Creative project communications

November 2013 » Features » BUSINESS STRATEGIES
MassDOT combines accelerated bridge construction with innovative communications to build public trust and acclaim.
Eliza Partington

When the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) replaced 14 bridges on Interstate 93 – one of the busiest interstate highways in Boston – requiring the closure of half of the lanes of I-93 for 10 busy summer weekends, the agency's communications staff had their work cut out for them. The project, called the 93 Fast 14, condensed four years of on-the-road construction into a single construction season.

MassDOT did not allow work on I-93 during rush hours. Project managers limited mobility impacts to 55-hour-long work weekends during which the capacity of I-93 was reduced by half. To keep traffic through the region flowing during the work weekends, a massive number of vehicles needed to be diverted from I-93. Local users needed to be able to navigate despite exit closures and local road closures that changed each weekend. A skeptical public needed to trust the work could be and would be completed on time.

As the award-winning project's preliminary designer, Mike Culmo, of CME Associates, said, "The potential traffic congestion that could have occurred on I-93 as a result of this could have caused gridlock along the I-93 corridor. This made the project seem impossible. Communications was the tool that made the impossible, possible."


Every bridge project team solves numerous problems, not just the structural problems related to the bridge work, but problems related to utilities, mobility, noise, and more. Understanding the project team's decision-making and problem solving process is extremely valuable to communicating about projects.

The project team carried out an ambitious and thorough communications campaign that was developed by an embedded communications staff person who was there from the first scoping visit to the final concrete pour. Every bridge project team solves numerous problems, not just the structural problems related to the bridge work, but problems related to utilities, mobility, noise, and more. Understanding the project team's decision-making and problem solving process is extremely valuable to communicating about projects.

Without funding for project advertising, MassDOT's communication team had to be creative and resourceful to get the word out. MassDOT took advantage of the agency's communications opportunities by doing activities that ranged from taping fliers on every MBTA bus, to hanging posters at rest areas and RMV offices, to handing out info cards from toll booths.

Importantly, the team harnessed the power of networking, developing a list of active individuals and leaders of stakeholder organizations through in-person meetings and phone calls. The team sent important project information to this group; the information then reached hundreds of thousands of individuals. Focused on the straightforward goals of providing people with the information they needed to make the best travel decisions during construction, the team used traditional methods of communication including public meetings, exhibits in municipal buildings, information on local access cable channels, and phone calls to area worship leaders.

The team also used Twitter, the MassDOT blog, Flickr, and YouTube to spread the word. All media pointed to the hub of project information – the project website. It included an interactive map and tools for businesses to use to help their customers, including printable fact sheets and detour maps, and a downloadable "button" to link their webpage visitors to the project website for more information.

On the road, the team used portable changeable message boards, variable message boards, and a smart work zone/real-time traffic management system to alert people of closure weekends and to give people real-time trip durations prior to key decision-making points.

The 93 Fast 14 was an unusually complex and high-risk project, requiring widespread outreach to a massive population of bridge users and stakeholders. It is just one of many cutting-edge accelerated bridge construction projects performed by MassDOT since the Patrick Administration's Accelerated Bridge Program launched in 2008 with its goal of rapidly, efficiently, and economically improving the health of the Commonwealth's bridges.

Regardless of size and complexity, accelerated bridge construction (ABC) projects pose important challenges. While reducing the duration of mobility impacts often from years or months to days or weeks, ABC projects do require short-duration but high-intensity mobility impacts as a bridge is replaced and demolished. They also provide outstanding opportunities.

Engineers from across the country attended FHWA's Highways for Life Prefabricated Bridge Systems (PBES) showcase that featured MassDOT's 93 Fast 14.
Photo: Andrew Leahy, MassDOT

Lloyd Brown, communications director for the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO), emphasizes that ABC projects have "built-in messages that your audience wants to hear. First, that you're being innovative, using the latest techniques and technologies to save time and save money. Second, that the innovation is going to ensure that the unavoidable disruptions caused by road construction will be out of the way as quickly as possible. Those messages resonate with people and, ultimately, build credibility and loyalty with your audience.Ë®

MassDOT staff has learned this firsthand. After facing skepticism of its early "Heavy Lifts" (complete superstructure replacements performed in a weekend during which the preconstructed superstructure is carried into place via Self-Propelled Modular Transporter), MassDOT now receives requests for other projects to be completed the same way or "done like the ‘Fast 14.'"

