Research is needed on the use of Social Media by State and Local Transportation Agencies and Metropolitan Planning Organizations. Many transportation agencies, such as State DOT’s, Tollway Authorities and Transit Agencies, are using social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) to communicate with customers and users. Public involvement approaches for project development under NEPA often include the use of social media to foster public discussion on purpose and need, impacts and alternatives. Planning agencies use social media to convene discussion groups on a broad range of issues relating to transportation plans. According to a February 2010 survey by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) of those State Departments of Transportation responding, 81% use Twitter to relay information about traffic accidents, road closings and emergencies such as tornados and hurricanes. In addition, responding agencies reported that 45% have active Facebook accounts, and 64% have a YouTube page.
These departments view the social media as alternative and additional means to communicate with the public, and appreciate the ability to have direct feedback from people. The use of Facebook, Twitter, listserves, and other social media is considered a supplement to traditional communication methods. The subscribers are able to get information in a quick, assessable manner, and have more interaction with the agency.
More information is needed on how social media should function for maximum effectiveness, whether communications need to be archived, who should communicate for the agency when there is a two-way communication, how the communications can be retrieved and stored, and whether there are issues on proving that these communications are received. In some cases, involving direct feedback from the public, issues of civil rights and privacy are matters of concern.
Issues have also arisen on whether the communications that result from the use of social media are public records. For instance, transit agencies can use social media to communicate bus schedules. State DOT’s can use social media to communicate warnings of road hazards or traffic conditions. If so, do the public agencies have a duty to maintain copies of these communications? If copies are maintained, must they be produced in response to public records requests or in discovery in civil litigation? Would release of these records constitute invasions of privacy?
When social media are used to foster public involvement in NEPA studies or project permits or other public hearings, must the records be maintained as part of the administrative record? If so, are all of the communications maintained or only the ones that originate with or are returned to the transportation agency?
Phase I, a survey of state departments of transportation, states attorneys general guidance, agency practices, reported decisions, administrative rules and guidance (to determine what they doing with the information), has been completed, and a report with the conclusions was submitted to TRB. The panel subsequently decided to proceed with Phase II which consists of further research, case and statutory/regulatory analysis, and additional primary data collection.