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When a major road-building project hits your town, it's big news. Traffic tie-ups, construction delays and cost overruns all become important stories. The challenge is to tell these stories in a compelling way, without resorting to the same tired video of cars on the road or bulldozers in action.

This tip sheet offers some suggestions, plus a guide to Internet resources on covering highway projects.

Focus on People

  • Recruit a "commuter panel" and track their experiences throughout the project. Drive along with them, or ask them to share home videos shot by their passengers. Install a commuter "hot line," both phone and email, and ask for complaints, concerns, observations or solutions.

  • Who else will be affected? In addition to drivers, people who live in areas where traffic may be diverted. Find those people and document the impact on their lives. Ask what project managers will do to limit the effects, which may include speeders on neighborhood streets and dangerous intersections for kids to cross.

  • Businesses may be affected by an altered traffic flow. Some may suffer and some may benefit, as commuters taking new routes change their shopping patterns. Look for both and put a face on the story. Ask how major employers are dealing with the project--are they offering flex time or organizing car pools? What are truckers and delivery companies doing to cope? Are body shops reaping a bonanza?

  • Noise and air pollution may affect people living close to the construction site, staging areas or suppliers' factories. Noise meters, vibration meters and other tools can measure the impact and provide a visual reference for your story.

  • Tell stories from the point of view of construction workers and others at the site. Work zone safety, archeological discoveries during excavation, environmental mitigation, disposal of dirt--find someone who can be a central character to narrate each story.

Follow the Money

  • Look closely at the construction contract. In Dallas, the contractor was charged extra for every hour of lane closure. You could illustrate the effect by cutting between video of a work zone and "price-increase" video, like a gas pump or a cash register.

  • Keep track of costs. The Big Dig, in Boston, was rife with cost overruns. One reporter explained why by comparing the project to a home renovation. Every time the homeowner changed his mind, the contractor charged him for a change-order. Similar changes caused the highway project's price tab to soar.

  • Watch for possible safety violations by contractors and compliance with minority contracting rules. Use documents wisely to prove specific points.

Vary the Format

  • Use different storytelling strategies. A nat-sound story about work zone safety could let viewers share the experience of construction crews. KSTU in Salt Lake City produced a compelling nat-sound story about the effect of construction delays on ambulance drivers.

  • Let viewers in on the progress of the project by providing a time-lapse view. Set up a static camera and automate it to shoot at regular intervals, or get a feed from state DOT cameras.

  • Try show and tell in stories. One station used toy cars and a Hot Wheels track to show how drivers were breaking the law to avoid traffic backups. Explain bottlenecks without using highway video: show an hourglass or even a bottle.

Compare and Contrast

  • Visit a community that has lived through a project similar to yours. A KCNC reporter went to Salt Lake City to show his Denver viewers what to expect when the T-Rex project hit town.

  • Get aerial shots before the project starts and shoot more as construction goes forward to show viewers what's changed. No helicopter? Look for the highest rooftop that will give you an overall view of the area.

  • Use graphics to compare current road conditions with what lies ahead. For example, an animated graphic could make clear how lane shifts will affect traffic during construction.

  • Look back as you look ahead. A Salt Lake station found the man who designed the original highway that was being upgraded. Check libraries and the state DOT, among others, for archival film that can show how times have changed. Find older residents who remember back when.

  • Use the project as a jumping off point to examine wider transportation issues. What about mass transit, other options? Are smaller roads that need repair being ignored? If a rebuilt highway brings in more cars, will there be enough parking?

Page Last Updated
September 2, 2004

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