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Environmental Review Toolkit

NEPA and Transportation Decisionmaking

Public Involvement and its Role in Project Development

Designing a Public Involvement Program

Developing an effective public involvement program requires a variety of techniques that can meet the needs of a given transportation plan, program, or project. Current Federal statutes and regulations derived largely from the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) provide general guidelines for locally developed public involvement processes and procedures. However, transportation agencies and project sponsors do have flexibility in developing specific public involvement programs. Every given situation is different, and each approach to a specific public involvement challenge will be unique.

Whether designing a public involvement program for statewide or metropolitan planning or for an individual transportation action, agencies and project sponsors should consider the following guidelines:

  1. Public involvement is more than simply following legislation and regulations. In a democratic society, people have opportunities to debate issues, frame alternative solutions, and affect final decisions. Knowledge is the basis of such participation. The public needs to know details about a plan or action in order to evaluate importance or anticipated costs and benefits. Through continued interaction with the entire community, agencies and project sponsors can build support and, more importantly, assure that the public has the opportunity to help shape the substance of plans and actions. In summary, public agencies must act as public servants.
  2. Agency and non-agency partners need to be in continuous contact during transportation decisionmaking, from early problem identification to definition of purpose and need to alternatives development to implementation of a particular solution.
  3. Agencies and project sponsors should use a variety of public involvement techniques to target different groups or individuals in different ways or to target the same groups or individuals in different ways. A single, one-size-fits-all approach usually leaves people out of the process.
  4. Agencies and project sponsors should search out the public and work hard to elicit comments. It is true that resources are limited, and agencies cannot make anyone participate. However, transportation agencies have repeatedly found that going after the public and changing unsuccessful approaches bring greater results.
  5. Agencies and project sponsors should focus on increasing public participation in decisions rather than on conducting participation activities because they are required. Decisionmaking should include both the continuous stream of informal decisions made by agency staff and lower-level management and the less frequent formal decisions made by higher-level management. Timely agency response to ideas from the public and the integration of those ideas into decisions shows the public that participation is worthwhile. A focus on the wide range of possible decision points gets agencies past simply offering the public passive opportunities to comment on proposals just before formal decisionmaking.

The following five steps are just one example of a public involvement program for a specific plan, program, or project.

  1. Set goals and objectives for your public involvement program. Base those goals and objectives on the specific circumstances of a given transportation plan, program, or project. What formal and informal decisions need to be made? When and by whom? What public input is needed? Public input can be in the form of consensus. Consensus does not mean that everyone agrees enthusiastically but that all influential groups and individuals can live with a proposal. Public input can also be in the form of information used by staff or decision makers. Use your objectives to form your public involvement program. The more specific the objectives, the better they will guide the involvement program. In addition to brainstorming and analysis by agency staff, ask members of the public for their input on goals, objectives, and names of people who should be contacted. This can be done through key person interviews, focus groups, or public opinion surveys.
  2. Identify the people to be reached. At the same time you set goals and objectives, identify potential audiences. Reach the general public and those directly affected by a proposed action, such as abutting property owners. Review who is affected directly and indirectly and who has shown past interest. Look for people who do not traditionally participate, such as minorities and low-income groups. What information do they need to participate? Identify what issues or decisions affect specific groups or individuals. How can their ideas be incorporated into decisions? Identify and involve new individuals and groups that appear. Conceptualize the public as a collection of discrete groups, individuals, and the general public. Each has different interests and participation levels.
  3. Develop a general approach or set of general strategies keyed to the goals and objectives of the involvement program and the characteristics of the target audiences. Fit strategies to their target audience in terms of what input is desired and what level of interest or education the audience possesses. Your approach should fit your available time, money, and staff. In addition, your approach should be based on a principal technique, such as a civic advisory committee or a variety of different activities keyed to specific planning or project decisions. Be sure to run your general approach by your target audiences to see if they find the approach acceptable. Make sure to include underserved populations, including minorities and the disabled.
  4. Flesh out the approach with specific techniques. Consult past experience for what works and does not work. Look at manuals of techniques and ideas from agencies that have had successful experiences with public involvement. Choose techniques that fit your specific purpose and audiences; target individual groups with appropriate techniques. Approaches that fit the general public often do not fit specific groups well and result in lack of attendance at meetings. Do not isolate groups; provide a way for them to come together and for the general public to review what groups have contributed.
  5. Assure that proposed strategies and techniques aid decisionmaking to close the loop. Ask agency staff the following questions: Are many people participating and sharing good ideas? Are key groups participating? Is the public getting enough information to contribute meaningfully? Are decision-makers getting adequate public information when it is needed? If a consensus is needed for decisionmaking, consensus-building techniques like negotiation and mediation or collaborative task forces may be useful. Ask participants who are missing from the participation process. How can missing participants be attracted? Do participants think discussion is full and complete? Do they think participating agencies are responsive? If not, why not? Continually evaluate and make midcourse adjustments.

Public Involvement Techniques for Transportation Decisionmaking
Prepared by:
Howard/Stein-Hudson Associates, Inc. and
Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade and Douglas
for the Federal Highway Administration/Federal Transit Administration
September 1996
Publication No. FHWA-PD-96-031

Public Involvement Overview

FHWA Policy

Public involvement and a systematic interdisciplinary approach are essential parts of the development process for proposed actions.

23 CFR § 771.105(c)

FHWA’s Public Involvement Requirements

Each State must have procedures approved by the FHWA to carry out a public involvement/public hearing program pursuant to 23 U.S.C. 128 and 40 CFR parts 1500 through 1508.

State public involvement/public hearing procedures must provide for:

  • Coordination of public involvement activities and public hearings with the entire NEPA process.
  • Early and continuing opportunities during project development for the public to be involved in the identification of social, economic, and environmental impacts, as well as impacts associated with relocation of individuals, groups, or institutions.
  • One or more public hearings or the opportunity for hearing(s) to be held by the State highway agency at a convenient time and place for any Federal-aid project which requires significant amounts of right-of-way, substantially changes the layout or functions of connecting roadways or of the facility being improved, has a substantial adverse impact on abutting property, otherwise has a significant social, economic, environmental or other effect, or for which the FHWA determines that a public hearing is in the public interest.
  • Reasonable notice to the public of either a public hearing or the opportunity for a public hearing. Such notice will indicate the availability of explanatory information. The notice shall also provide information required to comply with public involvement requirements of other laws, Executive Orders, and regulations.

23 CFR § 771.111(h)

The SAFETEA-LU Environmental Review Process Final Guidance on coordination and schedule provides information on how lead agencies should establish a plan for coordinating public and agency participation and comment during the environmental review process. It also provides guidance on updating public involvement procedures to help state DOTs determine if they need to update their public involvement procedures, pursuant to 23 CFR § 771.111(h).

Other Resources

Virtual Public Involvement
Public Involvement and its Role in Project Development
Public Involvement Techniques for Transportation Decisionmaking