Big Projects, by their nature, bring Big Challenges, from acquiring the funding to getting an armful of necessary governmental approvals to fending off often-arising legal challenges.
Now imagine those challenges if two nations happen to be involved in a Big Project. There may be two different sets of standards when it comes to planning, engineering and construction. Each nation has its own overseeing agencies, of course. So who’s in charge?
Then there are other complications. The currencies are different. The languages may be different. The political systems might even clash in philosophy or set-up. The standards may be different – do they use inches and feet or centimeters and meters, do they use AutoCAD or MicroStation or another program to generate their plan sets? And how is a communications and outreach plan devised when two nations are involved? Does each one do its own communication? If so, how is the messaging kept consistent?
But sometimes the need outweighs the challenges, and that’s the case with the Detroit River International Crossing, a bridge project that involves a partnership between the U.S. and Canada. It’s to connect Detroit to Windsor.
A new bridge is considered key to meet future growing trade demands between the two nations. If no new bridge is built and congestion at border crossings worsens as many as 100,000 jobs could be lost by 2035, according to an economic study of the project. Creating a Big Project is a big feat, but sharing one makes it bigger in every way.
So the nations – and the two regions – have been working together to make it a reality. They formed what become known as the bi-national Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) Study, which was made-up of experts from both nations.
Such collaboration is vital in a world that is as interconnected as ours is. And although borders are highly congested, they are also in many ways reduced to lines on a map and don’t represent how interdependent nations – and the people who live in neighboring communities – are. Take this project between five southern African nations, for example. They are teaming up to make a wildlife preserve that crosses all of their borders.
San Diego borders Mexico and its burgeoning city of Tijuana. Opportunity for collaboration is an ongoing effort as combined the two metropolis’ are home to more than 5 million people – over 3 million in the San Diego region and nearly 2 million in metropolitan Tijuana. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) has a Border Committee, which works on a number of projects to improve transportation and foster economic development with our neighbor to the south.
The Detroit River International Crossing is becoming closer to a reality. In June, the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, announced that an agreement between the parties had been reached. This followed an Economic Assessment study done by Detroit River International Crossing team.
Today, we hear from Heather Grondin of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, which played a significant role in the process. We welcome her thoughts on the challenges and strategies involved in a Big Project between two nations.
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As a bi-national study project coordination and communications on the Detroit River International Crossing Study must have been challenging beginning with developing cross border partners. How was that bi-national engagement developed between the agencies?
The Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) study was conducted by the members of the Canada-U.S.-Ontario-Michigan Border Transportation Partnership (BTP). The BTP includes the transportation authorities from two federal governments and two provincial/state governments. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation and Transport Canada (TC) is the corresponding federal level agency in Canada. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) are the provincial and state agencies that have roadway jurisdiction on each side of the border between Ontario and Michigan.
An objective of the BTP was to develop an appropriate coordinated environmental planning process that incorporated the requirements of the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act (OEAA), Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) and the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) processes as well as any other applicable Ontario, Canadian and U.S. legislation.
Further to this, it was the goal to conduct essentially one body of work pertaining to alternative generation, analysis and evaluation, and to document the project findings in format(s) suitable for circulation and review by government agencies, ministries, and departments and the general public.
This coordinated process was agreed to in the terms of reference which can be found here.
What were some of the unique challenges of a project that touches two countries? How did your agency overcome these unique challenges?
Coordination was important amongst the partners. Monthly meetings involving all the project partners were held face-to-face in Windsor or Detroit. Each team reported to one other on events and public consultation, with the consultants for both teams in constant contact. Within MTO, a dedicated project team was created called Windsor Border Initiatives Implementation Group (or WindsorBIIG) consisting of policy, project delivery, communications and planning teams.
Three hundred separate consultation sessions with thousands of people resulted in an unprecedented consultation effort allowing opportunities to share and refine project team analysis of the options and related implications of a preferred alternative.
The project attracted almost daily media coverage, particularly in local media. The approach to media relations was responsive with a focus on the dissemination of fact-based information to conveyed the results of analysis. A variety of approaches were used to reach target audiences.
The study schedule was complex but adhering to it was important. Problem solving became another important attribute of the study team.
A project of this scope, if approached traditionally, would have required a commitment of 10 years to complete the environmental assessment phase alone. There were experienced observers who believed the complexity of the task, reconciling the requirements of four jurisdictions across international boundaries to arrive at a single transportation solution would be difficult to achieve within the short four-year schedule.
Regarding community stakeholders, who were the project stakeholders in Canada?
