Sunday, August 14, 2011

Engaging Conversation

Senator John Danforth once said that "St. Louis is not a spectator sport". His point was that it's going to take people getting off the sidelines and into the game to make a difference.

One way to get in the game is to participate in public hearings on proposed development plans. Big projects in the public comment phase today include the proposed South County Connector and the proposed highway changes around the proposed Arch redevelopment.

The Arch hearings are a sort of two-fer. The National Park Service is holding hearings about the Arch master plan and MODOT is holding hearings for proposed highway changes adjacent to the Arch.

These are big projects involving tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in public expenditures. Federal and state law requires public comment and environmental review. So what's the purpose?

It's a little unclear. Is the purpose of public comment to solely focus on the proposed plan? Or is it to open a dialogue soliciting ideas for a range of alternative solutions through public input?

On the environmental review side, alternatives are analyzed. The baseline option is the "no project" alternative. What are the environmental impacts of doing nothing? Then options become more extensive along a scale of cost and degree of intervention. Each option is analyzed for its benefits and impacts and any negative environmental impacts must have mitigation. Federally funded projects are not permitted to have a negative net environmental impact.

Environmental review makes sense. It's counter-intuitive that a project involving substantial public spending would result in negative environmental impact. Which brings us back to the question of the role of public comment: should the public's role solely be one of reaction to specific proposals of others or should it be to foster creative partnerships in making collaborative decisions?

An approach where the public's role is to react to proposals of others would be considered a top-down approach. An approach where public comment is used to develop a vision and plan of action would be a strategy of real community engagement.

St. Louis needs engaged citizens, particularly younger and creative ones, if we are to succeed in building a sustainable future. The process of engaging the public on government funded projects is one way to bring people together, challenging us all to find the best strategies to improve St. Louis.

Such has not always been the case. Some feel St. Louis is an exclusive place, where it's difficult for new and young people to get involved. It's time for St. Louis to move forward together, with all voices being heard and encouraged to be part of the process.


Anonymous said...

Why would MoDOT consider ideas from citizen, I mean that's like the army asking people how to win a war. MoDOT is the expert in the road construction field and they will do what they want, sure they'll have public comment period but only because it's required by federal law.... In reality those comments are ignored, as they should be, I don't want MoDOT taking advices from citizens on where and how to built a road or a bridge.

Rick Bonasch said...

To Anonymous -

There are many facets involved in community planning and development, transportation being one piece.

Success requires a holistic approach, not one where one interest is advanced at the expense of other vital concerns.

A good example is the expansion of highways in the 1960s. It is debatable whether the construction of interstate highways through existing neighborhoods was a good thing for established communities.

Some have noted that interstate highways were never intended to be built through exisitng neighborhoods, sacrificing thousands of homes, displacing tens of thousands of residents, and cutting neighborhoods in half.

So I must disagree with your statement. Planning should not be dominated by any one agency of government. There needs to be a balanced approach.