On one particularly challenging project near the busy Route 9/I-95 interchange in Wellesley, project staff slowly gained the public's trust as it carried out a thorough, AASHTO award-winning communications plan. During the project's second public meeting, the team showed an employee-made video of an earlier, successful heavy lift project in Massachusetts complete with happy comments from local residents. (View MassDOT's videos at http://www.youtube.com/user/youmovemass)

As the new superstructure took shape on temporary shoring towers in a cloverleaf along Route 9, buzz about the project grew. Children walking by the project site to nearby schools asked a worker why the new bridge was being built where it was. When they heard it would be moved by massive machines, they exclaimed that that was "awesome." Project staff later visited the schools and gave a presentation to inform children (and give take-home flyers to their parents) about the project.

MassDOT and the project's design-build team invited residents to watch the historic bridge move. More than 200 people showed up. When the bridge reopened roughly 12 hours ahead of schedule, drivers beeped and gave thumbs-up, yelling, "Thank you!" out their windows to workers.

MassDOT's holistic approach to communication has definitely been a key to the agency's emergence as a leader in innovative bridge construction. "We take a customer service-oriented approach that considers community values and we use a variety of strategies when communicating with the public and stakeholders," said Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, MassDOT director of communications.

"Equally important," said Victoria Sheehan, MassDOT's Accelerated Bridge Program manager, "the agency uses other channels of information that encourage creativity and result in efficiency. Our goal is to do everything we can to shorten both the project development process as well as project delivery. It is now at our core to innovate."

Approximately 200 people observed the Cedar Street Bridge be moved into place.

To this end, MassDOT is encouraging communication across the traditional "silos" that can be found in any large organization. During project scoping, the designer, district staff, utility coordinators, environmental officials, and representatives of other disciplines meet together in the field to ensure that from day one the team is working together to identify potential issues and develop a design that will avoid or mitigate them. To aid communication within project teams, MassDOT is using workflow tools with ball-in-court notifications to track and identify action items for efficient delivery. To stay involved in engineering developments, MassDOT has established a continuous exchange of information between itself and consultants, contractors, and stakeholders.

The staff at MassDOT also highly value contributing to the national implementation of innovation. Their contributions have not gone unnoticed. According to Benjamin Beerman, senior structural engineer at the Federal Highway Administration, "MassDOT's support to help champion the deployment of the Prefabricated Bridge Systems (PBES) initiative under the Every Day Counts program cannot be understated. Their leadership, participation, and delivery of project showcases, webinars, workshops, peer exchanges, and various AASHTO and TRB meetings have been instrumental in collaborating with our bridge industry to help advance PBES at a national level."

To keep its staff informed, MassDOT's monthly bridge section meeting includes a speaker series that brings in consultants and contractors to share lessons learned on some of the nation's most innovative projects. MassDOT is also involving stakeholders early through working groups and task forces that solicit feedback on complex projects, helping to guide design efforts so that projects are developed in a way that will meet simultaneous needs.

Finally, MassDOT reports the results of its efforts to the public. "Transparency is a central value of MassDOT," said its Secretary and CEO Richard A. Davey. "We serve the public, and keeping them informed and being available to listen to our customers' needs is central to our success in carrying out our mission."

Twitter feedback
A sample of public Twitter response to MassDOT's 93 Fast 14 project reflects the success of the agency's communications program:

  • "Innovative accelerated bridge replacement program by MassDOT looks really cool"
  • "@MassDOT replaced 14 highway bridges this summer. Impressive work."
  • "New bridge, 1 weekend. Unusual to be impressed by public works."
  • "Did someone order an instant bridge? @MassDOT delivers."

Communications strategy tips

  • Keep in mind who the project ultimately serves and focus communications on how the project accomplishes service-oriented goals.
  • Use the community's project-related values and interests as a guide. Anticipate concerns and needs in project design and communications.
  • The whole team should be consistent in its message points and focused on accomplishing the project mission.
  • During public meetings, don't get lost in technical details. Instead, present how the project design solves problems.
  • Be resourceful. Massachusetts does not have funds for placing project-related advertisements, but MassDOT still succeeds in informing people about projects that matter to them.
  • Have a big communications tool box, but select the tools you need. You won't need to use all of them on every project.
  • Keep in mind the wise words of AASHTO Communications Director Lloyd Brown: "The key to a successful outreach program is to always remember the fears and concerns of your audience. It really doesn't matter what you say so much as what they hear. So, it's absolutely critical that you use the language your audience uses and that you make the effort to listen to what they have to say about your project."
  • Take advice from people with local expertise, such as district staff and community liaisons, for the best ways to communicate with specific stakeholders.
  • Check out the FHWA Guide to Creating an Effective Marketing Plan at www.fhwa.dot.gov/hfl/091013/091013_final.pdf It is an excellent resource for developing your own marketing plan.

Eliza Partington is MassDOT Bridge Technical/Program coordinator. She can be contacted at eliza.partington@state.ma.us.


Upcoming Events

See All Upcoming Events