Learning from 28x — The Zen of Project Planning

Despite having a high percentage of transit-dependent households, the mostly low-income and non-white sections of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan have some of the area’s worst transportation options.  The buses are old, over crowded, and slow.  There is no trolley or commuter train service.  Since the latest estimates are that a two-person Boston household spends up to $12,324 a year more if they use cars rather than trolleys, buses, and feet, many of these people have little choice but to take what’s given them. It’s hard not to see this as discriminatory.  And many residents do.

So, the only good that may emerge from the withdrawal of the state’s application for about one hundred and fifty million dollars to upgrade bus service along Blue Hill Ave – because of community opposition to the state’s plans – is that it becomes a case study in how NOT to implement successful transportation projects.  What went wrong, and what can we learn?

Some of the problem wasn’t the T’s fault.  The government’s post-WWII prioritization of cars over transit has kept the (white, upper-income,) suburb-serving Turnpike’s tolls relatively low and occasionally reduced, while leaving the MBTA chronically underfunded.  Because of shortcomings in the current funding mechanisms, along with a staggering debt burden – some of which is Big Dig over-runs that the state dumped on the MBTA — even though about 1.3 million trips are made on T buses and trains every day, fares have already been raised three times since 2000.  And more increases are coming.

But there is also a long history of mismanagement and contempt from MBTA management.  Rider and advocate complaints about bad conditions, lack of service, and employment discrimination were ignored, belittled, or responded to with the minimum possible grace or speed.  Every T project seemed to take several times longer and produce less than promised.  This had gone on for so long that the community simply didn’t believe anything that T management said or did.   The combination of racial sensitivity and daily humiliations created a level of visceral anger across the entire community that state leaders never understood. T leaders had become the enemy to car drivers as much car bus riders.  Even the appointment of Jim Aloisi as Secretary of Transportation, an East Boston native committed to urban mass transit who was nominated by the state’s first African-American governor, did not discharge this angry mistrust.

On the state side, the very short response time allowed by Washington for applications to tap into $1.5 billion of federal stimulus money for transit projects created a trap — and Secretary Aloisi fell in.  To get in line for the highly competitive grants, intended for “shovel ready” projects, he quickly had the Governor announce plans to create a “Bus Rapid Transit” system down the middle of Blue Hill Ave.  But no one knew it was coming – including the state legislators standing behind Governor Patrick at the kick-off event.  And given the history, the community immediately assumed the worse.

Compounding the mess were significant flaws in the announced design.  Labeling it “Bus Rapid Transit” was the first mistake, since the design didn’t meet many of the basic criteria for that innovative and cost-effective “train-like without rails” system – but the state’s defensive rhetorical switch to “Enhanced Bus Service” simply made the community even more aware of what it wasn’t getting.  To save money and meet the two-year implementation requirement of Stimulus Program grants, the state was going to use standard buses whose doors opened on the right – meaning that the buses (which would travel down the center of the street in the median area) would have to run against traffic on the “wrong side” of the median.  To keep cars and buses from crashing, an ugly Jersey barrier would separate the two – but also keep residents from being able to cross the street except at the widely-spaced intersections.  (And then the T kept showing the cement barriers in every Powerpoint presentation even after state leaders had supposedly agreed to replace them with a 9 inch curb!)  The enhanced buses wouldn’t use all the existing bus stops, forcing people to walk further to board.  The layout of some intersections seemed to put pedestrians at peril – especially the old or infirm.  All the young trees on the median — trees that the community had spent years fighting to get – would be cut down.  There were no bicycle lanes in the design, much less a protected cycle track.  And long-standing problems with the few existing T stations in the area weren’t addressed.

Every one of these difficulties could have been identified and solved through a process of consultation with advocates and community groups.  In fact, even as the clock ticked, advocates proposed ways to correct most of the major problems.  But, despite the state’s statement that it was willing to be flexible, the press of time made negotiations difficult and left everyone unclear if the new ideas were actually getting incorporated.  What little trust totally collapsed when the deadline for federal applications arrived and advocates discovered that the state had submitted the original, unrevised plan.

On top of all this, some community members felt that the whole idea of buses was an insult to begin with.  They knew that rail-based systems cost up to ten times more than bus lanes; but if Cambridge had gotten the Red Line extension and Somerville was getting the Green Line light rail why were they getting the knock-off?  Spending that much money on a flawed bus project, they warned, meant that the community would never get another chance for something better.

