August 12, 2016
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Show and Tell: Agencies Use Smart Messaging to Inform Riders of SGR Issues, Progress

How do public transportation leaders explain to riders that single tracking on rail lines, out-of-service escalators, improvements to bus stops and other trip inconveniences are really in their best interest?

Passenger Transport asked some senior-level officials to share how they convey complex state of good repair messages to riders and the public, and invited APTA’s Rose Sheridan to provide a national ­perspective on this one-question interview:

Riders often see maintenance projects as hindrances to their trip. How do you translate SGR operations into messages about enhanced service, safety and reliability?

APTA: Focusing on the National Landscape

Rose Sheridan
Vice President, Communications and Marketing

The public transportation industry is at a crossroads regarding state of good repair. APTA builds on three central points in congressional testimony, national media calls and proactive outreach to the general public and key influentials.

Overcapacity; Underinvestment. Public transportation systems have the dual challenge of meeting growing demand for new and expanded services while trying to maintain agency infrastructure. Many systems are victims of their own successes. While experiencing growth, they must make difficult trade-offs to ensure safe, reliable service, day-in, day-out. What’s more, rising ridership often means additional strain on aging infrastructure.

After decades of underinvestment, it’s no surprise that public transit infrastructure is being held together with temporary fixes, at best, or is crumbling, at worst. Meeting current national demand requires a capital investment of $43 billion annually over six years by all levels of government. Currently, the U.S. invests only $17.7 billion annually—less than half of the need.

The infrastructure crisis is a national one, with local roots and local consequences. To tackle it effectively, we must elevate the conversation to a national dialogue and advocate for greater levels of investment from all levels of government to strengthen public transit in the country’s cities, towns, regional corridors and neighborhoods.

Paying the Piper. The FAST Act is a good first step, but we are climbing out of a very deep hole. FTA data show that a significant portion of our nation’s public transit vehicles have outlived their minimum useful life. This is a critical issue for systems of all sizes, all modes and in all locations.

FTA says that 25 percent of all rail transit assets and more than 40 percent of buses are in marginal or poor condition—far below the “good repair” standard. Overall, the nation faces an $86 billion backlog.

In 2010, poorly maintained systems cost the economy $90 billion in lost time and wasted fuel. This loss is expected to reach $570 billion annually by the end of this decade and more than $1 trillion by 2040.

Simply put, the decades-long delay in rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure starves our economy by hundreds of billions of dollars a year. We can’t afford to watch that revenue disappear.

Reaping the Rewards. Investing in infrastructure, on the other hand, can add billions to the economy. Consider that $1 billion in public transit investments creates and supports 50,000 jobs in sectors ranging from construction to technology, retail and finance. This increase in employment drives another $3.6 billion in sales for businesses and $500 million in federal revenue. Every dollar invested in public transportation generates $4 in economic activity.

There are intangible rewards as well. Transit riders, advocates and stakeholders nationwide are uniting around the core message that “Where Public Transportation Goes, Community Grows,” calling for greater investment and, in many cases, bucking conventional wisdom by voting to tax themselves to pay for it.

For the past five years, more than 70 percent of local ballot initiatives to support public transit investment have passed. These election results are borne out by an annual survey from the Mineta Transportation Institute that finds people will support gas tax increases to fund transportation in general and public transit specifically.

Collectively, our industry—and its riders and advocates—must make their voices heard so our political leaders know we support them as they fight for increased long-term, robust investment in infrastructure.

It is time to rebuild, renew and expand some of America’s most valuable assets—the nation’s public transportation systems.

MBTA:  Leveraging New and Traditional Media
Brian Shortsleeve
Acting General Manager

With a $7.3 billion state of good repair backlog and infrastructure weaknesses exposed by winter storms that dumped 110.6 inches of snow on the Boston area, it was imperative that the MBTA conduct much-needed signal, rail and other upgrades on our Red and Orange lines.

For our Winter Resiliency Improvement Program to succeed, the public had to be aware and supportive of the effort and the numerous service diversions and ROW work that would be required.

