Transportation projects tend to get complex. Add the interplay between engineers and elected officials and it can be nearly impossible for the public to have any clue what's actually going on. Florida's Tampa Bay Times recently tackled this problem with a brilliant use of… Legos.
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has a $6 billion plan to add 90 miles of new toll lanes, including plans to replace Tampa Bay's main bridge. The project was put on hold recently, though, when local leaders finally realized how, exactly, the bridge plan was going to shake out.
If elected officials could sit through hundreds of hours' worth of presentations about the new bridge and only recently come to understand the plan, how could the public possibly get it?
Enter an article called “How the plan to fix Tampa Bay's most important bridge fell apart, told in Legos,” where reporters use easy-to-understand graphics and very few words to explain what the project's actual plans were and why it's now on hold. A few examples from the story are below.
To start, Tampa Bay leaders thought the new bridge would get two toll lanes and that there would be no change to its existing lanes.
But it turns out FDOT's actual plan hinged on a definition of lanes that most people don't understand. Right now, the bridge essentially has four lanes, but while three are categorized as “general use” lanes, the fourth is an “auxiliary lane.” The plan, more or less, was to toll the auxiliary lane, which allowed FDOT to say that the regular lanes were, in fact, remaining the same.
The Times' presentation breaks down the nuance here, using single sentences to narrate visuals.
“The [auxiliary lane] spans the entire length of the bridge,” reads one of the narrations. “But FDOT says its only purpose is to connect the on-ramp in Pinellas with the off-ramp in Hillsborough. The other lanes are regular 'general use' lanes.”
Here is what the bridge would actually look like under the plan:
Beyond the actual ins and outs of the bridge project, the matter was apparently further complicated by FDOT not spending very much time actually discussing the bridge during TBX briefings, which led to officials reasonably assuming lanes on bridges and roads were counted the same. The Times illustrates this part of the story too.
Reading the interactive story takes about five minutes, and it's well worth your time. It's an innovative approach to turning tricky transportation jargon and complicated politics into something you, me, and the general public can understand.
Your turn: what innovative techniques have you seen that help tell complicated stories?