Thursday, September 26th, 2013

If You Don’t Care What the Public Thinks, Why Waste Its Time Asking?

During the lengthy planning process for the Ohio River Bridges Project nearly Louisville, the bi-state study group surveyed the public on preferred bridge designs. This was a high profile endeavor that was prominently covered in the papers and such. The public even got to vote on what designs they liked. It was quite a spirited debate, but at the end of a lengthy design selection process (I’m told it lasted three years), this design by Boston architect Miguel Rosales was chosen for the East End bridge:

To give you a feel for the process and how important it was for the community, Louisville Magazine did a review just of the selected designs before they were built. Here are some key excerpts:

We now have the designs for two new bridges accompanied by a chorus of anxious proclamations by civic leaders declaring an end to the debate.

[ The Downtown and East End bridge designs] also reflect tremendous outreach to the community on the part of the Kentucky and Indiana Ohio River Bridges Project (ORBP), which sponsored numerous public meetings and surveys. Both bridge designs deserve serious consideration, as they will affect the city’s relationship to the river and the city’s sense of identity for decades to come, and both have strengths and weaknesses to be debated.

Of the two, the East End bridge is the more simply and elegantly designed. Officials with the ORBP said that the public voiced a strong desire for the bridge to be as “visually transparent” as possible, both for those on the span looking out over the river and the landscape and for those on land looking at the river.

“I believe this design was felt to be the best overall choice for this pristine rural context,” says Daniel Carrier, project manager for the East End bridge. “The public wanted a design that wouldn’t obstruct the landscape.” This sensitivity reflects widespread concern about the impact on the river corridor, especially in the sparsely developed East End, which includes a valuable nature habitat, unspoiled view corridors and historic properties.

You already know what’s coming. When the Indiana Department of Transportation, which is responsible for the East End bridge construction, awarded the contract to build it, they unceremoniously dumped the previously selected design in favor of this:

This design change was simply presented to the public as a fait accompli without any public input or consultation. The only consultation appears to have been between INDOT and its contractor.

Not everyone was pleased. From the News Tribune (a Southern Indiana newspaper):

The change, for some nearby residents, was not met with adoration. “I’m disappointed, truthfully,” said Welby Edwards, a Quarry Bluff resident. “The other bridge was absolutely fabulous.”

“It’s just a beautiful structure,” he said of the [original] median-tower design. “It was wide open. It just had elegance to it. It was not going to be an eyesore. They solved a lot of problems by putting a beautiful bridge in there. It wouldn’t have been utilitarian, it was going to be something worth looking at. [Now] it’s a bridge that’s not going to be anything you’re going to brag about.”

Beyond the aesthetic, Edwards questioned why a design change was made now.

“I don’t understand how you have one bridge for six years and change it at the last minute?” he asked. “That’s what they sold us, that’s what they should build,” he said of the original design.

Edwards wasn’t the only one that preferred the design chosen by the state. “Aesthetically, I think I like the previous one better,” said Utica Town Board President Hank Dorman. However, he said he believes the span that will likely be constructed by WVB will be a very attractive bridge. Doorman, too, questioned the changes being made to the project plan at this point.

INDOT justified the switch by saying that a) they’d signed away the design rights to their contractor and b) the new design is cheaper to build and maintain.

Let’s not go overboard. The new design isn’t the end of the world. While it’s certainly not a signature structure, it’s quite serviceable in my opinion. And the original one itself wasn’t the Golden Gate Bridge.

Let’s also take INDOT’s statements at face value and accept that the new design is cheaper than the old one (though their claim that they saved $220 million appears to be bogus). Saving money is a perfectly legitimate reason to make design changes. I think we can all relate to making personal decisions to change approaches on home projects or whatever to save money. And as I guy who worked for a consulting company (not in the transportation space) I can tell you that a contractor suggesting money saving changes is definitely something you want. I may well have made the same decision if I’d been in charge of it.

But even with the noblest of intentions, the sequence of events is incredibly troubling – and sadly all too common. During the planning phases – when, incidentally, public input is legally mandated and in which transport agencies are trying to secure support for project approval – very nice designs are chosen, only to mysteriously disappear via “value engineering” when some nameless, faceless member of the green eyeshade brigade gets ahold of it – generally right before construction, when it’s too late for anyone to effectively object. If lowest cost was always going to be the selected option, why go through the process of a design selection?

That design process was ultimately nothing more than a dog and pony show, if not an outright bait and switch. If any private individual or company had done that, they’d have the Attorney General (if not the county prosecutor) breathing down their necks. But this is the government we’re talking about. If INDOT really did save a lot of money on this, perhaps they should be using it pay compensation to everyone who participated in the design process for wasting their time (the value of which, by the way, DOTs know quite well, since they use it to calculate the cost of traffic delays). What’s that they say? You’ve got to dance with the one that brung ya. That certainly didn’t happen here.

We actually do want to make tradeoffs between cost and design. But the public needs to have its part in that debate. Whatever the case, clearly this type of process where you spend years consulting with the public only to pitch the result in the garbage can overnight is not appropriate. The ability to have public input throughout, from planning through to construction needs to be designed in to the process. Otherwise you’re just wasting everybody’s time.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: Louisville

7 Responses to “If You Don’t Care What the Public Thinks, Why Waste Its Time Asking?”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    They do it because it looks good. It’s a PR exercise. It’s a chance for people to ‘vent.’ You’re right that it means nothing.

  2. George Mattei says:

    Yep, they can say “we got public input”. Someone once told me that half the point of urban planning is to manufacture consent for what you know you want to happen. That’s a cynical view, but not always an incorrect one.

  3. Bryan G says:

    Am I correct that the number of lanes on this bridge were decreased AND the bicycle/pedestrian lanes removed from the final plan? If so, THAT is the real travesty.

  4. Bryan G, the number of traffic lanes on the bridge was reduced from six to four. However, I believe there is still going to be a pedestrian and bicycle trail. I think it was the downtown bridge were that was removed, based on the face that the Big Four pedestrian bridge right next to it across the river is nearly done. That actually makes sense I think.

  5. Bryan G says:

    Understood. Thanks, Aaron.

  6. Jon Seisa says:

    Leave it to the dense, obtuse, visionless and shortsighted bureaucrats, as usual. Lately, I’ve seen more and more of this “bait and switch” scheme under the pretense, guise and façade of “community participatory design” than ever before. The bogus process is all a scam and gimmick to hoodwink the citizenry into passivity so ultimately in the end the bureaucrats can implement the final switch for their long pre-determined design, foisting their horrific monstrosity upon the community——for eternity. Perhaps they’re sadomasochists.

    This bridge completely lacks confluence of graceful and majestic curvilinear flow.

    Instead, it looks like it’s squatting to take a dump in the river… “The Squatting Bridge”.

  7. Paul Lambie says:

    Well, is anyone really that surprised? What will be the next major disappointment with this project?

    Thinking positively, maybe INDOT will go so far in running roughshod over the public on this project, that Hoosiers will actually start to question their projects more often and stop allowing similar nonsense in the future.

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