From the outset of the study, the study team realized that the DRIC project would benefit and have impacts on many stakeholders throughout the Windsor and Essex County area. Therefore, the team set out to develop a consultation framework that would include a wide variety of stakeholders and allow opportunities for meaningful two-way dialogue throughout the project.
As the study evolved, the team consulted with various other interest groups and stakeholders, including community groups, business owners and individual property owners.
Early in the study, Walpole Island First Nation demonstrated a desire to actively participate, and the study team has continued to consult directly with Walpole Island First Nation. All First Nations groups were notified of the DRIC study via a study commencement package and received follow-up phone calls/letters. In addition, mailing notices were also sent to each group prior to Public Information Open Houses and workshops.
The combined Canadian and U.S. study teams formulated a bi-national Private Sector Advisory Group and invited owners from many businesses (both in Canada and the U.S.) to participate.
The study team met numerous times with Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) throughout the study. CBSA has provided direct input regarding the plaza requirements in terms of size, proximity to the border, capacity, and components. The agency reviewed and commented on alternative layouts and continues to advise on the layout and requirements of the preferred plaza location. To ensure that the plaza alternatives were viable and would operate smoothly, the operations for each practical alternative were simulated under year 2035 traffic conditions using customized simulation software.
The study team has consulted several times with EMS representatives (police, fire, and ambulance) as well as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Meetings with EMS representatives have helped to shape the location of access opportunities for the practical alternatives and for the preferred alterative. In particular, EMS input has influenced the access ramp locations at the Todd Land/Cabana Road West interchange.
The team asked the RCMP to review the practical alternatives for the plazas and river crossing from a threat security viewpoint. This review was undertaken and concluded that each alternative was viable and could be made secure with no undue threat to safety and security.
For a full list of consultation groups/agencies/stakeholders, and to review the full consultation program, please visit.
What strategies and methods did you use to communicate with and engage them?
The study team had a large outreach to ensure all parties impacted by the project were consulted. Outreach included:
· Public Information Open Houses (PIOHs)
· Context Sensitive Solutions workshops
· Special interest/stakeholder/municipal meetings
· Media briefings/announcements
· Editorial boards
· Letters and mailings
· Information kits
· Display boards
· Expert availability
· Newspaper advertisements
· News releases
· Dedicated project website
· Boat/bus tours on both sides of the river
· Computer simulations
· “Myth Buster” documents
· E-mail blasts
· Letters to the Editor
· Easy-to-understand maps
· Municipal presentations/delegations
Because of the large scale of this study did the Ontario Ministry of Transportation use any new or unique tools, such as social media, to help engage the public?
During the DRIC study, from 2005 to 2008, social media did not play a role in public engagement. Many of the above noted tactics were considered unique.
Was each nation responsible for working with their own stakeholders? Were there ever certain points in the project where there was a need to collaborate efforts between the two nations to gather feedback from stakeholders in both nations?
Throughout the environmental study process, the Partnership coordinated meetings between Canadian and United States federal, state and provincial agencies with common or shared interests so that, as much as possible, a bi-national approach to identifying and addressing issues was developed.
Another key principle of the coordinated process was that, where two or more processes specified different requirements in conducting the study, the Partnership sought to incorporate the most rigorous requirement to the extent possible. However, there were certain requirements that were unique to a particular jurisdiction that needed to be directly incorporated into the corresponding study process.
There were also arranged opportunities where stakeholder/consultation groups from each nation were brought together for joint meetings and tours.
Did public input through the environmental analysis and reporting process leading up to approvals change the project at all? If so, in which ways?
The public had a major role and responsibility in determining the success of a public consultation program. The extent to which the public participated, the issues they raised and how such issues were resolved all influenced the effectiveness of the consultation process.
Since the study initiation, more than 300 consultation sessions were held with thousands of Windsor-Essex residents, community groups, experts, local elected officials and other government agencies. These sessions were integral to the study team’s understanding of impacts and opportunities to minimize them wherever possible. By 2007, interest began to grow in a concept that involved a buffer between the highway and nearby residences. This would require a sizeable amount of property acquisition and the use of tunnelled sections. Further consultations occurred. A concept emerged, through consultation, that would involve a green corridor with tunnelled sections, a grade-separated recreation trail and extensive areas of future green space.
In August 2007, the DRIC study team presented the Parkway alternative for the access road for international traffic. This green corridor would be below grade with a number of tunnels. The concept introduced in 2007 was further improved and in May 2008, the Windsor-Essex Parkway was presented as the technically and environmentally preferred alternative for the Ontario access road connecting to a plaza and river crossing location in west Windsor.
