I occasionally say smart things on Twitter, and even more occasionally, one of them is worth saying in more than 140 characters. Yesterday I had the following conversation with @bjamin:
The project Ben was alluding to is the I-5/Broadway/Weidler interchange plan, which is part of the N/NE Quadrant project. Public attention to the project has increased recently because the Stakeholder Advisory Committee was charged this week with making a recommendation on the interchange plans, and there was an opportunity for public comment at the meeting.
The process has been going on for almost two years. I got involved just over a year ago, right after the first public charrette (which I wasn’t able to attend for personal reasons), when I and some other advocates met with some SAC members who were feeling less sure about the transportation details than they would have liked. I ended up sitting in on a special meeting with ODOT and PBOT project staff at one point, I’ve kept in touch with the SAC members about the progress, I went to several open houses and commented on the plans, and I had a lot of (frustrating) conversations with project staff. So I know a bit about how the whole process went down.
The way that I described it for Ben I think is apt (and Steve thought so too). The ideas that were presented to the SAC and the community were pre-filtered by the agencies involved, including ODOT, and by the way the scope of the project was written. They’re stale because all the interesting ideas were thrown out by the “process”.
At the transportation design charettes, any options that included removal of I-5 (something many community members think is possible within the next 30 years) were thrown out as out of scope. Options that involved removing the ramps were put down as infeasible because the majority of the traffic on the freeway is local, even though local traffic doesn’t need a freeway to get around, and eliminating close-together ramps is a very traditional way to improve weaving problems like those cited for this segment (the freeway interchange in the city I grew up in was redone this way while I was in high school and college). And the TDM/TSM option (managing congestion using technological and mode-shift techniques) was never seriously developed — whenever I saw it, it was just a line item, and when I asked ODOT staff what this would entail, they did the verbal equivalent of shrugging.
All this points to a process that was set up with so many constraints to meet that it could only get one result: that the freeway needs the additional lanes ODOT says it needs. Pressure from the community is the only thing that brought the process to a point where the worst (most expensive and people-hostile) optionsÂ were eliminated and it included any reasonable improvements for people walking and biking through the area at all. That’s still not much, just a tiny update over today’s conditions, with some loss of connectivity (plus the construction impacts). This for an area that is the meeting of three major bike routes, that’s within blocks of the city’s biggest transit center and major event centers, and which will soon have a streetcar! I’ve also heard, but haven’t confirmed, that PBOT as much as said that the bike/ped improvements were contingent on the freeway improvements, and they couldn’t be done separately. If they’re really improvements that we think are good and worthwhile, why can’t they be done separately? Does PBOT want 25% of Portlanders riding their bikes to work in 2030, or not? Do they want people leaving the Rose Garden at night to be safe walking to TriMet or not?
This N/NE Quadrant process, to me, has become a symbol of everything I’ve seen that’s wrong with “public process” — I would say “in Portland” but I don’t think it’s just Portland.
- The public doesn’t get any input on deciding what projects “need” to be done, or what their scope will be (Portland Transport discussed this recently as well).
- Only the project’s “stakeholders” (however that is defined for a given project, and it generally isn’t defined very inclusively) get ongoing input. The public has to delve into websites and publications to find out when design sessions or open houses are or how to contact staff.
- Open houses are rarely held at convenient places and times; they’re usually held from 4:30 to 6:30 (letting out a lot of working people) and often in odd places (Lloyd Center Mall, the Rose Garden Arena).
- There’s often a distinct lack of data and discussion of the project’s (temporary or permanent) impacts on non-motor vehicle traffic. I can’t tell you how many times I heard how many cars drive on the freeway, but I never heard project staff even discuss bikeway traffic counts, despite such counts being available for several intersections in the area, and despite requests for such data from citizens.
- One stakeholder can sometimes hold up an entire project, but how that can come about is never clearly defined.
- The options that are presented, if they include citizen ideas at all, are always pre-filtered by agency staff, who are the same people who chose the project scope in the first place, so they can put their preferred options front and center and get rid of any they don’t like.
- Staff can even insist after the fact that SAC recommendations won’t work and have to be changed. So nothing is currently stopping PBOT and ODOT from taking the SAC recommendation for the I-5/Broadway-Weidler project and deleting even the small bike/ped improvements the community did succeed in adding, just like nothing seems to stop PBOT from continually insisting that Williams can’t handle traffic with only one travel lane (and refusing to hear any points made that a change in road configuration is likely to change traffic counts).
Agencies have an existing culture and worldview and a vested interest in things going their way, so even when there are a lot of people with good intent (and I don’t doubt there are, here as much as anywhere, as I’ve met and spoken to many of them), that isn’t enough to get the agency to look beyond its own standard methods, its own little house in government, and the immediate future. Memorably, one of the open houses I attended for this project included a note that the median MUP that they wanted to install (which did make it into the final plans, but without any marked width) should be 12′ wide for two-way traffic. This on one of the major city bikeways? 20′ would barely be wide enough (that’s the total width of the Hawthorne Bridge paths). When I look at designs produced by staff and consultants, they almost always show that the person who designed them doesn’t regularly travel the street (at all, or by specific modes) because they are missing important details like that. At the last N Williams open house, I heard another citizen ask why they had added parking to a particular block of Williams, because it’s currently no-parking at PPB’s request. “Really?” said the consultant behind the table. “I’ll look into that.” In general, details that are critical to determining whether a design is any good are often missing until too late in the process to make meaningful changes.
More than a change to any individual project, or any one part of the process, we need a change from a culture of regimented process, stale bureaucracy, and imposed expertise to evolution, creativity, and collaboration. This requires change from both our government and us as citizens. Governmental agencies need to stop fearing and constraining citizen input and start talking with us openly what we want and need, while at the same time getting out of their silos and looking at the long view. We have to be more interested in the continued development of our neighborhood and our city over time, and more willing to see beyond our own self-interest. Right now, 74% of Americans want to see no new development in their neighborhoods. But without development, neighborhoods stagnate and decline. No future development means “I’ve got mine and I’m not worried about anyone else getting theirs.” That’s not the attitude of a community I want to live in. Let’s make Portland, and Oregon, better than that.