"If God went to a local community board meeting and presented a plan to build the Garden of Eden," says a wry Sam Schwartz, New York City Dept. of Transportation's former first deputy commissioner, "people would protest the location, the design and how they're going to treat the serpent."
Is public suspicion justified? In his book "Megaprojects and Risk," Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg states, "As many more and much larger infrastructure projects are being proposed and built around the world, it is becoming clear that many such projects have strikingly poor performance records in terms of economy, environment and public support."
According to Ray Levitt, a Stanford professor who also studies megaprojects, Flyvbjerg argues that the political process "leads to a lot of 'bridges to nowhere,' lining pockets of consultants and making politicians look good by cutting ribbons on projects that may be wasteful."
Levitt, along with many others, agrees that, invariably, big projects are introduced with overly optimistic numbers for budget and schedule, but he does not agree so much that the projects are wasteful. "Is it a giant conspiracy? Maybe a little bit. But a lot of value comes out of these projects," he notes.
Highlighting a project's long-term value is crucial to securing its approval, but maintaining public support is particularly difficult, say industry officials, especially when the media pumps up coverage on problems on high-profile, big-ticket projects such as the Central Artery/Tunnel and the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge (see related stories, pp. 19 and 21).
Handling those crises is more critical during construction than emphasizing the long-term benefits. "What I've typically seen on megaprojects is leadership not understanding that, once the public has said, 'Yes, we want this,' it's time to move into implementation mode. You're no longer in coalition-building mode. You got the yes, and now you need to get it done," says Karen Morales, owner of Communication Infrastructure Group.
Morales led public-relations efforts for the Colorado Dept. of Transportation and Denver Rapid Transit District when they launched a $1.7-billion rail-and-highway project, T-REX, in 2001. Project leaders prioritized minimizing public inconvenience over budget and schedule. "A lot of very colorful conversations took place because that was not a common thing," she recalls. But it set the stage for the extensive communication effort that led to public embrace of T-REX.
"We had a purposeful strategy of positioning the project as very large and scary and one that would cause inconvenience," Morales says. "We set about lowering people's expectations. We wanted to trade six months of 'Oh, no, this will be terrible for five years' for four and a half months of 'That wasn't so bad.' "
An effective strategy includes ensuring that the internal team and key stakeholders are all unified in their communication plan, Morales adds. She cites as an example a project on which media protocol was not followed regarding a potential environmental issue. "The project was shut down for six months, and it cost $3 million—all because one media incident was not properly handled."
Moreover, "a project gains even more credibility when the project players are their own spokespeople," says Robert Brustlin, chief executive officer of VHB Inc. "You need project champions, not just spokespeople." He points to Michael Horodniceanu, the president of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Capital Construction (MTACC) program, who is handling several megaprojects. "With Mike H., the buck stops there." (See related story, p. 20)
Engineers are getting better at communicating a project's or a capital program's societal benefits to the public, but "we have a ways to go," says Peter Zipf, chief engineer for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which is in the midst of a $27-billion, 10-year capital program. "As engineers … the problem is that, sometimes, we get so into the details, it's hard to communicate to laypeople."