Technocrats and the roads they build (i.e., yours)

This week, Missoula’s gave some thought to how two of its main streets are going to look in the future. Tuesday was the beginning of the West Broadway Charrette process promised by Mayor Engen as a way for Missoulians to talk out their hopes and fears for that stretch of road along the river from Orange Street to out past Russell. Thursday evening was a chance to look at what’s in store for Russell Street south to Mount Avenue. I’ll start with Russell Street, which won’t even get started until 2010, because it’s an argument for the importance of getting involved with West Broadway early, like it isn’t early already.

Potentially eye-glazing content warning: For those interested in the details of the preliminary preferred alternative, read this paragraph (local knowledge required); to just get the larger point about transportation planning, skip down to the next paragraph. The plan is to make Russell Street into a four lane road with a median that breaks for turn lanes. There will be a stoplight at Wyoming Street and Mount Avenue as well as double lane roundabouts at Third, Fifth and Eleventh streets. Also, there will be sidewalks and bike lanes along the length of the new road as well as a pedestrian underpass for the Milwaukee Trail and connections for the river trail system. The plan calls for making Third Street from Russell to Reserve a three lane road with three single-lane roundabouts though I can’t recall where they all are.

The biggest stink that was being made was about the decision to expand Russell Street to four lanes with a turning lane. The consultants said that it had to be done in order to accommodate the anticipated volumes of cars. Lots of people in the audience expressed concerns about higher speeds, higher volumes and the like, preferring a two-lane Russell Street. (See all the alternatives and potential configurations for bike/pedestrian trails here.) Now, in all fairness, these were folks who have never seen a four-lane road they like. They are, perhaps, reacting with jerking knees. But they have a point in one important respect: arguing that even if the government says a road has to have a certain capacity to meet projected volumes, we the people of Missoula could decide we value something else instead and just opt for the smaller road.

As a philosophical point, that’s true. But, practically speaking, it’s not exactly so. $38 million of the anticipated $40 million price tag for the road work comes with conditions set by the feds. One of those is that the project meet needs and purposes established at the outset of the appropriations process. One of those had to do with accommodating massive volumes that are projected, perhaps in error, by the consultants. So, though the constraints that demand a four-lane road are ultimately arbitrary, they are necessary insofar as they are built into the structure of the project’s mission. This ball was set rolling long before the meeting to which the public was invited.

In fact, through some oddity of bureaucratise, public participation in transportation planning is supposed to be finished by the time that a project gets to what’s called the design phase. In fact, environmental review is the place where all the conceptual work about how many lanes and traffic lights and medians–the real questions of how the road will look–gets done. And even then, many of the constraints that really yield the answers are already given. This leads to the second issue that came up.

Someone in the audience spoke up and said, “I have a business on a corner where you drew a roundabout. How much of my land are you planning to take?” And the consultant answered, truthfully, “Well, we’re still at a conceptual phase here. We can’t work out those details with you yet.” They get worked out when the city negotiates right of way, long after the feds sign off on the environmental review and the conceptual work, as well as the public participation, is done. So she can’t have her say now and she can’t have it later. (In all fairness, the environmental impact statement is supposed to include details on property conflicts so her input should be factored in for what they call “mitigation” but that doesn’t mean she gets to have a say with full knowledge of what her answers entail.)

I see a commonality in these cases. In both, the process was elbowing the public participants out of decisions that are critical to the future of the place where they live and, even, their livelihoods. That’s not what a public participation process is supposed to do but it is often how transportation planning functions. And it’s why it takes a long time to see your say make a difference. But it’s also why people get angry when changes to roads happen: by the time there’s anything solid on the page, you are supposed to have had your say.

That said, West Broadway is at a much earlier stage. The purpose of Tuesday’s meeting was just to demonstrate that something was happening. The real sit down and hash it out business will take place on Nov. 16 when people sit down with maps and markers and lay out what they want the corridor–land use as well as road design–to look like. (Links to the project forthcoming when the project has some sort of web presence.) Of course, that’s been done already in the Northside/Westside Neighborhood Plan, which hasn’t exactly been followed to the letter by the city, but now’s the time to do it again, apparently. And, when it’s done, many of the constraints that will determine decisions about lane configurations and road design will be set, long before anyone gets anywhere near scheduling those projects.

What a city looks like and how its citizens live depend on the roads that run through it but the aesthetic and community values people want to see expressed need to be incorporated in the constraints that engineers translate into design. What’s important to how your roads look are embedded constraints that are in place long before the consequences are evident. But what’s embedded can be changed with sufficient foresight and even more patience.

Missoula has hired someone to help the public get involved–Transportation Information Specialist Amber Blake–so get on her mailing list and get yourself involved. It’s not going to take the engineers out of the way but it eventually will make them obey.

–posted by readbetween

  1. The Road Diet on Broadway and the proposed roundabouts on Russell are attempts to impose European trasnportation models on Missoula. The hidden agenda of the supporters of these proposals are to reduce automobile traffic in Downtown Missoula.

    The Road Diet is already a failure and has seriously hurt businesses on Broadway and downtown. The roundabouts will further hurt downtown business as it will impede traffic coming in from the east on Russell. Safety is a red herring argument.

    I wrote on these things back in July.

  2. A Franco-Euro conspiracy to replace good ol’ red-meat American roads with a sissiefied anti-car system?

    Hm. Methinks someone’s spent a little too much time surfing the right-wing blogs…

  3. Jim Fleischmann

    Reducing automobile traffic downtown has hardly been a “hidden agenda” item for many transportation planning advocates and I suspect it is a goal supported by many individuals, organizations, and businesseses……………

  4. readbetween

    When you say the “hidden agenda of the supporters of these proposals” are you referring to the hidden agenda of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation–which says “roundabouts will provide higher capacity and lower delays than all-way stop control”–or some other shadowy group with no interest except undermining capitalism through inefficient street design?

    As for your having written on “these things” back in July, I would have to disagree since my post had nothing to do with advocating roundabouts over street lights (though the preferred alternative has several street lights in it, which would seem to suggest some criterion other than dogma for their adoption). Rather, I was just noting how the important decisions about how streets and, therefore much else, get made long before the stage at which anyone is looking at any particular design, and how that has a tendency to produce contention in response to particular designs that one person or another feels like violates his or her values.

    As a result, we get mired in debating projects that are already complete like West Broadway (which the advocates of realigning could not even get on the ballot, suggesting that perhaps the volume of the protests belied the number of protestors). That does little but generate the sort of knee-jerk reactions on both sides–“Five-lane roads will kill!” and “Rounabouts are a Red plot to subvert capitalism!” both–that cloud sane discussion about how values, be they efficiency, commerce, safety or sense of place, should inform engineering.

    A case in point, Andy, is your response.

  5. Ed Childers

    Good writeup, readbetween. Thanks.
    Regarding West Broadway, numerous traffic counts on Broadway, Toole/Spruce, and Phillips have shown no significant difference between the 4-lane Then and the 3-lane Now, with an odd anomaly on Broadway in the block just west of Orange. Numbers are available from City Public Works.

  6. readbetween

    Thanks, Ed. I saw those numbers about the side streets at the West Broadway meeting back in the spring, but I also heard the maxim that traffic has increased on alternate routes repeated by people in the audience at the latest West Broadway meeting. The discussion about the road, from the people who still care to hear about it, has largely come unmoored from empirical conditions. I will be interested to see how the consultants move people on from that discussion at the November meeting.

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