If the developers of the new $2.43 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River had done nothing to divert traffic during two phases of construction this summer, projections indicated that they could have faced a 67-mile backup for northbound traffic and a 77-mile backup - possibly all the way to the Pennsylvania border - for southbound travelers.Officials had determined earlier this year that they would need to realign two sections of the Washington Capital Beltway on the Virginia side of the bridge, which would likely result in the worst traffic backups of the 11-year construction project. Stratacomm, a division of Fleishman-Hillard, was tasked with educating local and long-distance travelers about the lane closures in order to prevent any monumental traffic jams.
"We knew the Beltway shifts were going to have enormous problems," explains John Undeland, SVP at Stratacomm and the project's PR director. "There could potentially be a traffic meltdown if we didn't get on the rooftops and let everyone know this was coming."
Stratacomm started working with its client, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), in April to develop strategies on getting the word out as far ahead as possible so travelers could plan accordingly, explains Ronaldo Nicholson, VDOT's project manager for the bridge.
Based on traffic analysis conducted before the lane closures, project managers learned that even if they met their goal of getting 75% of the normal traffic to divert to alternative routes around Washington, there still would be 10- to 15-mile backups during the two rounds of weekend work.
For the first lane closures in July, which affected the northbound lanes, Stratacomm made media buys in the Richmond and Hampton Roads, VA, markets, as well as in North Carolina's Outer Banks. For the southbound lane closure, media buys were made in Baltimore and the Delaware and Maryland beach markets.
Notices were also distributed to AAA, the American Trucking Association, the American Bus Association, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and other groups with constituencies that the closures could impact.
For the second round of lane closures in August, Stratacomm had to deal with message fatigue. "You can go out there and say, 'This is going to be the worst lane constriction of the 11-year construction project,'" Undeland says. "The first time you say it, you will get a lot more attention than the second time."
Because it was going to be a harder hill to climb, Stratacomm provided more detailed information and analysis of the level of congestion that would occur if less than 75% of motorists used alternate routes.
"We had to be more specific and quantifiable in the second one to get over the hump and make it seem real to people," Undeland says.
The number of TV stories on the July lane constrictions totaled 270, with the lion's share in the DC market. The August lane closures nabbed 130 TV stories.
Between 80% and 90% of traffic was diverted during the July constrictions. The backups during the August lane closures maxed out at only 6 miles for a total of six hours during the three-day project.
For the July lane closures, project officials calculated that the communications effort saved the public about $1.1 million in delay costs because motorists opted to use alternative routes.
With the new bridge scheduled for completion in 2008, new traffic and public concerns are likely to emerge. Officials also anticipate additional lane closures that may require public outreach campaigns to prevent the traffic meltdowns avoided this time around, Nicholson says.
PR team: Virginia Department of Transportation (Alexandria, VA) and Stratacomm (Washington, DC)
Campaign: Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project
Time frame: April to August 2005