The MBTA used both traditional and new media to spread public awareness of its upcoming winter resiliency effort, using the phrase often in press releases, news conferences, on Twitter and on the T’s own website. Notices were issued in the form of T website service alerts and press releases emailed to dozens of media outlets.

Gov. Charlie Baker, as well as leaders of the MBTA and Massachusetts Department of Transportation, spoke publicly of the need for such work.

It was also stressed that crews were installing new signal equipment, snow fencing, third rail and heater installation at night and on weekends as a way of causing as little disruption in service as possible.

Information was also shared regarding alternate service being provided as a result of any diversion, with scheduled reminders sent to service alert e-mail and SMS subscribers and posted with graphics on Twitter.

Updates were given so that the public could follow the progress being made in the form of press releases and updates posted to the MBTA’s website.

Current construction photos of the ongoing winter resiliency effort were regularly posted to Twitter and the MBTA’s Instagram account during weekend diversions in an effort to publicly show improvements made during service disruptions.

As a measure of success, winter resiliency efforts were covered extensively by local media and received high percentages of positive sentiment on Twitter, increased instances of resiliency-related retweets and a boost in Instagram likes when photos were linked to winter resiliency.

See MBTA’s new media on Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.

DART: Communicating with Clarity, Precision
Morgan Lyons
Assistant Vice President,External Relations
Chair, APTA Marketing & Communications Committee

State of good repair projects are essential. Clear and precise communication about the benefits of the work, along with the short-term challenges, is equally important.

While they’re not always as immediately exciting as a new rail line or bus route, the stories behind them are often even more important. But, let’s face it, they can create some pretty big hurdles for customers.

There are three keys to communicating SGR initiatives: Be transparent about what you’re doing and why, focus on the benefits of the SGR activity and make sure your customers know how you’re going to help them get around during the disruption.

All four DART light rail lines use the same corridor in downtown ­Dallas. Those tracks get lots of use daily, so imagine what they’re like after 20 years.

We needed to replace them to make sure we continued safe operations through the heart of our system.

But replacing embedded rail through the heart of one of the nation’s biggest cities isn’t done in a day. It would mean no trains through the area, massive bus bridges and lots of customer communication before, during and after.

Work was scheduled over several weekends and the extended Thanksgiving holiday to minimize customer disruption. We began communication weeks ahead through owned, earned and paid media.

We went door-to-door to inform downtown businesses, residents and stakeholders. We provided updates throughout the work—including during the work days—and we produced some award-winning videos after each stage to show people what we had accomplished.

State of good repair is an industry-wide challenge. While it calls attention to the need for sustained, substantial investment in public transit, these activities create a great opportunity for communicators to demonstrate the value public transit delivers to growing communities.

See DART video here.

San Diego MTS: Highlighting Short-, Long-Term Impacts
Rob Schupp
Director, Marketing and Communications

The Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) recently completed Trolley Renewal—a five-year, $660 million effort to modernize San Diego’s light rail system.

Improvements included new low-floor trains, upgraded station platforms, track replacement, new overhead catenary wire and signaling systems and more.

A major state-of-good-repair project like Trolley Renewal takes a lot of communication. It was the job of the MTS marketing team to help riders understand the short-term impacts and long-term benefits.

We worked hard with the contractors to have most impacts at night and on weekends. We helped continue service by implementing bus bridges between trolley stations.

Communicating impacts with riders is much more hands-on than just having a webpage and signs at stations. To effectively share construction impacts and associated long-term project benefits, we used a variety of tactics such as:

In-Person Communication: This was the most important element to communicate SGR information. MTS employees such as ambassadors, security officers and line supervisors were deployed daily at key locations and educated riders.

Stakeholder Outreach: Presentations and information toolkits were provided to all social service agencies well in advance of work.

Electronic Notifications: A robust email list was developed and we shared regular construction updates.

Web Updates: A designated webpage was created and updated regularly. We linked to it prominently on the homepage of the MTS website.