Bottom line – there was simply no one in the community willing to defend the state proposal.

The neighborhood’s Legislative representatives, without whose support the application had little hope, demanded that the state come up with a new design.  When the feds announced that revisions were not allowed, the state withdrew the application.  No money.  No jobs.  No transportation improvements.

So what can be learned from this fiasco?

1) Good intentions do not erase bad history. 

There were so many years of community frustration and anger with state agencies that Aloisi’s proclamations of a new direction were not nearly enough.  His reputation as a Big Dig executive – another huge project that had done nothing to help those communities – didn’t help.  People wanted action, not words.  The Obama-effect had raised hopes, but people were still wary and waiting to see results – first through being treated with respect and then by seeing what was actually done.

2) Good planning requires letting go of (some) control.

It may seem like a contradiction, but the best plans are not sealed units with sharp boundaries embodying a preconceived methodology or aesthetic in every detail, like a complex sculpture whose artistic unity needs protecting.  Ultimately, infrastructure plans do need to be detailed, coherent, and holistic.  But the process of planning requires central authorities to practice a bit of Zen – holding tight to the core values and goals while letting go of the exact methods to be used.  And it requires reaching beyond an agency’s own staff egos (and even their sense of professional expertise) to incorporate insights and suggestions from advocates and the broader community – no matter how lacking their official credentials.  The best planning process starts with leaders being clear about the opportunities and constraints of the situation, listening to community advocates, proposing a design and action plan, listening again, revising, listening again…as long as time allows.  It is seldom possible to please everyone, but if a significant majority isn’t onboard maybe something is wrong with the idea!

3)  Plan Ahead – But Acknowledge That Old Plans Don’t Serve New Visions

Transportation construction is a process of hurry up and wait.  Every state, region, and municipality has dozens of road and highway construction plans sitting around waiting for funding.  Unfortunately, most of these proposals are seeped in the old car-centric values of the Inter-State Highway age.  Few prioritize the modes that are increasingly seen as the main hope for a more sustainable, healthy, and affordable future:  walking, cycling – or transit.  So, across the country, the stimulus call for “shovel ready” projects mostly elicited car-dominated proposals.  (Which is one reason why no transportation plan should be funded until it is revised to be in compliance with new policy directions.)  When an opportunity to apply for public transportation arose, the state had to quickly throw together a new plan.  Of course it was flawed.  If Massachusetts is going to move its transportation system towards a more mode-balanced future, it needs to develop a new library of designs that incorporate that vision.

4) Not Every Opportunity is Worth Pursuing

The federal stimulus money was an almost irresistible, once-in-a-lifetime source of funds for a major and much needed upgrade of public transportation in an underserved area.  It is possible that a better process would have produced a better design – even within the impossible time limits.   Still, new infrastructure locks current values into place for several generations.  If something can’t be done right – or at least good enough – then maybe it simply shouldn’t be done.  It is to the state’s credit that they finally agreed to withdraw the application if community leaders didn’t endorse it – although, to be honest, by the time they did this there was little chance of success in any case.

5) Priority Projects Seldom Die – But Hopefully They Mature

If a project is important to powerful interests, they have the endurance of a vampire.  Communities seeking to stop unwanted projects learn that every time they’ve buried the proposal it comes back from the dead.  But in this case, this may be a good thing.  Expanding mass transit is not just a Boston, or even an urban, issue.  We know that population will increase in the future; current estimates are that traffic will increase by as much as 67 percent over the next 10 years.  Even if these predictions are as much above actual numbers as past traffic growth estimates have tended to be, the plain fact is that there are going to be more people needing to move around.

Despite the Internet, most economic growth (and other positive developments) requires some real-world movement. We’ve learned that building more roads just leads to more congestion.  The only way out of the box, the only way to improve our state’s competitiveness, is by a vast expansion of other travel modes – walking, bicycling, and (most important) public transportation.  Eventually, funding will appear — there will be another round of stimulus money or something else: the federal government is about to rewrite the next five-year Transportation Funding Bill and it appears that non-car modes will get significantly more attention.

So perhaps the best news coming out of the 28x fiasco is the announcement that the newly appointed CEO of the new Department of Transportation, Jeff Mullan, said that he is convening a team to work with neighborhood leaders to ensure that the proposed project eventually happens and to address issues that arose during a series of community meetings.  Let’s hope it wasn’t just a face-saving way out.  We need to try again – maybe they’ll do it right this time.

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