The existing roadway and bridges on US 287 near Toston, MT were more than 70 years old and no longer met transportation design, environment, or safety standards, and were experiencing higher crash and severity rates than the statewide averages for similar highways. In addition, the structures were no longer accommodating predicted future traffic demands. The purpose of the Toston Structures project was to improve highway traffic safety, functionality, and operations to accommodate existing and future traffic demands for the diverse nature of traffic on the corridor, and to cost-effectively improve the physical conditions of the roadway surface and bridge structures.
The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) hired KLJ to provide public information/engagement services throughout the duration of the project. The assigned KLJ Public Information Officer (PIO) quickly became the single point of contact for the inquiring public as well as the single point of contact for concerns or complaints, regular weekly project updates, website content, and specific press releases and materials designed for specific project pieces or outcomes. These efforts consistently brought sometimes difficult engineering concepts to the public in ways that were easily understood, educational and engaging, enhancing the perception and understanding of engineering at all levels. Having an assigned PIO for this specific project allowed MDT engineers and contractors the opportunity to do their work with the added support of having someone available to interact consistently with the public, reducing their time in having to respond to the public and reducing the number of public complaints.
Toston Structures was a three-year construction project located on a busy thoroughfare in Broadwater County, south of Townsend on US 287 near Toston, MT used extensively in summer months for resident and tourist travel. The Toston Structures project improved safety and addressed current and future traffic needs. The project included:
- Construction of 3.5 miles of new roadway
- Replacement of the bridge over the Missouri River with a new four-lane structure
- Replacement of the bridge over the BNSF railroad tracks with a new four-lane structure
- Installation of new guardrails
- Replacement of all existing culverts, and improved drainage with roadway ditch modifications
- Removal of existing bridges and structures
- Construction of a pedestrian tunnel
- Installation of warning signs, wildlife detection systems, wildlife fencing and an electrified wildlife mats
In addition to KLJ, MDT hired a different engineering firm for the design and construction management of the project requiring extensive coordination by the PIO between the design and construction management firm, MDT and the public.
Lastly, at the same time the Toston Structures project was underway, MDT was completing an unrelated project to add a lane to US 287. Although a separate project, its proximity to the Toston Structures project led the public to believe this was a single project. As a result, approximately one year into construction, the KLJ PIO took over public information/engagement for both projects. This required the PIO to combine messaging and message lists where appropriate, work with two separate MDT teams, and ensure that the public was able to receive accurate and timely information from a single source, meeting external expectations and public perception despite the internal understanding of separate projects and project needs.
Final costs were at or below original budget estimates except for pre-approved increases in scope/fee related to requests by MDT not originally in the budget estimate. The original budget for 2020 was $161,865 and total cost was $151,802, 94 percent of the original 2020 budget. The project was complete within the client’s time schedule. In addition, the project was anticipated to take three full construction seasons and was completed approximately two months earlier than originally anticipated.
The completion of the Toston Structures project has been the culmination of nearly seven years of planning and three years of construction to ensure that this highly utilized roadway meets current safety and design standards and assists in the reduction of crashes in/around Toston and on US 287. The project itself provides social, economic, and sustainable development benefits, and so do the efforts made during project design and construction to engage the nearby residents and the traveling public fully and consistently. With completion of the project, it is anticipated that there will be a reduced risk of crashes, increased safety in freight and agriculture transport, and a safer and more accessible roadway for tourists and other travelers in the state and region, allowing for sustainable support of the local and statewide economy and the ability to meet increased traffic demand.
The result of the public information/engagement efforts was an inclusionary process that engaged the community in discussions about the project. These discussions often included how the project impacted the public not just during construction, but long term in addressing their social needs to connect with nearby communities, desire to sustain and grow the surrounding agricultural economy through reliable and sustainable transportation opportunities and the ability to keep residents and the traveling public safe during their time on Montana roads. Additionally, ongoing communication channels remained sensitive to ensuring the ability for difficult to reach or vulnerable community members to take part. This included a fully accessible website, hotline, email updates, text updates, public meetings both in person and virtual, and a PIO who was available to respond to direct inquiries within 24-hours, ensuring equity and access for all members of the community or traveling public.