D1 virtual public meeting garners impressive public response,
may set stage for future outreach standards

GIS analysts and project planners piloted a new method for the public to provide comment, and its success opens up new possibilities for involving the public in D1 and across the state.

Utilizing recent training with Esri Story Maps, GIS analyst Rob Beachler (pictured below) worked with project planners to produce a virtual meeting for the SH-95 Alderson Lane to Kootenai River Bridge project.

Beachler created a unique website for this project, giving the public a chance to remotely browse through project details, history and maps, without delving into an overly technical report.

“It takes a big, lengthy document and makes it easier to view,” Beachler said. “It is another way to get information out there for those who can’t attend a public meeting.”

The project website included an option to leave comments, and during the two weeks of the comment period, the website received 1,100 views and 111 comments. Compared to the 65 comments received during two public hearings for the same project in 2015, the virtual public meeting created the environment for expanded public involvement, Beachler said.

“These are huge numbers compared to the response we’ve received for other similar projects. I’ve been at public meetings where only five people showed up to comment in three hours,” engineering manager Marvin Fenn said. “We’d be thrilled to continue to see this level of response in our district.”

Beachler attributed the success of the virtual public meeting in part to its ability to let the public respond at its convenience, rather than attending an hours-long, post-workday meeting during dinnertime. Beachler also noted that those who attend a public meeting are asked to give testimony, a process that can be more formal and more intimidating than commenting remotely, especially for attendees who dislike public speaking.

However, virtual public meetings will not be used as the sole source of information about a project or take place of the standard meetings but will be used as an additional communication tool, said district engineer Damon Allen.

“My goal for District 1 is to incorporate websites like this early into the design process, train others how to use it as a platform to collect public comment and apply it is a new way to communicate about complex projects,” Allen said. “Complex projects would include those that change the current configuration of the road or attract significant public interest.”

Now that Beachler has created one website, he said it will be easier for project managers to encourage increased public comment by using the Alderson Lane website as a template to create websites for other projects.

To view the website, visit the D1 page on the external ITD website and find the link under the projects tab named “US-95: Alderson Lane to Kootenai River/RR Bridge.”

Published 11-22-17