Public Involvement – Virtual Public Meetings

Virtual public meetings are web-based sessions
that allow agencies to reach many people at little cost. Also known as online meetings, they provide
a convenient alternative for those unable to attend a meeting in person. Virtual meetings are especially beneficial
for large-scale plans or projects where in-person meetings do not reach every community. With robust publicity, virtual meetings can
increase participation dramatically. The public is demanding more transparency,
more involvement in our decision-making process, and the technology is allowing us a way to
meet those needs, increase participation, so more voices in the process leads to better
projects.Virtual meeting formats vary. Some agencies provide a live meeting, while
others provide an on-demand option, with materials placed on a website for people to visit whenever
they choose. Either way, virtual meetings often mirror
in-person meetings, with similar information and opportunities for feedback. Live virtual meetings are scheduled at a specific
time, just like in-person meetings, and are generally live-streamed on the agency website. Live meetings may include real time feedback
via polls, chat or other technology for full virtual communication. For areas with limited broadband connectivity,
particularly in rural areas, live meetings can be broadcast over land-line or mobile
phones, allowing feedback through touch-tone surveys. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation
used live virtual meetings during outreach for the 2019 Twelve Year Program, or TYP,
a mid-range planning tool that’s updated every two years. Meetings were streamed on PennDOT’s website,
as well as on Facebook Live. Ross in South Central PA is asking about the
specific infrastructure for bicyclists, what we’re doing in evaluating those. Along with the virtual meeting, PennDOT provided
an online survey and interactive map where residents could note transportation concerns. A recording of the meeting was available online
for anyone who missed it. All told, PennDOT reached 2,000 people through
the online meeting and received 6,400 surveys and 2,500 mapped transportation concerns. PennDOT used this input to develop the TYP,
and shared the information with regional planning partners and the public. At the Florida Department of Transportation,
virtual meetings serve as public hearings for proposed modifications to highway medians. The virtual hearings are hosted at FDOT district
headquarters, with community viewing locations, such as libraries or recreation centers. The hearings consist of a webinar presentation
with an opportunity for comment. In addition to being more convenient and inclusive
than traditional meetings, FDOT has realized substantial cost savings with virtual public
hearings. With fewer staff and no need for a court reporter,
costs have dropped from around $50,000 for a traditional hearing to less than $20,000
for virtual hearings. Virtual hearings also enable Florida’s seasonal
residents to participate remotely from out of state. FDOT reports that the public response has
been extremely positive. A different approach to virtual meetings is
the on-demand format that allows people to participate at any time during a defined period,
which might be several weeks or longer. On-demand meetings often consist of a sequence
of pages or “information stations” to navigate through, much like those in an in-person
open house. The Oregon Department of Transportation held
two online open houses for the Portland Metro Area Value Pricing Feasibility Analysis. The meetings included embedded video, slide
shows, fact sheets and links to relevant documents. ODOT publicized the meetings heavily through
digital ads and stories in local blogs and media outlets. We have a congestion problem, and it’s getting
worse.The first open house used six stations to introduce the congestion problem, the role
value pricing could potentially play, and other pertinent topics. Feedback options included an interactive map
and a questionnaire. Users were also invited to attend informal
community drop-in sessions. Materials were updated for the second open
house, where ODOT sought feedback on five congestion pricing concepts. Each online open house had over 6,500 unique
users. At public meetings—the traditional public
meetings, traditional outreach methods–one of the first things we hear from the public
is “Is this available online?” You know? And so we’re able to say “Yes.” And then they’re also able to provide feedback
as well.

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