Communication Strategies for Major Public Works Projects The Los Angeles Metro Rail Program under Siege

Rodney J. Dawson, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority PMI Proceedings, 1995r pp. 56-61


In 1993, the Los Angeles Metro Red Line project won PMI's prestigious International Project of the Year award. By 1994, it was a project under siege. These are some headlines from The Los Angeles Times:

"Mistakes, Woes Add Millions to Subway Cost," "Misalignments Found in New Subway TUnnels," "MTA Delayed Response to Hinnel Warnings," "MTA Chief Seeks to Revamp Construction Arm," "Funds Cutoff Gives MTA Chief Biggest Challenge," "L.A. Subway Construction Chief Ousted."

What happened? Should PMI ask for its award back? Project veterans will tell you that in construction, "stuff" happens. When problems arise, should major public works projects automatically come under siege from the media, politicians, and the public?

William Glaberson writes in The New York Times that the media has gone beyond skepticism and adopted a new cynical brand of journalism. Using the construction of tunnels beneath Hollywood Boulevard and a localized surface settlement problem as a case study, this paper presents winning strategies for responding to the media. The paper also discusses how to effectively communicate with public officials and affected communities, emphasizing how to mitigate the adverse impacts of urban construction on local business and private citizens.

The Los Angeles Rail Program

The Los Angeles Metro Rail system is the largest public works program currently under way in North America. This multi-year, multi-billion dollar design and construction program is bringing urban heavy and light rail transit to Los Angeles. This high-profile construction program receives continuous scrutiny from the media, elected officials, businesses, and the public.

Metro Rail is part of the transportation strategy to reshape Los Angeles into a more efficient, productive, and healthier urban area. Each line in the system, shown in Figure 2, is a separate project.

Metro Blue Line and Pasadena Blue Line use conventional light rail technology. Metro Green Line is designed to use fully automated light rail technology, and Metro Red Line is a heavy rail subway being constructed in separate project segments. Figure 3 presents the cost, schedule, and status of

"Mistakes, Woes Add Millions to Subway Cost" "Misalignments Found in New Subway Tunnels" "MTA Delayed Response to Tunnel Warnings" "MTA Chief Seeks to Revamp Construction Arm" "Funds Cutoff Gives MTA Chief Biggest Challenge" "LA. Subway Construction Chief Ousted"

Figure 1 The Los Angeles Times Headlines these projects. Future projects may be built along alternative candidate corridors now under evaluation.

Good Work Overshadowed by Bad Publicity

Unfortunately, the kinds of problems experienced on all large construction programs have overshadowed the rail program's contributions to Los Angeles' transportation strategy. As a result, individual rail projects and the program as a whole have been subject to frequent criticism and attack from the media, the public, and elected officials.

What brought this about? The magnitude of the rail construction effort and the associated level of disruption the construction causes in communities instantly makes the rail program "big news." Investigative journalists sell newspapers by revealing problems, and the multi-billion dollar taxpayer-j funded rail program provided ample opportunity for negative headlines. The

| political agendas of elected officials were not always aligned with the rail

I program, particularly at times when officials faced reelection and wanted to

[ avoid any association with negative issues.

| Hollywood/Hudson Intersection Settlement: A Case Study

I In reviewing the events surrounding tunnel construction beneath Hollywood

I Boulevard and a problem of localized settlement at the Hudson Street inter-

! section, we can see how the incident became fertile ground for the media and

| how the public reacted more to what was reported than to the actual incident.

The Events

During the summer of 1994, settlement of Hollywood Boulevard occurred at the Hudson Street intersection along the route being tunneled. A four-inch settlement occurred above the tunnel on the north side of the boulevard. Three weeks later, a five-inch settlement occurred above the tunnel on the south side of the boulevard. Street-surface settlement above the north tunnel increased to nine inches, and on August 20 distress was observed along 200 feet of the north tunnel. Immediate steps were taken to support the distressed tunnel area and further tunneling was halted until long-term remedial action could be taken.

