make that road, what kind of concrete to use on that road, that sort of thing. And didn’t really give much thought to how that project would impact the people that live and work near it. While public involvement principles have been included in other federal legislation — everything from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, even as far back as the Civil Rights Act, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991 was the first federal surface transportation legislation that really kind of broadened public involvement and how public was addressed in the federal legislation. ISTEA really put an emphasis on proactively including the public in decision-making. And since then, in the subsequent reauthorizations, there seems to have been kind of a recognition that the public has not only a right to be involved in the decision-making, but can significantly contribute to helping to make better decisions.
Tina Geiselbrecht (03:31):
ISTEA was really kind of seen as a top-down approach. You know, an agency would often have a design idea, fairly well fleshed out. They would have a public hearing. They would go invite the public to the hearing. The public was allowed to comment in a very kind of prescribed manner. Since then, public involvement has evolved to be more public engagement. It’s more of a two-way communication. And I strongly believe that the more that agencies can involve the public early in the decision-making process and allow them to kind of have that back-and-forth two-way engagement of exchange of ideas, then that will help to streamline the project development process. As you know, the country is once again in the middle of considering federal legislation to reauthorize the surface transportation act. We’ve imagined that the roles for involving the public and how to involve the public will broaden even more.
Bernie Fette (04:48):
Was the move toward more public participation in transportation — was that done out of an interest in avoiding problems of the past or just a desire to do things better? Or was it in some ways of a little of both?
Tina Geiselbrecht (05:01):
It was probably a little of both. You know, it’s informative to look back on how the public involvement and transportation decision-making has evolved over the last 18 months. You know, our country has dealt with a lot, not just the global pandemic of COVID-19, but also there’s social unrest, there’s political turmoil, there’s economic upheaval, and all of those things contribute to how and why someone may engage into the public involvement part of decision-making, whether they do that proactively or reactively.
Bernie Fette (05:48):
So either way there’s, there’s a desire, maybe a greater desire than there used to be on having ownership in some of the decisions that affect their lives.
Tina Geiselbrecht (05:57):
Absolutely. I think, you know, certainly over the last two years, maybe longer, we’ve seen a steady increase in how and when people participate and the expectation that they be allowed to participate. You know, years ago, even back when public involvement was included in that federal legislation, we often did a lot of things like holding big public meetings or public hearings where the public had an opportunity to come and listen to a presentation about a solution to a transportation issue that was already determined, and they could just offer their comment on it. Now, there is an expectation from the public that they be allowed to have more agency in the decision-making of what that transportation project is.
Bernie Fette (07:00):
So for most of those 30 years, since the legislation changed, there’s been a trend toward more involvement with people, which meant literally bringing people together often in greater numbers and then came COVID-19. And a move toward doing the exact opposite. In other words, keeping people apart. So what does public involvement look like in a pandemic? How have you noticed it evolving?
Tina Geiselbrecht (07:30):
Well, public involvement during the pandemic has increased because agencies were forced to provide more and different opportunities for people to become engaged. There’s research out there that shows us that the levels of participation, not just in transportation decision-making, but really in any kind of planning efforts, civic engagement, if you will, really increased during the pandemic because meetings that were previously only held in person were now available via online tools. A lot of agencies, cities, departments of transportation, county transportation agencies really had to up their game in terms of how they provide information to the public and when and where they provided that information to the public. And that I think has really made a difference in how people have been able to engage. What was once before a single opportunity to attend an open house or a public hearing now is an online event that’s streamable that I could watch, you know, whenever it is convenient for me to do that.
Bernie Fette (08:54):
Is it likely some of those advancements wouldn’t have come about were it not for a public health emergency or an emergency of some sort?
Tina Geiselbrecht (09:02):
I think we were moving in that direction, but this really pushed agencies to put their money where their mouth is and say, okay, this is important. We can’t make these decisions without including the public for the reasons that we’ve already talked about here, that public input into transportation planning results in better projects that are more reflective of the community values. The challenges of the pandemic provided opportunities for agencies to test new techniques and new tools without feeling some of the risk that they may have thought was there, otherwise. I think we all extended one another a little more grace during the pandemic. We recognized that, you know, not everything was going to be perfect as we moved to this virtual world. And I think for the first time transportation agencies who are typically very risk-averse, were willing to try something new. Now we’re hopefully near the other side of the pandemic now. And you know, there are rumblings in the transportation public involvement community about, do we go back to how things were before, or do we keep trying to innovate? I think personally that the public will not allow us to go back to the, here’s your one or two opportunities to provide input about this. There is an expectation that there are more opportunities for people to be involved in the decision-making that affects them and their daily lives.
Bernie Fette (10:59):
I noticed that you haven’t used the word that I was kind of waiting to hear that we’ve all heard. So very often over the last year and a half, the word normal and a return to normal, post pandemic. But what I think I hear you saying is that a big share of the public might feel that normal is not good enough. Is that fair?
Tina Geiselbrecht (11:19):
I think that that is a fair way to put that. You know, there will always be a need for what we call traditional public involvement, the opportunity for somebody to go and meet with somebody else face to face, to talk about what their issues are and what their concerns are. But what the pandemic forced us to do was provide opportunities for the other people. Or it was often harder for them to participate. The pandemic, you know, allowed agencies to provide those opportunities to people. And it’s my opinion that we can’t go back from that now. We’ll always probably have a hybrid approach. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that your, your public meeting is both a virtual and a, an in-person event. What I’m saying there is that the agency is offering options to people and how they want to participate.