Within the integrated environmental study process, public consultation involved reviewing, commenting and providing input to the technical and environmental work undertaken and to provide input to the public consultation process. The proposed consultation plan encouraged proactive consultation, allowing comments and views of the public to assist in influencing the study and recommendations thereof.
The information received through these consultation activities was considered in the development, analysis and evaluation of alternatives. In some cases, the comments and/or desires of interested stakeholders were not supported by the study team’s analysis and evaluation. However, in many cases the comments reinforced the analysis/evaluation and/or caused the team to adjust its thinking regarding the balance of impacts and benefits of the undertaking.
A summary of consultation impacts can be found in section 3.1 here.
Were there any surprises you encountered with the public involvement planning during the Environmental Assessment stage? If so, what were the lessons learned?
Public consultation was an important part of the DRIC study process and as communications extended out into the community to engage the public, the amount of interest grew. Attendance at public meetings increased over the course of the study from a few hundred at the initial outreach sessions in early 2005 to over 1,400 in late 2008.
There were different issues that arose during the study process that required special communications. In 2006, the community pushed for tunnelling, this aspect was added to the options under study for the access road. In 2007, the City of Windsor introduced their own below grade access road option, GreenLink, and conducted a public outreach campaign. In early 2009, air quality became a topic of interest and communications centred around disseminating expert information into language the general public could understand.
The main lesson learned through this endeavour was to make the message easy to understand. The general public may not understand the technical details like airborne particles or construction methods for tunnelling. We also understood the need to have one voice for the entire duration of the study. In response to this, the study lead, Dave Wake from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation handled the bulk of interviews, announcements, and public interaction. At every step of the way, Dave hosted the discussion using approved key messages that were easy to understand. From time to time experts were brought in to discuss the points made and reiterate the key points.
We also understood the need to have all key spokespeople trained in not only delivering media interviews, but also the process of drafting key messages and responses. All senior members of the study team were trained by media experts in how to put together responses that would be easily understood. This training proved useful as team members worked with communications on drafting and approving messages.
What are the next steps for the Detroit River International Crossing and how does the Ontario Ministry of Transportation plan continue to keep the public informed and engaged?
The DRIC study Environmental Assessment Report lays the foundation for the work on the Windsor-Essex Parkway and the plaza and bridge crossing elements on both sides of the border.
During future design phases, commitments made in the EA regarding design works and environmental analysis and impact assessment; development and incorporation of mitigation measures; obtaining of regulatory agency approvals and permits; and consultation with interested and potentially affected stakeholders will be monitored.
The Ontario Ministry of Transportation is leading the delivery of the Windsor-Essex Parkway and its communications. Seven Public Information Open Houses have been held in 2011 and 2012 regarding the design and construction of the Parkway. These sessions have been focused on provided information on upcoming work and seeking input from the public. The sessions have been well attended with a great deal of public input.
Social media has now been added as a communications tactic which supports more traditional approaches to communications and the project website. For the announcement of the public sector partner to design, build, finance and maintain the Parkway, an online web cast was organized with the announcement streaming live around the world. This initiative was built upon in August 2011 for the announcement of the start of construction. The announcement was broadcast over the internet with the addition of live tweeting on both the English and French twitter feeds for the Parkway.
Social media sites were set up in late 2010 to include YouTube and Flickr to post project photos and videos. Since the start of these sites, more than 15,000 views of videos and 105,000 views of photos have been logged. The sites feature not just announcement and special event videos and photos but also provide an opportunity for community education on construction techniques, design, and on the ground access behind the construction fence. Aerial photos are one of the most popular aspects of the Flickr page and after the August 2012 posting of photos, more than 800 views were logged in the first hour alone.
Twitter has proven to be a very effective tool in disseminating real time traffic impacts. Road closures and lane impacts are posted almost daily on the site and retweeted by local media, local emergency services, and local municipalities.
In summer 2012, the Parkway team launched a Facebook page which links to Twitter for individuals who do not have, nor wish to start up a Twitter feed but still wish to receive real time information.
The social media sites have been a great tool in helping us understand what the public may or may not be interested in. We have noticed a large volume of hits relating to specific aspects of work. For instance, construction videos and aerial photos on YouTube and Flickr respectively have been quite popular. We also try to ensure we are providing opportunities for feedback or questions in our posts to reach out to the public in this manner.
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Thank you Ms. Grondin for you time and insight on such a complicated yet successful collaboration between two nations. It’s great to have such a friendly and helpful neighbor to the north!
Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.