To share information on projects and get feedback from Maine residents, the state Department of Transportation has begun using a system of virtual, on-demand meetings.

While the COVID-19 pandemic — which for a year has reshaped how government, business and education are delivered in Maine and elsewhere — has been the driving force in the wider use of technology for virtual learning and working, transportation officials say they will continue to use it when the pandemic ends.

“Even pre-pandemic, we were looking at working on virtual public involvement,” said Scott Rollins, a project manager in the Bridge Division at the Maine Department of Transportation who has also worked on virtual public involvement.

Like state transportation departments across the country, the Maine DOT first started exploring the use of virtual public involvement in 2018, stemming from a Federal Highway Administration initiative.

Public meetings can be a challenge for both the department and state residents. They are often held in the evening, when people have conflicts with family activities or when they do not like to drive. And it means the department is paying travel expenses for its staff to attend.

Early efforts were online surveys, providing information on the department’s website and forays into social media.

Over the life of a project, typically two public meetings are held. The first is a preliminary meeting, to provide general information and collect feedback to help in the initial design. After that, a second public meeting allows officials to discuss the feedback and how it might have changed the project design.

“We find that we have to have that help to get a good project,” Rollins said. “It really helps us make better decisions.”

After the global coronavirus pandemic was declared in March 2020, it was clear in-person meetings could not happen. Instead, department officials worked to have the first virtual, on-demand meeting in June.

“We utilize some stuff that other states have developed,” Rollins said, “but the we also made it our own.”

In a series of short videos, virtual meetings identify the project, provide background, explain what led to its becoming a project, show options and give details of funding for the work.

Recently, the DOT posted a virtual meeting on the work scheduled on the Babcock Bridge on Lewiston Road, also on Routes 9  and 126. It crosses Cobbosseecontee Stream at the Litchfield-West Gardner line.

The bridge, a concrete tee beam bridge, was built in 1931, and parts of it are starting to show wear on the bridge deck and cracks and disintegration of concrete in parts of the support structure.

“The structure is stable,” Devan Eaton, a project manager at the Maine DOT Bridge Program, said in the video. “It’s safe to travel over. But these are the things that are starting to show the age of the structure. It’s starting to deteriorate. It’s starting to be something we need to keep an eye on more, and that’s what we’ll examine with this project.”

Transportation officials are contemplating whether to rehabilitate or replace the 89-year-old bridge. The project is in an early engineering phase, with the final design anticipated by fall.

The $3.4 million project funding comes from the federal BUILD grant. If the schedule holds, the project would be put out to bid in a year, and work could take place in the fall of 2022 or the following year, depending on when work in the stream is allowed to happen.

The presentation covers the daily traffic on the bridge, a forecast of traffic in the next two decades and the crash history of the past three years.

The presentation also includes a section on property acquisitions and the process the department follows — whether it is an outright acquisition, a temporary acquisition or an easement.

Three options for bridge work are being considered at this point: A staged project built in halves, keeping one lane open at a time; a temporary bridge as a detour; or road closure with a detour.

Each comes with its own advantages and drawbacks in terms of cost, difficulty and project length.

At this point, transportation officials are looking for feedback from people as officials decide whether to repair it or replace the bridge.

The platform provides space for viewers to write comments or questions, which can be seen and answered by project managers.

It also collects contact information so the department can provide updates to people who have indicated their interest in specific projects.

While the technology allows people to take in the meetings at their convenience, it can limit opportunities to connect and read people’s reactions, according to Laurie Parham, state director in Maine for AARP.

In Maine, AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, has been one of the leaders of the Maine Broadband Coalition and the successful referendum vote last summer to provide high-speed internet infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas in Maine.

“There are a lot of assumptions that people will have a smartphone or a tablet,” Parham said. “So many Mainers still don’t.”

Rollins acknowledged not everyone in Maine has the same access to internet access and computers. Projects are still advertised in public notices printed in newspapers, which include project staff contact information that does not require online access.

Comments provided that way can be added to online comments and become part of the record.

With COVID-19 infection numbers dropping and vaccination numbers increasing in Maine, restrictions on public gatherings are gradually being lifted. That does not mean the virtual, on-demand public meetings will end.

Because of the increased engagement through on-demand meetings and more use of social media and cost savings, Rollins said the department is working on criteria that will determine when an in-person meeting would be held after the pandemic has ended.

“It may come down to areas that don’t have good internet access, or it might depend on the scope of the project,” he said. “This will be the process we’re definitely moving forward with.”

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