Social Media: We shared photos of progress and featured milestones of accomplishments. We also used this platform as an opportunity to thank riders for their patience.

Station Kiosk Information: Signage at station kiosks was regularly updated to reflect progress.

Media Events: We held media events to highlight major milestones of Trolley Renewal.

Community Celebration: We held a customer appreciation event at the end of Trolley Renewal to thank riders for their patience for five years of construction.

It was important to find a balance in messages about the long-term benefits versus the construction elements. Social media played an important role to keep riders informed, but we didn’t bombard followers with construction notices.

We kept it light, with photos and positive progress reports. The key to success was having employees on the ground communicating directly with customers about the impacts.

Denver RTD: Building on a Foundation of Safety
Scott Reed
Assistant General Manager, Communications

The Regional Transportation District (RTD) in Denver is committed to providing safe and reliable transit service to the more than 103 million passengers we serve every year, with safety being our ­Number 1 priority.

As a result of FTA findings of many nationwide transit assets in marginal-to-poor condition and new FTA performance-based requirements aimed at improving the safety of transportation infrastructure, in 2011 RTD initiated a state of good repair (SGR) strategy with a pilot program to evaluate long-term assets.

This asset management program builds on RTD’s existing safety foundation to mitigate risk, detect and proactively correct safety problems, share and analyze safety data more effectively and measure safety performance more carefully.

Since the implementation of this program, RTD has improved safety and reliability throughout the system and worked towards messaging these important projects to the public.

This was demonstrated recently when RTD addressed deteriorating rail track in the crucial downtown loop. In order to repair the damage, a shutdown of that portion of the rail was required for a full weekend. In all of our messaging to the public regarding the shutdown, we emphasized the importance of the SGR program and that the repairs were necessary to continue to provide safe service to our customers.

In addition to messaging any service impacts, RTD also works toward letting the public know about the value of SGR by getting positive stories out about how the program is saving taxpayer money and increasing safety, through initiatives like unmanned aerial vehicles performing inspections on the alignment (keeping personnel off the tracks) and a light rail traction motors and gear box rehabilitation that cuts the cost of rebuilding them in half.

RTD is striving to evolve from a “find and fix” approach for maintenance and asset management to a ­“predict and prevent” approach. We now are able to evaluate corrective maintenance practices and tune ­existing preventative maintenance programs to reduce costs and improve safety and overall reliability.

Pace: Alerting Riders to Improvements
Doug Sullivan
Marketing Department Manager

It is less common for customers of a bus-only system such as Pace Suburban Bus, which serves the Chicago area, to be impacted by a state of good repair project, since most of our capital funding goes towards purchase of replacement buses and the customer isn’t negatively affected by that work.

However, there are times when rehab work on transportation centers does require route detours or use of temporary boarding areas, and with that, corresponding communications to customers. In those cases, Pace does make an effort to remind riders that, even though they are being temporarily inconvenienced, they will see the long-term benefit of an improved passenger facility.

As an example, here’s the Facebook post we created about our Elgin Transportation Center when it was under­going repairs:

Pace continues to enhance the experience of passengers who board and transfer at the Elgin Transportation Center. Please “pardon our dust” this weekend as we temporarily detour buses at that location while new concrete is poured. Thanks for your patience while we work to serve you better!

Additionally, earlier this year, Pace held a high-profile ribbon cutting for a new CNG fueling facility, which is located at a bus garage that was rehabbed with federal funds to accommodate that new fuel source. We touted the environmental and financial benefits of this change to the public and the media. The new buses that use CNG fuel also have a promotional message on the exterior to remind the public (riders and non-riders alike) of the benefits that come with SGR funding.

Another opportunity for customer communication about SGR issues comes when we encourage passengers to advocate on our behalf to their elected officials. Pace has deployed interior car cards and email blasts to alert those who depend on Pace the most—our ­riders—to upcoming congressional action that will be critical to transit funding.

Experience tells us that elected officials take note of constituent feedback about the importance of well-funded public transit, and those rider advocacy efforts have generated lots of attention and positive results for Pace and our riders.
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