The 9 inches of settlement were limited to approximately 15 feet of the generalized 200 feet of settlement area above the distressed tunnel. The ac-, tions taken by the project staff successfully prevented street or tunnel collapse.

However, the localized settlement was more than the 1-2 inches experienced during tunneling of the previous 8 miles of the alignment.

Media Reporting and Its Results

In reporting events along Hollywood Boulevard, the media practiced the cynical brand of journalism noted by Glaberson. News coverage failed to place the settlement event in a proper context, thus making the problem appear worse than it was. The media did not report on the construction process to the extent that the public could make an informed judgment about the events. The public's attention would have been less fixated on the 9 inches of settlement if the media had done two things: reported the localized nature of the settlement compared with previous experience along the tunnel alignment; and noted that swift and competent action prevented collapse of the tunnel or Hollywood Boulevard. This would have presented the public with a balanced report of the problem and the solution.

Not to understate the construction problems involved, the fact is that anyone driving along Hollywood Boulevard cannot see the settlement with the naked eye. Despite the headlines neither television cameras nor newspaper photographs were able to capture the settlement.

Figure 4 shows how some of the headlines reported settlement on Hollywood Boulevard.

The relative seriousness of the settlement on Hollywood Boulevard pales in comparison to recent problems encountered on similar, large urban tunneling projects, such as the sink hole in Munich, Germany, and the collapsed office building in London, England (Fie

Blue Line

Green Line

Pasadena Blue Line

RedUne Seg. 1


7th St/ Metro Ctr. to Long Beach

Norwalk to El Segundo

Union Station to Pasadena

Union Station to West Lake

Length (miles)










Open Date





Design Status





Const. Status





Cost $ millions





Red Line Seg. 2

Red Line Seg. 3 North Hollywood


Seg. 3 East Side

Red Line Seg. 3 Mid-City


West Lake to Western/ Vermont to Hollywood

Hollywood to North Hollywood

Union Station to Whittier

Western to Pico/ Olympic

Length (miles)










Open Date





Design Status





Const. Status





Cost$ millions





Figure 3 Metro Rail Program Status (March 1995)

"Subway tunneling halted because of sinkage"

"MTA delayed response to warning on tunnels" "... tunneling undermined street"

"MTA hunts for (cause of) buckling Hollywood Boulevard" "Soil settling... force(s) closure of Boulevard"

Figure 4 Hollywood Boulevard Headlines

Furthermore, the media transformed reporting of events into personal attacks against project staff. High profile criticism of those in leadership positions on controversial public works projects often results in their removal. This happened to highly skilled leaders in Los Angeles following the Hollywood Boulevard incident, as it has happened elsewhere.

The kinds of reporting discussed above can be mitigated. As a result of our experiences with the media, we have devised several strategies for mitigating the effects of cynical journalism. These strategies may be used for any major construction project and are presented below.

Communication Strategies for Projects under Siege

There are several ways to handle communications when working on a highly visible, controversial project. Knowing how the media uses information is the first line of defense for any project or agency and learning how to communicate with the media greatly improves the chances for fair reporting. IWo other key elements of a full communications program include keeping public officials and the public informed.

Know How the Media Uses Information

According to Glaberson in The New York Times, news is the enemy of hope. Cynicism has replaced healthy skepticism; with the media convincing us that everything is a scam, everyone is looking out for his own interests, and it is the reporter's job to reveal the "truth."

Consequently, anyone in the news is immediately suspect and journalists readily accuse politicians of being manipulative in pursuit of their narrow political agendas. Contractors, consultants, and business people are assumed to be venal and public sector staff inept, corrupt, or both.

Therefore, tactical communication with the media is essential. Without a communications strategy, when a single projects comes under siege it may place the whole program in jeopardy. The preferred strategy for communicating with the media is described below. (

Communicating with the Media

The media is in the business of meeting daily deadlines. So, despite its focus on cynical revelation, editors need new news product each day. According to Robert Behn in Governing magazine, in order to generate this product, editors and reporters are biased towards stories that are simple, personal, and symbolic. He outlines how to present information, as follows:

"(Munich) Bus falls into hole caused by collapsed excavation"

"Land-slip office near collapse-railway tunneling halted (London Heathrow Airport)"

"New tunnel woe could add $500 million, 2 years to job (Boston Central Artery)"

Figure 5 Examples of Other Construction Problems

• Present a simple story. Simple stories take less time and effort to report and are easier to read and understand. Consequently, they sell better.

