Bridging the Gap in Baltimore: Improving Communication between Transportation Agencies and Communities

Last Thursday, July 23rd, CNT and the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) brought together thirty of Baltimore’s transportation professionals and community members for “Bridging the Gap,” a daylong workshop on public involvement for transportation projects.

“Bridging the Gap” is an ongoing project to identify points of miscommunication between transportation agencies and community-based organizations (CBOs) in transportation planning and development. When agencies and communities are not engaged in a productive public involvement process, conflicts may lead to costly delays and failure to meet the original goals of a project. The workshop delivered in Baltimore included a series of activities, developed from CNT’s research, that promote trust-building and understanding between participants, and demonstrate tools for future collaboration.

Jacky Grimshaw, Vice President for Policy, Transportation & Community Development, and Anne Canby (STPP) began the day by explaining the need for improved public participation processes, and discussed the opportunities under the current transportation policies.

The morning was geared towards identifying problems in the public involvement process and allowed participants to engage in skills-building activities.

Maria Choca Urban, Transportation & Community Development Program Manager at CNT, facilitated a mock public hearing that illustrated how jargon is problematic in delivering public information. The activity also allowed transportation professionals and community members to “step into each other’s shoes,” and identify the issues around attitude, trust, and transparency that hinder effective public involvement.

Olympia Moy, Princeton 55 Fellow in Transportation & Community Development, facilitated an activity on the public process timeline. Participants reviewed key “public involvement” tools that engage the public vs. “public information” tools for one-way delivery of information. Participants saw that goals can be aligned with open and ongoing channels of communication, and that public involvement should be approached more as a mindset rather than a linear set of required tasks.

Jacky Grimshaw then discussed visualization tools and the requirement for their use under SAFETEA-LU. Participants then had a chance to use keypad polling technology in an image preference survey.

The afternoon activities allowed participants to apply their new perspectives and skills in two case studies.

With the help of Mark Brown, a project manager with the Baltimore DOT, Maria Choca Urban presented a case study of a current Baltimore road project. Participants then worked in groups to develop elements of an ideal public involvement process that would address public concerns and respond effectively to feedback.

Finally, participants engaged in an extended case study on “Bannapolis Beach,” with the task of re-designing a problematic traffic corridor. Transportation professionals and community leaders collaborated in small mixed-groups.

By the end of the workshop, many participants said that they were honored to have the opportunity to work collectively with people who they often found on the other side of the table. They also recognized the value in planning and implementing transportation projects with the combined backgrounds of technical knowledge and community expertise.

Many community members expressed newfound respect for the fiscal and engineering constraints that transportation professionals must work within, and many resolved to collaborate with transportation professionals to improve communications and attend future public meetings with more open minds.
The transportation engineers and project managers also recognized that short, occasional public meetings are not sufficient to truly engage the public in projects that would affect residents’ daily lives, and that an ongoing process can serve to avoid costly conflicts and delays.

Among the participants were professionals and project managers from the Baltimore Department of Transportation, the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board, and the Maryland Transit Administration. Community leaders represented diverse groups and perspectives, including: West Baltimore MARC, Mt. Williams Association, Morgan State University, Belair Edison Main Streets, Park Heights Renaissance Association, Beverly Hills Improvement Association, Action Committee for Transit, Albermarle Square Community, Pimlico, Upper Fells Point Improvement Association, Medfield Community, Hampden Community Council, and Morrell Park.

The original research for the Birding the Gap project was supported by the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in conjunction with the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. The workshop delivered on July 23rd was supported by the FTA Public Transportation Participation Project, administered by the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.