Bernie Fette (12:26):
I’m wondering if you can spotlight a couple of what we might call textbook examples. What can happen when public involvement is done really well?
Tina Geiselbrecht (12:36):
When public involvement is done really well, agencies know the people they are engaging with and by “know the people,” I mean, they have taken a proactive approach and assessing who are the people that will be impacted and affected by a particular project or policy. And they understand what is important to those people. You know, we call this kind of like a stakeholder analysis, taking a deep dive into the data to understand who your audience is and what things are important to them and designing and developing a project that reflects the community’s values, and the users of the system’s values. And what’s important to them. It’s a project that offers a lot of opportunities for engagement and a lot of different ways. It is a project that proactively seeks out people that have been disadvantaged in the past — people that typically don’t engage so that you can be sure that your project truly represents the opinions of everyone in the community.
Tina Geiselbrecht (14:02):
The public has great ideas. They might not be highway designers or engineers, but they know what they need to lead productive lives in their communities. So agencies should take the opportunity to get people involved early in the project development process, early in the planning process, and then continue those relationships and build trust over time so that when it’s time to do a maintenance project on that same facility, people know that my transportation department’s gonna keep me informed. They’re gonna try to make this as painless as possible for all of us. You’re building credibility and accountability with the public by engaging them as often and as effectively as you can.
Bernie Fette (14:58):
And so what it sounds like you’re saying is that those agencies can benefit from those practices, not only at the beginning of the project when it’s being built, but from the relationships that they built up and established, when they have to come back eight, 10 years later to make some big change to the project.
Tina Geiselbrecht (15:16):
Bernie Fette (15:16):
You’ve helped us understand what can happen when public involvement is done really well. What can happen when the public involvement effort is poorly managed? When it’s done badly in some way?
Tina Geiselbrecht (15:35):
When public involvement is done badly, agencies waste time and resources by not involving the public early in the process. If the public has a suspicion that a decision has already been made, and yet the agency is just going through the motions of asking their opinions about a project, that will not only affect the credibility of the agency. It often can result in increased time on the project, litigation on the project, any number of things that can and often does slow down the project development process. That’s why it’s so important to engage the public early and often, and bring them along in the project development decision-making.
Bernie Fette (16:36):
So there’s not only the consideration of just an agency treating people well. There’s also considerations of just in practical terms and in economic terms.
Tina Geiselbrecht (16:51):
Bernie Fette (16:54):
What are the most pressing questions about public involvement in transportation right now that research might help to answer?
Tina Geiselbrecht (17:04):
I think we need to continually evaluate our public engagement processes to ensure that we are reaching all of the people that we need to reach. So for example, someone with a disability, a mobility disability, for example, may have a different experience using the transportation network than someone who doesn’t have any mobility issues. We know that there are plenty of people who have an inherent mistrust in the government. We need to find ways that we can increase the trust with those people so that they are at the table and contributing their thoughts and opinions on the decision-making. Research can help us to ensure that we are identifying all the audiences that we have for a particular project, that all of those voices are heard. We see a real emphasis recently on making sure that the youth are engaged in transportation planning, because a lot of times when we’re doing long-range planning we’re talking about projects that will impact them more than us. So it’s important that their voices are at the table as well.
Bernie Fette (18:34):
I have this quote that I found from Mark McKinnon, somewhat well-known political strategist. This is what he says: “A messy participatory process is representative democracy at its best.” Can public involvement in transportation be a little bit like that, too? And if so, why is it worth all that messiness and bother?
Tina Geiselbrecht (19:01):
Absolutely. I think public involvement and transportation decision-making can be like that. I’ll give you an example of how it might be messy. You know, an agency may be working on a comprehensive public involvement plan. They have it all planned out. They know their techniques that they’re gonna use. They know the tools that they’re gonna use. They’ve had it all neatly mapped on a timeline. Then they go out and maybe their first public meeting is an open house. At that open house, they discover that they have missed a particular audience. Maybe there’s a large immigrant population in the community that they were unaware of. So, now, they’re gonna have to shift everything that they had so neatly planned before to make sure that those voices become part of the process as well, because those voices will help build a better project because their wants and needs of everyone will be included in the ultimate design of the project, which is what democracy is. Everyone having a voice, right?
Bernie Fette (20:22):
You could have chosen other career paths, but you chose this one. What motivates you to show up every day?
Tina Geiselbrecht (20:31):
I chose public involvement and public engagement as a career path, because I truly believe that that the public has a lot to contribute. And by listening to the public and reflecting their wishes and the policies and projects that are part of their lives, our communities are stronger.
Bernie Fette (21:05):
Tina Geiselbrecht, senior research scientist at TTI. Thank you for sharing your insights with us, Tina.
Tina Geiselbrecht (21:11):
Happy to do so.
Bernie Fette (21:15):
When companies that sell cars and smartphones roll out new products, their planning and design efforts reflect a lot of user experience. Consumer preferences weigh heavily in that process. So, why should new roads and bridges be any different? That’s one way of looking at the expanding role of public involvement in transportation planning. People who pay for and use the mobility network now have a much bigger say in how that network is planned, built and operated. Doing business that way not only ensures that community values are reflected in the final product design, it can also save a lot of time and money. A definite win-win. Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll be back next time for a conversation with Troy Walden, about the latest trends in where, when and why roadway crashes happen.
Bernie Fette (22:17):
Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.