Communications First Approach Bolsters Public Perception of Atherton Street Improvements in Pennsylvania
Smooth, Consistent, Relatable: PennDOT’s Strategic Project Messaging Keeps Public Up to Speed on Multi-Phase Atherton Street Project
While it might only occupy 4.5 square miles, the Pennsylvania borough of State College is home to more than 42,000 residents. The densely populated community is infused with an urban vibe due to the presence of Pennsylvania State University’s main campus, University Park, which fuels a vibrant downtown booming with new construction in recent years.
Naturally, this flourishing burgh must modernize its infrastructure to keep pace with current and future population demands. Such is the case with the Atherton Street Project, a multi-year effort to improve roadway and drainage systems along Business Route 322, one of the main east-west arteries into University Park. The overall project is approximately 5.5 miles long and encompasses three other municipalities: Patton Township, Ferguson Township, and College Township.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) District 2 office has divided this multifaceted undertaking into four phases. The initial 1.3 miles of construction, occurring between Colonnade Way and Aaron Drive, was completed in fall 2015. The second phase spanning approximately 1.3 miles between Aaron Drive and Curtin Road has been underway since February 2018. The majority of work on this segment of the project is slated for completion in November, with remaining construction scheduled to be completed around mid-2020.
The scope of work for all phases involves updating drainage facilities, pavement rehabilitation, curb and sidewalk replacements, ADA ramp installation at intersections, and traffic signal upgrades. The state transportation agency is also coordinating with more than a dozen utility companies to either replace or relocate gas, water, sewer, and communications lines along the entire project corridor.
Some members of the community might not immediately recognize the long-term value of these complex utility upgrades, which are time-intensive because they have to be completed in increments. “Many of the project activities are taking place underground, making it hard for our customers to understand the improvements we’re making,” says Marla Fannin, Press Officer for PennDOT District 2. “However, this project as a whole will have a real impact on the quality of life of residents by ensuring utilities stay in good working condition for years to come. It will also make driving surfaces smoother for commuters and enhance safety for pedestrians.”
A Focus on Optimizing Traffic Control
Besides the painstaking utility coordination, traffic sequencing is one of the most challenging project obstacles. Though Atherton Street’s average daily traffic of 39,000 might not seem significant, in a bustling college town with heavy pedestrian activity, any slowdowns can be extremely frustrating. For these reasons, the project team is focused on implementing traffic control solutions that provide reasonable access to businesses, residences, and university facilities.
“Being a town within the Pennsylvania State University system, there are always many activities taking place,” says Dean Ball, PE, Design Project Manager for PennDOT District 2. “We’ve held many public meetings about the project, receiving input from the university, municipalities, housing associations, regional planning organizations, emergency services personnel, residents and others. Also, half of the project is located within historic districts, which adds a new level of complexity. We’ve taken everyone’s concerns into account with our design scheme and how we handle traffic control.”
Normally, Atherton Street has four main lanes for traffic as well as a turning lane. To minimize impacts to motorists, PennDOT strives to maintain at least one open lane in each direction during construction hours. Pedestrian detours are also strategically placed, re-routing most foot traffic only one or two blocks.
“Our traffic control plan includes many advance warning message boards noting potential delays so people can reroute around the construction zone as best as possible. There are also signs closer to the project that provide estimated travel times,” Ball says. “Additionally, PennDOT is coordinating efforts with municipalities that are working on surrounding roadway and utility projects to avoid clogging up alternate travel routes.”
Commuters are also encouraged to use the zipper merge to speed up traffic flow. “We want folks to use both lanes up to the restriction point so that they’re not sitting in one long lane, but rather taking turns melding through the work zone,” Fannin says.
As head of her district’s communications team, Fannin advocates efforts to keep the community informed of project developments – whether by email, social media, news outlets, or other means. Interestingly, this zeal has opened up an ingenuous public relations approach that some stakeholders say is a model for more successful project outcomes.
There are many competing priorities in the construction world, such as cutting overhead costs to improve the bottom line, delivering projects with greater efficiency and speed, and outmaneuvering the competition by adopting innovative technologies. But at the end of the day, what value does anything have if end users are grieved at the seeming “inconvenience” of the construction process itself, even though it’s bettering their communities?
This is exactly why strategic communication should be a key component to enriching people’s understandings of how each stage of construction is impacting their communities. And, when it’s done right, proactive messaging can lead to greater buy-in that makes things smoother for all parties involved.
This philosophy is essentially what guided PennDOT to spearhead the development of a project communications committee for the Atherton Street Project. The group, formed in 2017, is comprised of representatives from PennDOT, Penn State, and municipal government and regional planning organizations who desire to strengthen trust and goodwill with the public.
“It was clear early on in the project that providing up-to-date information easily and quickly would help drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians make informed choices about which alternate routes would work best for them,” Fannin says. “Communication is obviously a big part of doing the right thing by our customers, handling questions, concerns and suggestions appropriately, and providing the community with as much information as possible.”
With a shared goal to provide smooth, consistent and relatable project messaging, the group meets quarterly to share insights on what they feel does or does not work, and brainstorm new ways to share public announcements more effectively.
“The smooth and consistent part is that we’re all using the same information feed,” says Tom Zilla, a founding member of the project communications committee and also the Principal Transportation Planner at Centre Regional Planning Agency. From Zilla’s perspective, these streamlined efforts are having strong positive outcomes.
Currently, PennDOT issues weekly press releases that external partners forward to their contacts throughout the State College regional area. “Each week, new items on the press releases are accentuated in bold or in color to draw attention to them,” Fannin states. “The work activities are broken down according to street, which helps people understand exactly what they will encounter as they navigate through the project zone.”
“The updates we receive from PennDOT are giving our elected officials greater confidence in addressing the questions and concerns raised by their constituents,” Zilla adds. “Relatability is always a challenge, but we keep trying to improve. PennDOT’s very good at public relations, but you’ve always got people who question everything from terminology to location. I think if we can continue to make the information that we’re sharing more understandable to the general public, that’ll always be a positive thing.”
State College Borough’s Communications Specialist, Douglas Shontz, also teamed up with Fannin and Zilla to create what he calls a “true intergovernmental partnership.” He feels optimistic about the committee’s ability to negate misinformation and dispel the negative energy surrounding convoluted transportation projects.
“No one likes traffic. No one likes construction. This committee’s efforts are helping to alleviate the stress of project detours and closures by increasing people’s awareness of the best times to travel,” Shontz says.
He also feels that communications should be a top priority at the get-go of every project. “Oftentimes, communication is an afterthought,” Shontz says. “It is a lot easier when stakeholders are engaged during the planning stages, where they can help to formulate effective strategies for developing and circulating project details. Just a slight shift of thinking of ‘communications first’ has made a world of difference on the Atherton Street Project.”
The general consensus is that this specialized communications team – which works collaboratively to address customer concerns, complaints and other issues – has really improved public perception of the work being done to improve Atherton Street. As this project progresses even further in the next couple of years, having project staff available onsite to respond to public inquiries is another tactic that is “worth its weight in gold,” says Fannin. “This really builds goodwill between us and community members,” she emphasizes, “and helps us provide the highest level of public service and value to our customers.”