• Personalize the story. Personal stories also sell better. Human interest at the beginning of a story is the best way to capture attention. It is easier for the media to report what is said at news conferences and personal interviews rather than to work through technical reports. Where possible, articulate and appealing individuals from the projects should be used as the center of a story.

• Use symbolism to make the point. Finally, journalists like stories that are symbolic and reflect some accepted truth or enduring theme. This gives the story an aura of credibility and respectability.

Lessons learned from the Hollywood Boulevard settlement taught us that we could have presented a simple, personal, and symbolic story by outlining the swift measures taken to stabilize the tunnel. A simple illustration showing the bracing put in place might have resulted in a positive headline, such as "Fast, action by project staff saves Hollywood Boulevard." This would automatically have placed the emphasis on the personal endeavors of courageous staff working tirelessly to protect historic Hollywood Boulevard and its prominent "stars" inlaid into the sidewalk. Certainly a more sympathetic viewpoint would have at least been entertained by both the media and the public had we communicated this message instead of presenting a complex technical defense of our tunneling techniques.

Accordingly, considerable effort has now been put into finding good news construction stories of a symbolic nature such as job creation, support of minority businesses, and project benefits to the community. Figure 6 shows some of the positive headlines that could be generated about the program.

Keep Your Public Officials Informed

Elected officials have very little time to devote to a construction program, being only one of a wide range of issues competing for their attention. Their enthusiastic support for any public works project is most apparent when the project is launched, when funding is announced, and when the ribbon is cut at the start of operations. Between the announcement and the ribbon cutting there is little upside reward for backing the project and lots of downside political risk due to media attacks, community issues, construction problems, and aggressive lobbying from contractors competing for work.

Based on the Los Angeles experience, three factors make for an effective communication strategy with elected officials:

• "no surprises" to embarrass officials

• professional trust of project staff

• ownership of the project by elected officials.

Elected officials hate being surprised, particularly by bad news. When this was allowed to happen on the rail program, the typical reaction of the elected officials was to express outrage, ask why they were not informed, and search for whom to blame. Since there is no substitute for familiarity to build professional trust, senior members of the rail program invested significant time to brief elected officials who serve on the program's governing board. By keeping elected officials informed in a timely fashion, there are no surprises which can come back to haunt either them or the staff.

Much of this briefing effort has to be with the staff of the elected officials. Demands on elected officials' time usually make it impractical to brief them directly on a regular basis. However, regular access to their staff is possible, and good relations with staff translate into good relations with elected officials.

Technical briefings were done directly by project staff and not delegated to so-called government affairs staff. It is not efficient to provide government affairs staff with the depth and breadth of project knowledge to take on the technical briefing responsibility. Secondly, and of equal importance, exclusive use of government affairs staff is a barrier to developing the personal relationships and trust between project staff and public officials.

The Los Angeles experience shows that elected officials display more project ownership when they serve directly on the construction program's board and committees rather than when they delegate that responsibility to appointed representatives.

Until recently, the construction staff of the Los Angeles rail program was organized as a public-benefit, nonprofit corporation responsible to a board of private sector engineering and construction experts appointed by the elected officials. Staff recommendations passed by the appointed board were forwarded to the elected official governing board for final approval. As construction problems including the Hollywood/Hudson settlement arose, and the program came under increasing media and community attack, the elected officials distanced themselves from the program and lost confidence in the appointed board and project staff. Although relationships and professional trust existed between the appointed board and the project staff, an "us and them" attitude developed between the appointed board and the elected officials. This, in turn, caused the elected officials to distrust the project staff.

