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Chapter 4.8

Evaluate Right-of-Way Acquisition


Summary

Although at least one-third of state departments of transportation (DOT) survey their customers, the results have not been tied to the DOTs overall management system. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has conducted a survey in one district, but does not regularly gather information from landowners and displacees that might help improve its right-of-way acquisition process. Improving the relationship with landowners and displacees may reduce the time needed to acquire right-of-way by reducing the number of negotiations that must be settled in court.


Background

Surveys and other performance measurement tools are becoming more common in state DOTs for gauging customer satisfaction and improving performance. This is particularly true for right-of-way divisions need to be sensitive to the needs of the landowners and displacees who are affected by acquisition activities.

In general, TxDOT has not established a standard practice of gathering feedback from landowners and displacees who are involved in right-of-way acquisitions.[1] Landowners and displacees may be contacted by TxDOT right-of-way agents or private consultants hired by TxDOT. Statewide TxDOT right-of-way agents perform about two-thirds of the right-of-way acquisition work and private consultants perform one-third. Private consultants have been used in nine districts at a cost of about $2 million each year for the past three years. The nine districts include Dallas, Paris, San Antonio, Waco, Austin, Yoakum, Fort Worth, Bryan, and Houston. TxDOT expects its use of private consultants to increase to include at least five more districts (Tyler, Laredo, Pharr, Childress, and Lubbock). For all the districts, TxDOT expects private consultants to perform somewhere between one-third and one-half of the right-of-way acquisition work at an estimated annual cost of $9 million each year.[2]

In 1999 the Yoakum district did conduct a survey of landowners from whom TxDOT acquired property through private consultants.[3] The three-page surveys were sent to all property owners who had property acquired through a consultant right of way agent as a means to evaluate the effectiveness of consultant agent use. The surveys included 20 questions regarding the performance of the consultant appraisers, negotiators, acquisition agents, and relocation agents, as well as an open comment section.[4] The surveys were mailed with a postage-paid envelope to all 210 landowners who were involved in these projects. The district reports that it had a 50 percent response rate. [5]

The results of the survey were generally favorable with two primary complaints: 1) the consultant personnel kept changing and 2) the consultants were difficult to contact.[6] These findings provided the district right-of-way administrator with information that was used in performance reviews with the consultants. Since this survey, the Yoakum district has not hired consultants to perform right-of-way acquisition work. Based on the survey results, the district is less inclined to hire consultants but suspects that it will have to do so again in the future to address increasing workloads. The district plans to reinstate the surveys using the same form and approach when it begins to use consultants again. The Yoakum district shared its survey form and procedures with the other TxDOT districts, but to its knowledge and based on the review team’s discussion with TxDOT officials, no other districts have used this approach. [7]


Other States

A 1995 Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) survey found that 17 states used customer surveys and nine states were in the process of planning, considering, or developing such surveys.[8] Of the nine states that had established post-acquisition customer satisfaction surveys of the type reviewed here, FHWA noted that none had tied the results of these surveys to a total quality management system. FHWA is encouraging states to use customer surveys and to integrate the results into their overall management system. [9]

Other key findings from the FHWA report include:

  • Reported response rates were generally around 50 percent. [10] Maryland noted that response rates were good because it included postage-paid envelopes with the surveys, an approach that several states reported using. [11]
  • The Maryland DOT reported that because respondents may have felt intimidated by the government-generated survey, a private company should conduct future surveys. [12]
  • Most of these states sent surveys in the mail, although some used face-to-face and telephone contacts.
  • All states surveyed reported that negative responses are investigated and addressed. In most states the results are transmitted to the field to provide feedback to managers, but are not given directly to the responsible agent(s). [13]
  • The development and implementation of surveys was not required by official state or DOT policy.[14]
  • States were surprised at the number of positive responses they received.
  • States reported that once they started using surveys, they typically wanted to expand the effort. [15]

Except for being limited to cases involving consultant agents, the Yoakum district survey is very similar in content, purpose and approach to those found in other states that gather similar feedback on a statewide scale.[16] For example, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Oregon survey right-of-way customers. These three states survey both landowners and displacees to assess agent performance and general public satisfaction with the right-of-way acquisition and relocation processes.[17] Surveys are typically short enough to fit on a letter-sized form, which can easily be mailed back to the DOT. In some cases, DOTs develop different surveys for acquisition and relocation processes. Some of the questions that are included in these states surveys include:

  • Did the right-of-way agent(s) explain how your property is affected?
  • Did the right-of-way agent(s) answer your questions about the project?
  • Did you feel you could communicate with the agent(s)?
  • Did the right-of-way agent(s) verify title information and property lines with you?
  • Were the right-of-way agent(s) well informed and knowledgeable?
  • Did you feel you could trust the right of way agent(s)?

Customer surveys let right of way managers get feedback on the way their customers perceive the quality of their work.[18] TxDOT could benefit from the use of this approach on a department-wide basis, particularly in right-of-way acquisition, which has a great deal of contact with TxDOT customers. Although the costs are easy to calculate, the exact benefits from improved performance are not. For example, providing landowners and displacees with adequate and appropriate information in a professional manner may reduce the time needed to acquire the right-of-way by reducing the number of negotiations that must be settled in court.


Recommendations

A. State law should be changed to require TxDOT to survey all landowners and displacees in the acquisition and relocation processes about the performance of TxDOT and their consultants.

TxDOT should include a simple survey with all payments for acquisition and relocation. Completion of the survey should be voluntary, but the form should be easy to complete and postage-paid to encourage responses.

Surveys should be coded to identify the location of the project, which would indicate the TxDOT staff or consultant agent(s) who worked on the project. The results of these surveys should be reported periodically to the appropriate division and district right-of-way managers as well as consultants in order to encourage performance improvements. TxDOT should promptly investigate and address all major complaints in order to improve customer service. Because this is a performance measurement tool, the survey analysis should be integrated into TxDOT’s strategic management and performance measurement systems.

TxDOT could easily conduct this survey distribution and analysis in-house. However, the Department may decide to contract out survey collection and analysis if it is concerned that customers would be less likely to respond to a government survey. In this case, the survey form could still be distributed with checks, but it would have a private sector return address and letterhead.

B. TxDOT should collect additional information to compare the performance of TxDOT right-of-way agents and private consultants and performs a “Yellow Pages Test” on this function.

The Yellow Pages Test states that government should do no job if there is a business in the Yellow Pages that can do that job better and at a lower cost. The customer satisfaction surveys provide part of the information necessary to complete a Yellow Pages Test; however, TxDOT should also collect additional cost and performance data in all its districts. TxDOT should perform a Yellow Pages Test and report the outcome to the 78th Legislature in 2003.


Fiscal Impact

The cost of surveying includes the production of the forms, coding, inclusion with check payments, gathering responses, distributing feedback, and responding to complaints. Because surveys would be included in a payment package that is already going to the respondent, the cost of distributing this survey is minimal. The initial cost to develop this survey and set up the mail merge function in the financial management system should cost less than $20,000. The annual cost to print and distribute a two-sided survey with postage paid should cost about $2,000 per year to print and distribute, plus administrative costs of about $12,000. The cost to investigate and address complaints is dependent on the responses and cannot be estimated.

In addition to simple good business practice and public accountability, there are likely to be financial benefits in the form of improved customer-friendly and more efficient policies and procedures. Agents’ performance is likely to improve if they are aware that their customers have access to performance surveys.

Fiscal Year
Savings/(Cost) to the
State Highway Fund
2002
($34,000)
2003
($14,000)
2004
($14,000)
2005
($14,000)
2006
($14,000)

Endnotes

[1] Interview with John Campbell, Rebecca Thompson, Suzanne Roach, and Cheryl Mazur, Texas Right of Way Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, January 26, 2000.

[2] Telephone Interview with Jesse Cooper and Nancy Johnson, Right-of-Way Division, Texas Department of Transportation, December 29, 2000.

[3] Interview with Bob Clark, Right-of-Way Administrator, and Bruce Bayless, District Engineer, Texas Department of Transportation -Yoakum District, Yoakum, Texas, February 24, 2000. Materials provided in a memorandum from Bob Clark, Right-of-Way Administrator, Texas Department of Transportation - Yoakum District, Yoakum, Texas, March 1, 2000.

[4] Texas Department of Transportation Property Owner Survey and Evaluation, 1999.

[5] Interview with Bob Clark, Right-of-Way Administrator, Texas Department of Transportation - Yoakum District, Yoakum, Texas, August 31, 2000, Interview with John Campbell, Rebecca Thompson, Suzanne Roach, and Cheryl Mazur, Texas Right of Way Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, January 26, 2000.

[6] Letter from Bob Clark, Right-of-Way Administrator, Texas Department of Transportation - Yoakum District, Yoakum, Texas, dated March 1, 2000.

[7] Interview with Bob Clark, Right-of-Way Administrator, Texas Department of Transportation - Yoakum District, Yoakum, Texas, August 31, 2000; Interview with John Campbell, Rebecca Thompson, Suzanne Roach and Cherly Mazur, Right of Way Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, January 26, 2000.

[8] Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), William Wade, A White Paper on Right-of-Way “Customer Surveys,” January 1995, p. 2.

[9] Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), William Wade, A White Paper on Right-of-Way “Customer Surveys,” January 1995, pp. 11-12.

[10] Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), William Wade, A White Paper on Right-of-Way “Customer Surveys,” January 1995, pp. 4-8.

[11] Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), William Wade, A White Paper on Right-of-Way “Customer Surveys,” January 1995, p. 4.

[12] Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), William Wade, A White Paper on Right-of-Way “Customer Surveys,” January 1995, p. 5.

[13] Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), William Wade, A White Paper on Right-of-Way “Customer Surveys,” January 1995, p. 3-10.

[14] Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), William Wade, A White Paper on Right-of-Way “Customer Surveys,” January 1995, p. 10.

[15] Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), William Wade, A White Paper on Right-of-Way “Customer Surveys,” January 1995, p. 11.

[16] Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), William Wade, A White Paper on Right-of-Way “Customer Surveys,” January 1995. And a review of North Carolina, Oregon, and South Carolina survey forms.

[17] TransTech Management, Inc., informal survey of right-of-way divisions in California, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, and Virginia, Winter 1999-2000, and Federal Highway Administration (FWHA); William Wade, A White Paper on Right of Way” Customer Surveys,” January 1995, pp.1-9.

[18] Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), William Wade, A White Paper on Right-of-Way “Customer Surveys,” January 1995, p. 11.