Member Profile: Ben Ettelman

Assistant Research Scientist, Texas A&M Transportation Institute

How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked?

I started with Morris Communications in Portland, Maine. I was an English major, with a knack for writing, so after I graduated I took this job as my primary role was producing meeting minutes. I was immediately interested in the field and planning and public engagement and my role with MC grew from taking meeting minutes, to being involved in all aspects of the P2 process, as well as the planning activities for the projects we worked on.

I went to graduate school at the University of Texas, Austin, to earn my masters in Urban Planning and when I went to TTI, I found a mix of planning and applied P2. At TTI, we conduct research that improves the state of the practice for P2 by allowing us to test innovative methods in the field. This includes developing and testing performance measures for P2 and incorporating more technology into public involvement processes.

One example was a virtual open house we designed for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), where we used a live chat feature to replicate the experience of an in person public meeting in a virtual setting.

What was the state of P2 when you first arrived in Texas?

When I moved there five years ago, I was curious to see whether the culture of public involvement would be different from the Northeast. The transportation agencies in Central Texas were doing a lot of work, as the region is growing rapidly. The challenge in Central Texas, which I found was not unique to this area, was bringing together the many different interests throughout the region.  

I had come from an area where there was far less growth, so the demand for transportation infrastructure was nothing like it is in Texas.

Austin is known for having strong civic engagement and citizens are very engaged and very excited to have their voice heard and counted. That makes my job hard – but that’s how it is with public involvement: the good work is hard. If it’s easy, it’s probably not that impactful. That’s what makes it such an exciting field.

Like anywhere, Austin is approaching their transportation woes through a variety of solutions, from added roadway capacity to public transportation to improved access to active transportation. Balancing all these interests, which at times may conflict with one another, and ensuring that everyone’s voice and needs are heard, is a big part of the challenge.

You’re taking the lead in establishing a “Lone Star Chapter”

IAP2 has a Gulf Coast chapter, but it hasn’t been active. It covers Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida, This is a significantly large area, so there’s been interest in creating a chapter for the state of Texas. While the Gulf Coast Chapter covers a large area, even focusing just on the state of Texas is quite an endeavour, as the P2 approaches and needs in the more populated parts of the eastern part of the state are very different from those in the southern and western parts of the state. The communities throughout the state are extremely unique from one another, so we view a Lone Star Chapter of IAP2 as a great opportunity for quality capacity-sharing among experience P2 professionals throughout the state. We believe the chapter can be a great resource for practitioners from one end of the state to the other. We’ll have our first meeting in January.

Have you had a “Golden Learning Moment”?

Early in my career I worked on a project where our sponsors (two DOTs were co-sponsoring this project) had very different agendas. The project team felt pulled in different directions and we had to ensure that the work we did wasn’t being “steered” by these pre-determined agendas.

At one of the public meetings for this project, we had about 200 people in attendance. A local politician interrupted our presentation and announced that the state that they represented would be moving forward to secure funding for their preferred outcome on their own, outside of the planning process that we were in the middle of. This put our project team in a very awkward position, as we had to continue our work, block out the external noise, and develop recommendations that we felt were ethical.

This taught me early on that. regardless of how hard you work to ensure that your methods are ethically sound, sometimes politics can come in and rule the day. But the senior staff that I worked with on this project taught me that, while this kind of thing can happen, we can never let it impact our goal, which is to ensure that our work is honest, factually driven and something that we are always willing to put our names on.

What “big wins” have you had?

For this, I’d refer back to the projects I worked on in Maine. There was a specific project in southern Maine where we were looking at improving connectivity between a core city and the suburban and rural communities to the west of this city. We had to bring together the urban, suburban and rural communities, as they had wildly differing interests when the project began. The suburban and rural communities were interested in better access to the city center but not so much in land use controls and improved transit.

Throughout the life of the project we saw communities come together and see that transit, capacity and land use are inter-connected, and the core stakeholder group that started with divergent views and interests became champions for initiatives that were best for the region, as opposed just for their own backyard.

If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …

You have to be a good listener and you have to be ethical. I had a boss whose philosophy was that even though she was hired by, for example, a Department of Transportation, her client was the public and she often had to work very hard to ensure that their interests and opinions were always heard. Every job I’ve been part of has had pre-conceived notions, and it’s been important to represent the needs of the public and communicate those to the decision-makers.

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