The appointed board was ultimately disbanded and the project staff reorganized as a division of the Los Angeles MTA. Recommendations for actions to the governing board now came from a construction committee made up of a subset of the governing board's elected officials. The elected officials began to assume ownership of the program and regain confidence in the project staff.

Given the fast-paced environment of capital construction projects, setting up the relationships and fostering ownership are critical in establishing the free-flowing communication channels required to keep officials informed of events (good and bad) in a timely manner. It is also helpful to acknowledge problems, lessons learned, and improvements sought.

"Rail program invests $525 million in the economy"

"98 percent of rail program investments for USA products and services"

"Rail program creates 15,000 jobs"

"Rail program contracts $65 million to minority and women owned firms"

"Rail program leverages $12 million for community road, park and utility improvements"

"Rail program's accident rate 1/2 national average"

"Rail program provides $215 million for local vehicle manufacturing industry"

Figure 6 Symbolic Good News

Reach Out Far and Wide into the Community

"Not in my backyard" (NIMBY), says any neighbor to a construction project. Unfortunately, inconvenience to the residences and businesses along the rail project alignment is inevitable during construction. Compounding this disruption is its long duration, with construction of an underground tunnel or station taking up to three years. Moreover, on a multi-project rail program there is construction impact to some part of the community throughout a ten to twenty year period. With this amount of impact, a well thought-out community construction mitigation program is essential to the success of a rail program.

The strategy for the Los Angeles rail program is to assign community affairs specialists to each project team and assure that their time is spent working in the field. In this way they maintain a firsthand knowledge of construction progress and the issues impacting the community. Secondly, they get to know and be known by the local residents and businesses. Operating out of storefront offices that are easily accessible, community affairs staff provide a place for the public to drop in and ask questions or voice concerns about the construction. Emphasis is on being a good neighbor in the community. Special events are planned for the community, particularly to mark significant construction milestones, such as a tunnel breakthrough. Where schools are adjacent to construction areas, special events are planned to teach students about safe behavior around construction sites.

Regular community meetings are a key component of the rail program's community communication strategy. In these meetings, project staff is available to answer current issues of concern. Open and forthright disclosure is used to maintain the confidence and support of the community. Additionally, the meetings provide a forum for opponents to the construction program. This can be challenging but provides the opportunity to respond to program opponents in a managed setting.


Figure 7 MTA Safety Mascot—Travis the Owl

The last element of our community outreach program is the component designed to reach out to our youth. We developed our mascot, Travis the Owl (Figure 7), to capture the attention of our school children. With many schools close to the railroad tracks, it is important to teach our youngsters caution around the tracks and construction sites. Travis is a well-accepted symbol which carries our message to the youth in communities affected by the rail program.

Constructing a large, high-profile public works project is not for the fainthearted. In construction, "stuff happens/' and the public has a right to scrutinize and be told what is going on. Our challenge is to tell the accurate construction story with all its positive and negative aspects rather than allowing the media to tell it for us with a skewed perspective.

Intense scrutiny by the media, public, and elected officials does not have to undermine the long-term positive effects of a major urban construction project. Using communications strategies which consider the public's right to know, elected officials' need for accurate information, and the media's inclination toward cynical reporting can overcome the downside consequences of modern-day public works construction.

Communication Strategies For Major Public Works Projects: The Los Angeles Metro Rail Program Under Sieöe

1. This case describes both the media and political figures as possibly detrimental to this project. Describe the importance of properly communicating with the project stakeholders.


2. Stakeholder management can be the key to the success of many projects. Develop a model which can be useful for any project for proper stakeholder management.

3. How would you handle the morale of workers and others on the project given the criticism aimed at the project?

4. The case suggests three conditions for success when communicáting with the media. What are these? Can you think of any additional conditions?

5. The author gives advice on handling communication with three different stakeholders. What are the common characteristics of the strategies?

Project Management Made Easy

Project Management Made Easy

What you need to know about… Project Management Made Easy! Project management consists of more than just a large building project and can encompass small projects as well. No matter what the size of your project, you need to have some sort of project management. How you manage your project has everything to do with its outcome.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment