COLUMBIA — Some key stakeholders remain at odds on spending priorities for GetAbout Columbia, the $22 million federal grant designed to encourage residents to drive less.
Public relations firm Vangel Marketing Communications, hired by the city to brand and promote GetAbout Columbia, was rehired last month to continue its work for the final 18 months of the project that began in April.
All told, the company is in line to handle $3.17 million of the $22 million grant.
The $3.17 million represents about 14 percent of the federal grant — the largest chunk spent on promotion and education by any of the four cities or counties involved in the federal pilot project.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said Vangel has done good work but more money should have been spent on infrastructure projects such as trail connectors and sidewalks.
"We may have shortchanged the amount of stuff we could put on the ground," Skala said. "My inclination is we may have gone a bit too far on advertising and not enough on development."
During a recent infrastructure meeting, GetAbout manager Ted Curtis expressed a different spending philosophy about how best to encourage people to change their travel habits by walking and bicycling more and driving less.
"The on-street systems and promo/ed are what's going to get a mode shift," Curtis said. "You can't count on capital projects for that."
Mayor Darwin Hindman said he thinks the money has been well spent.
"What portion should go to infrastructure and what portion should go to education is a guess, but you don't want to short-change the education," Hindman said. "Money on the education end of it will only build a modest percentage of more infrastructure."
GetAbout paid Vangel a little more than $2.06 million during its first 18 months to lead the promotion and educational aspects of the nonmotorized transportation initiative. According to the GetAbout budget, Vangel will receive $1.1 million for Phase 2, the second 18 months.
Shannan Baker, an account manager at Vangel, said the firm's contract with GetAbout Columbia is focused on awareness of the program and the push toward persuading people to use their cars less.
Vangel leads the advertising campaign, develops promotional materials and maintains the program's Web site, GetAboutColumbia.com. The firm also created the brand name and logo in 2007.
As part of its contract, Baker said, Vangel recently hired the St. Louis firm Philips and Associates Inc. to conduct a benchmark survey by phone. The survey of 400 people found a 15.5 percent decrease in the number of people who drive alone to school or work in the past year. But when asked if they had heard of GetAbout Columbia, Baker said, "there hasn't been a lot of movement" in people's awareness.
According to the figures Vangel that provided the city, Philips and Associates Inc. will receive $17, 500 for its work during the second 18 months.
Nearly half of Vangel's Phase 2 earnings will go to its subconsultants, which includes its education administrator, the PedNet Coalition. PedNet is estimated to receive more than $300,000, according to estimates Vangel provided the city. Other Vangel subconsultants for GetAbout Columbia include Bright Tree Web Development, Bucket Media and law firm Smith Lewis LLP and Gerding, Korte & Chitwood CPAs — all have offices in Columbia.
In addition to handling the subconsultants, Vangel listed three other tasks for its GetAbout work: education, marketing and "encouragement programs" such as Bike, Walk & Wheel Week, Cycle Recycle, errand bikes and guided rides.
Vangel's marketing responsibilities are the brand campaign, Web site, surveys and creative production of some programs. The firm's goals for the brand campaign this year include producing three advertisements, printing more maps and brochures and sending direct mail items to "local influencers." The firm also uses radio and print ads, newsletters, posters and yard signs to promote some of its outreach.
Ian Thomas, executive director of PedNet, said that while the branding is engaging, he doesn't think it effectively promotes biking and walking as a serious mode of transportation.
"The branding portrays it as something you might do recreationally," Thomas said. "One thing I would prefer is to see a bit more emphasis on transportation."
Thomas' organization partnered with IDP Group, an interactive marketing consulting firm in Columbia, to bid for the GetAbout contract in 2006. Thomas said that PedNet was the lead agency in the partnership and garnered support from Columbia Public Schools, TrailNet, Walt's Bicycle Fitness and other businesses and organizations. But the council instead decided to marry Vangel's proposal for marketing with PedNet's proposal for education.
Baker said that Vangel will focus more on education than promotion during GetAbout's final 18 months.
"A lot of funding went more to cover infrastructure during Phase 2, and there are a lot of things we did in Phase 1 that we'll be able to use again," such as the Web site, she said.
Skala said he is nervous about the federal government evaluation next year, citing the lack of completed infrastructure projects. According to the Federal Highway Administration's Web site, the purpose of the grant is to fund "a network of nonmotorized transportation infrastructure facilities."
"I'm questioning the decision on how much money we have given to advertising over actual trail development," Skala said.
So far, the only GetAbout projects that have reached fruition are the street markings, called sharrows, and bike racks. Three projects to improve intersections are under construction, and several trail projects are scheduled to begin this year.
Thomas described a general ratio that bike-friendly cities have come to agree on for spending: 80 percent infrastructure to 20 percent education and marketing. The proposed street and trail projects under GetAbout Columbia will make biking safer and more inviting for newbies, Thomas said, but residents won't know about it without some promotion.
Skala agreed, but said one should happen before the other.
"I think we need to get the stuff on the ground and encourage people to use what is there before trying to promise them what may be coming in the future," Skala said. "It's a little bit too abstract."