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What do we mean by “meaningful public engagement”?

FTA and FHWA’s shared planning regulation, found at 23 CFR 450 outlines federal expectations for statewide and metropolitan planning agencies in effectively engaging the public, including low-income and minority communities. Planning agencies are required to evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies and, where necessary, improve public involvement processes to eliminate participation barriers and engage minority and low-income populations in transportation decision making. Grantees should develop and implement strategies for meaningful engagement of the community, including members of EJ populations as a part of the planning process. Through effective public engagement grantees are able to identify and understand the needs of the community as a whole, and incorporate those needs into transportation plans and programs. FTA’s regulation outlines MPO requirements for producing public participation plans with specific outreach strategies for transportation plan and program development that “describe explicit procedures, strategies, and desired outcomes for” public engagement, which includes low-income and minority populations, as well as a process for periodically evaluating the effectiveness of these outreach strategies. Direct outreach to individuals and engagement with organizations that represent members of the EJ community are methods to determine the needs and concerns of environmental justice populations. Reaching out to the EJ populations in their community is critical. Public engagement is not a one-size-fits-all approach and should be scaled to the specific impacts of the proposed action, as well as the resources available. Many agencies rely on formal meetings as the foundation of their public engagement plans because these are often required by law; however, agencies should consider going beyond the traditional methods of public outreach to incorporate innovative approaches that leverage the ever-changing communications environment in which we live. Effective communication methods include distributing flyers at the local community center, churches, or grocery stores, and posting information on vehicles, at bus stops, transit stations, and other locations frequented by riders. Materials also should be prepared for persons with limited-English proficiency. “Meaningful public engagement” does not mean that every issue or concern raised by the community must be resolved. However, it does mean that grantees work diligently to engage in a meaningful public dialogue with the communities impacted by the proposed action, listen to what they have to say, respond to their comments and concerns, and incorporate their comments into the transportation decision-making process where practicable.