Project Description: After flood waters in September 2013 wiped away large sections of US 34 in the Big Thompson Canyon between Estes Park and Loveland, emergency repairs were made to the highway so it could reopen later that fall. But having watched similar sections of the highway wash away in the 1976 Big Thompson Canyon flood, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) knew a more thorough, permanent engineering solution was needed.
With Governor Hickenlooper’s pledge to build the highway back “better than it was before” and the federal government’s backing with emergency repair dollars, the US 34 Flood Recovery Project began in the summer of 2016 and was substantially completed in May 2018.
Challenges: Working as a subconsultant to CDOT, CIG partnered with communication staff from Kiewit Infrastructure to share information on construction activities and the public impacts associated with them as well as messages related to the project’s purpose and benefits.
The biggest challenge from a construction standpoint – how to incorporate as many permanent engineering solutions as possible in a tight canyon environment without impacting the summertime tourist industry – resulted in the decision to close the canyon to through traffic during the winter months. While this unique construction approach allowed work to accelerate when traffic volumes are relatively light, it also led to these communication challenges:
- Conveying the benefits associated with these wintertime closures in terms of keeping the highway open during the summer and finishing the project sooner
- Convincing the public of the need for this project as many saw the roadway that reopened in November 2013 after emergency repairs as a “final” product
- Managing the sheer number of stakeholders affected by the highway closures – not just commuters, but also canyon residents and people who conduct business in the canyon
- Reaching these various stakeholders across a vast geographic area with limited communication networks in the canyon
- Changing the project scope that resulted in different messages to convey to stakeholders
- Helping people understand how the project team was working to minimize impacts as much as possible and maintain some semblance of normalcy for canyon residents
Strategy: Because closing a highway for several months at a time affects nearly everyone at some point, our strategy involved first understanding the numerous affected audiences. From there, we considered their unique information needs so as work progressed, we could anticipate which audiences might be affected by which activities so we could deliver coping information in advance of the impacts. We conducted one-on-one meetings with local post offices and school district transportation officials to gain a better understanding of their day-to-day operations and developed messages specific to the needs of each audience.
We worked with the construction team to identify permissible access levels for each stakeholder to clearly convey these to the different audiences. People merely traveling through the canyon would have no access at all, while people living or doing business in the canyon would be given permits granting them access to the canyon at certain times of the day. To increase community support, we first asked residents for feedback on when they travel most before establishing the daily travel times for permit holders, and whenever feasible, we expanded permit travel windows based on public feedback.
Lastly, we used a variety of different outreach channels to reach the various stakeholders and expanded our outreach efforts by sharing information with community organizations that could, in turn, share it with their members or constituents.
Intended Goals/Objectives: The overarching goal was to provide timely information to all stakeholders so they can plan their travels accordingly, allowing construction activities to proceed without public interference. Specific objectives included:
- Provide all canyon residents with information on the permit and RSS programs before closing the canyon.
- Share closure and detour route information with regional media outlets to convey to commuters.
- Reach out to special audiences like school transportation representatives, post office officials and parcel delivery companies to identify accommodations to their operations.
- Distribute closure information to community organizations to help share messages.
Communication Tactics: We used the following communication channels to reach stakeholders:
- Variable message signs along different roadways in the region
- Direct mail postcards publicizing open house meetings
- An information hotline and 24/7 call center that yielded more than 11,000 calls
- A project email account that yielded more than 4,000 inquiries
- One-on-one meetings with property owners and business owners in the canyon