The Charade of Being a Member of a Transportation Design Team

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 17, 2003

What a fiasco. What a charade…

I just came out of yet ANOTHER extremely tense and emotionally stressful Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO) Design Team meeting.

At nearly all of the meetings I’ve been to since I was assigned to that committee a few years ago while I was a senior planner for a Florida city, there were hostile exchanges and questions/rebuttals between local folks on the design team and Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) staff. These are meetings where FDOT is laying out their latest plans – plans for destroying the city where their road plans are proposed.

On July 15, the Design Team had a rather crowded agenda chock full of FDOT projects to “improve” my city and otherwise make the city more “safe.”Carmageddon highway

Of the 15 members of the Team, I was the sole “no” vote on 10 of the 11 projects on our agenda that day.

Several new turn lanes. Resurfacing huge roads with no plans to shrink the excessive number of lanes. Speeding up traffic.

It was the usual plans to incrementally move my city towards a future of extreme car dependency. A future that inevitably leads to an extreme decline in quality of life and sustainability.

On two of the projects, FDOT wanted to resurface BIG, MULTI-LANE monster roads. In the committee discussion, I confirmed with the City traffic engineer that these two road segments are WAY under capacity. Only a tiny handful of cars use them each day.

No-brainer candidates for seizing the opportunity during resurfacing to restripe these overweight five-laners to three lanes. As usual, my suggestions were met with derision, scoffs, nervous chuckles and, ultimately, deathly silence. Discussion quickly changed to other “more important” ideas such as adding a few trees or shrubs. No one made a comment about my proposed lane reductions.

One of the items was a discussion about FDOT plans to essentially buy the front yard of some unfortunate folks to add bike lanes. Land owned by a university and adjacent to the project were deemed off-limits because they were part of a “bird sanctuary” — I guess it is perfectly fine to take land away from human habitat within a city, though…

Taking land was needed to install bike lanes and straighten out the road. Which, by the way, would SPEED traffic and REDUCE safety.

As an aside, the redesign of the paired streets in question was originally intended to primarily improve safety, but again, we only care about CAR safety at HIGH speeds, not pedestrians, bicyclists or transit – no matter that the project is next to a large university campus where there are an enormous number of pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users.

In any event, I pointed out that as a long-time bicycle commuter who has traveled that segment of the street thousands of times, it was my opinion that it is, by far, the most crucial bike lane installation need in the county — particularly because it is next to a major campus, and the lack of bike lanes would be at a very dangerous pinch point — even for experienced bicyclists such as me.

So I told the committee that while I did not at all support the FDOT “solution,” adding the lanes there was essential. I pointed out, hopelessly, that the only reasonable design solution was to go back to the design that was nearly approved a few years ago — to remove one of the three travel lanes and create two-way traffic (one lane in each direction) and turn pockets — essentially creating a very ped-friendly, bike-friendly, neighborhood-friendly, LOW-SPEED design. We’d then have plenty of room for bike lanes without the need to take two-thirds of a front yard of a home. My suggestion was met with silence and the topic quickly changed to something like…oh, I don’t know…the paint color to be used on street signs.

As an aside, it should be noted that FDOT staff ALWAYS gave the citizen Team pure engineering drawings. In other words, drawings that contain a vast, complex web of hundreds of solid and dashed lines and dimensional measurements that are completely irrelevant to a lay audience trying to make a decision about the project. As in meetings past, I pointed out at the meeting that it was completely impossible for me to figure out ANYTHING about what was being proposed on most of the projects. The drawings were a cluttered, jumbled mess. If FDOT was seeking to hide what they were doing on the projects, the drawings they give us is an excellent way to do it.

One must suspect that this is not a coincidence.

For several of the items, I began the conversation by asking FDOT to tell me, in plain English, what on earth they were proposing, since I had spent days unsuccessfully trying to decipher the packet we’d be given. On a number of them, I had no idea. Even the City traffic engineer had to ask FDOT staff at the meeting what was being proposed on a few of the drawings. One certainly has to wonder if FDOT DELIBERATELY gives the committee engineering drawings KNOWING that only geeky engineers could make heads or tails of what is being proposed.

The Design Team is an embarrassing joke, and I’ve made that known to my supervisors a number of times since being appointed (asking my supervisors more than once to be taken off the Team). All they do is argue heatedly for window-dressing trivialities such as asking FDOT for a few more trees or shrubs — all to make driving a car more aesthetically pleasing to the motorist speeding by at 45 mph. No thought is ever given by this GARDEN CLUB committee to designing streets for FUNCTIONAL improvements. No thought or care is directed toward the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, or transit users — in part because there is very little knowledge of what those sorts of travelers need. But all of us sure know how to design for faster sport utility vehicle driving, though.

And FDOT staff regularly gets quite defensive about their projects, or says the trivial little landscape things asked for are “outside the scope of the project.” Sometimes, though, their proposed destruction of the city is obvious even to them, and they will ease their guilty conscience by throwing us a few more trees to put a band-aid on their latest atrocity.

It is a complete waste of my time. And humiliating, because just by being there, I am implicitly and erroneously sending a message that I think the items that are pushed by the majority of the Team is anything more than insignificant.

I’ve come to learn that it is a waste of time to make motions for functional and effective design strategies, since I’m never able to even get a second to a motion.

Gotta get back to arguing for another crape myrtle…

And to add extreme insult to all of the above, it was announced to the Team during the meeting that JEB!, our fearless governor at the time (Jeb Bush, that is), had a few hours earlier just signed legislation which allows FDOT to EXEMPT itself from local rules. “No stinkin’ local regs are going to stop us from ramming a freeway through your town, boy!”

One has to wonder what point there now is to having a Design Team, or even an MTPO. Now even our nearly meaningless local government landscape and sign rules can be ignored. FDOT ALREADY had the defacto power to trump local laws. Now it is official. I wonder if they are going to even TELL us locals about their plans to “improve” our roads in the future, before their bulldozers show up…

As Duany has pointed out, state DOTs have been more destructive of southern cities than General Sherman and the Union Army during the Civil War…

______________________________________________________________

A response to the above from a friend and colleague:

Dom, remember you are George Washington.  Your goal is to keep an army together until you win.  You cannot win a direct battle with the Redcoats (FDOT).  However, you can win surprise attacks, such as Trenton on Christmas Day.  Of course, I want to be there when you cross the Delaware in your boat through the ice.  Your vision is the future.  The highway engineer’s vision is of the past.  You will win, but you will spend many winters in Valley Forge.  I want to be there, also, at Yorktown.  You will win.  The only question is when.

 

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