Give the neighbors a say–but how much?

In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, they’re looking at expanding the light rail they have by providing what would seem to an outside observer (me) a link between the two cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Obviously, the two cities have grown up without the rail infrastructure, so lots of homes and businesses will be affected, and a group of the affected folks evidently sued to stop the project, saying planners didn’t pay them enough heed.

The judge seems to be saying, “You could have paid them more heed, but your sin wasn’t egregious enough to make me want to stop the project.”  To me, this raises a couple of important considerations for transit planners and advocates, AND people who do the same day job as me–public participation/community engagement.

In theory, it would be great if the people who would be using a new transit system or line had a substantial say in where it went, and maybe even how it got built.  In practice, it would be hard to please anyone.  I would love, though, to see us try.  I would love to see us create tools–both online and in-person–for people to use to plot out transit lines and understand the costs, both financial and otherwise, associated with their preferences.  If someone wanted a stop near their home or business, but was concerned about how long construction would disrupt things, theoretically, they could toggle the amount of time spent on construction, speeding things up–which would cost more overall (labor overtime, etc.) but might seem less costly to those most immediately affected.

The mantra that “transit must pay for itself” (repeated recently by a an anti-transit-sounding member of Congress) means that the people for whom it is being built have to use it and pay for it.  So, as a practical matter, those people should have a significant say in how it will run and work.  While I am not suggesting that transit planners can ever prevent disruption during the construction phase and should not, therefore, stop a project because it will cause some disruption, I think we would be wise to think of ways to involve the public so that they both approve the concept AND its execution, and they understand the choices associated with a particular route or construction schedule.

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