I attended the North Central Section of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (more alphabet soup – NCITE) on September 21st. The topic of the meeting was Mega Projects – Lessons Learned. All three of the speakers were interesting, but I didn't take away too many lessons learned.
The biggest lesson I took away was that of perspective. Wally Wysopal, the city administrator for North St. Paul discussed converting a section of Highway 36 from a corridor with at grade traffic signals to a grade separated freeway. Highway 36 is a large commuter corridor and it bisects the city of North St. Paul. Its a barrier between their neighborhoods and businesses/civic amenities. The city wanted bridges over Highway 36 that would improve their local connectivity.
The problem was that no agency except for the city had this project in their plans. City staff and elected politicians eventually put together a very diverse funding structure – a little bit from here, a little bit from there to get the project fully funded and ultimately built. Wally did a wonderful job of painting the history of North St. Paul, how it was developed, and how the highway inadvertently cut the community in half. This project was the city's dream to reunite itself. That constant, emotional message was the reason they were able to make the project happen (in my estimation).
The take away is you have to paint a picture to make your points in an emotional way. This is very out of character for us engineer types. I have recently started to use Detroit as an example (sorry to pick on the Motor City, but this story is simple to grasp and makes my point). I say "some level of traffic congestion is a byproduct of a successful community – Detroit doesn't have any congestion problems in the heart of the city, yet I don't think you want your city to look like downtown Detroit. My job is to manage the traffic from this development in a tolerable way, but congestion is part of a thriving community." This little story has made my job a little easier in public hearings.