Re-Examining the Role and Scope of Community Engagement in Project Delivery

This article is focused on aspects of Eno’s latest report: Saving Time and Making Cents: A Blueprint for Building Transit Better. For more information about community engagement, register today for Eno’s Transit Cost and Delivery Symposium on October 18-21, 2021. At the event, we will share findings from Eno’s transit cost and delivery report, and include panel discussion on best practices in community engagement and other project delivery themes among transportation professionals, policymakers, and researchers.

From housing to transportation, community engagement is a critical element of the planning process. In the case of major public works projects, it is often a legal requirement. Much of today’s public engagement processes, particularly as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), were a response to increasing environmental stewardship in the 1960s and 70s, as well as pushback against the expansion of Interstate Highways and other major public works projects. Such projects often ran through Black and brown neighborhoods with little to no community input or accountability for their environmental impacts.

Community engagement can allow project sponsors to secure community buy-in, identify points of contention early on, and ensure that underrepresented groups are included in the policymaking process. However, public engagement is not inherently equitable, effective, or transparent. The time, place, and format of public engagement can determine which voices are heard, and which voices are excluded. Research has shown that attendance at public meetings often overrepresents homeowners and wealthier residents, and exclude communities of color, renters, and lower-income residents.

Over the last two decades, and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, new modes of community engagement have emerged to make public outreach more equitable and accessible, and offer more options than the traditional, centrally located meetings in large auditoriums or city halls. These modes include opportunities to submit input virtually, hosting more intimate meeting directly within specific neighborhoods, and planning meetings during a variety of hours to accommodate shift workers and others whose occupation, childcare, educational, or health responsibilities give them little time to attend lengthy public hearings. While these methods have the potential to incorporate input from a wider range of communities, some preliminary research warns that digital engagement has not necessarily reduced the unequal representation in public meetings to the extent anticipated.

There has also been increased scrutiny of the ease by which public engagement can be used to stall new public transit projects, block new housing and land use reform, or otherwise prevent climate-friendly infrastructure from being built. In some cases, this is a result of excessive deference to collecting public input that ultimately prolongs project development or prevents tough choices from being made. Take, for example, the recent announcement that New York City’s plan to implement congestion pricing in lower Manhattan, which was approved by the State Legislature in 2019, will require 16 months of environmental analysis and community engagement in a broad study area comprising 28 counties. The announcement sparked significant pushback from state and local officials who felt the review timeline would only further delay the implementation of the project, and reignited debate over the extent and scope of public input solicited as part of the planning process.

In other cases, officials may order additional public meetings and outreach in response to public pushback or litigation by project opponents. The broad latitude for individuals and groups to file lawsuits to against projects has been a persistent issue with NEPA and particularly in California, where lawsuits against projects under the state’s environmental review process, CEQA, are increasingly common. A 2015 study of CEQA lawsuits found that transit, renewable energy, and housing were among the most frequent subjects of litigation.

The findings from Eno’s 18-month long investigation into transit project delivery underscore many of these issues with public engagement, and identified several opportunities for reform.

Early, Equitable Community Engagement is Critical to Project Successes

A common shortcoming among public transportation projects is insufficient planning early in the project planning phase and a lack of staff capacity to meet communities where they are and respond to their concerns. As a result, project sponsors need to dedicate more staff and resources to working directly with communities during the early planning process. In addition to more resources and early engagement, non-traditional forms of public engagement and deliberate, targeted outreach to underrepresented communities can play an important role in ensuring more equitable and effective public participation.

Project Sponsors Place Too Much Emphasis on Public Input

While additional resources and staff for community engagement is necessary, the process and extent to which public input is solicited needs significant reform. Our report found that project sponsors defer too much to community input and often aim to satisfy all stakeholders by pursuing the path of least resistance during planning. In practice, this results in less useful projects, scope creep, runaway requests for project upgrades from localities, long timelines, and rising costs.

Instead, public agencies and their staff need to be empowered to make tough decisions on project scope and requests, while taking care to transparently document their community engagement to ensure that those decisions are socially equitable. A transparent process, where public sector planners can document all comments and demonstrate how they feed into the final decisions, is critical. Staff should take care to ensure that outreach is representative, respond to every comment, track major decisions and why options were taken off the table, and show how decisions were made with the public input in mind. Interviewees also noted the importance of avoiding overly broad study areas, which can help manage requests for betterments and lead to more targeted public outreach.

Eno’s international case studies identified a variety of approaches to soliciting public input. In regions like Madrid, community engagement is fairly limited and reflects a top-down approach to planning. On the other hand, officials in Paris and Copenhagen have more extensive opportunities and meetings for the public to provide input on projects at various stages of the planning process. In both cases, however, interviewees noted that the engagement was thorough yet expedited, and rarely resulted in members of the public stalling or blocking a project. While Madrid’s approach allowed officials to build dozens of miles of new subway quickly and at a low-cost, interviewees felt that projects were often pushed onto neighborhoods with little concern for their specific needs or desires.

The formalized role of community engagement as part of the planning process was a welcome change to guarantee members of the public, particularly disadvantaged communities, an opportunity to weigh in on major projects. However, the continued underrepresentation of disadvantaged communities, lengthy timelines, and litigation-prone nature of the planning process raises serious questions about the efficacy and utility of how we solicit public input. Examples from abroad suggest that the U.S. does not face a binary choice between top-down planning and comprehensive public outreach. Rather, officials should be empowered to make tough decisions rather than attempting to please all constituencies, and project development processes and environmental laws should emphasize the quality, rather than quantity, of public engagement.

For more information, register today for Eno’s Transit Cost and Delivery Symposium on October 18-21, 2021.

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