Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Why Planning for Public Projects Doesn't Work

A variety of major new public investment projects are being contemplated in the Pittsburgh Region in the near future, such as a replacement for Mellon Arena, a reconfigured Market Square, and a new slots parlor (while this is technically a private investment project, the nature of the project and the law governing it makes equivalent to a public investment), to name a few. Other longer-range projects are being seriously discussed, such as improved transit connections to Oakland and the Airport, and highway projects to address traffic congestion on key arteries such as the Parkway West.

To varying degrees, each of these projects will go through some type of formal planning process designed to obtain public input and reach the best decision about how the projects should be configured.

If experience is any guide, there is a high probability that these planning processes will fail miserably.

Despite the best of intentions, here is how planning processes have worked in practice for past projects, and how they are likely to work for future projects unless radical changes are made:

1. One or more public hearings are held to obtain input on the general goals for the project and different ideas for options. A small number of people participate.

2. Consultants develop several different options for the project which may vary significantly in appearance and functionality.

3. Consultants prepare detailed analyses to estimate the cost and impacts on traffic, the environment, and other factors for each of the options.

4. A public hearing is held on the multiple options. A small number of people participate.

5. The decision-making body chooses an option based on the analyses and the public input received. The decision appears to be a wise one at the time that it is made, at least to anyone who takes the time to understand the options.

6. The decision-making body seeks local, state, and federal funding assistance for the project or the infrastructure associated with the project. This takes anywhere from months to years, during which time the cost of the project increases beyond the original projections.

7. The funding needed to carry out the project is finally assembled, contracts are bid, and an announcement is made that construction will begin shortly.

8. One or more individuals form a group to oppose the project, claiming that (a) their input was never sought in the decision-making process, (b) there are better or cheaper options than what was selected, and/or (c) there are serious problems with the project as designed. These individuals have not attended or participated in any of the public input sessions held during earlier steps.

9. The opposition group seeks support for its position from public officials (particularly those who will be up for re-election in the near future) and/or they file a lawsuit to stop the project.

10. The media gives extensive coverage to the opposition group and its claims, portraying it as the oppressed citizenry fighting the establishment.

11. Public officials or the courts delay implementation on the project in order to examine the claims made by the opponents.

12. The opponents are either successful in stopping the project, or they are successful in delaying or obtaining modifications to the project.

13. If the project proceeds, the delays increase the cost beyond the funds available, so that undesirable cuts in the project need to be made.

14. If some version of the project is ultimately completed, it will be years after it was needed, and it will not be viewed as a source of pride by the community.

If that sounds far-fetched, consider a few examples:

The most recent example is the reconfiguration of Point State Park. (Don't worry, the North Shore Connector is next...) Several years ago, the Allegheny Conference and the Riverlife Task Force engaged in a master planning process of unprecedented scope. A broad-based Steering Committee was formed, top national experts in landscape design, historic preservation and archaeology, etc. were engaged to develop and evaluate options, and several public participation processes were held to obtain input on the plan. A key part of this was determining how best to preserve and interpret the historical aspects of the site, including the remnants of Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne. A draft Master Plan was completed and made available for public comment before being finalized. Several years passed while funding was sought, and sufficient funds were finally obtained to proceed with the first phase of the project.

As soon as the announcement was made that construction was about to begin, a group called the "Fort Pitt Preservation Society" was formed, claiming that the project would destroy historic remnants of Fort Pitt. The group's protests were given extensive media coverage, with no reference to the fact that (1) all of the issues being raised by the group were fully vetted and decided during the master planning process and (2) none of the members of the group participated in the public input processes held during the planning process.

The North Shore Connector was conceived over ten years ago. It was originally just a small element of a much larger plan to extend transit to Oakland as well as the North Side, but the larger planning process was terminated by the then-Allegheny County Commissioners. The City of Pittsburgh resuscitated the portion of the planning involving the connection to the North Shore because of the widespread belief at the time that few people would ever walk all the way across either the 6th Street (now Clemente) Bridge or the Fort Duquesne Bridge to visit the attractions there (can you remember how far you thought that was ten years ago?) , as well as in response to pressure by many downtown businesses to provide more parking options close to Downtown.

A lengthy and expensive planning process was undertaken to analyze all of the options for crossing the river, including constructing a new bridge and sharing of the existing Ft. Wayne railroad bridge as well as constructing an underwater tunnel, and there were extensive public input processes sought on these options before a final choice was made to pursue the underwater tunnel as the least expensive option to build and the most efficient option for long-term transit system operations. Years passed while the many approvals and huge amounts of funding needed for the project were assembled, and the delays caused the project costs to increase, forcing parts of the original project to be dropped.

As soon as it appeared that construction was imminent, the project was immediately portrayed as a horrible and wasteful decision made without any input from anyone, and efforts were made to terminate it.

The same story could be told about the Market Square Bridge, which had been planned to connect the Wabash Tunnel to Downtown so that South Hills commuters as well as buses would have a third and less congested route into the City. Despite a lengthy planning process with extensive public input, as soon as the project was announced, property owners in the FirstSide area of Downtown organized to oppose the project, and they were successful in getting it canceled. Today, the news media regularly criticize the low usage of the Wabash Tunnel without ever pointing out that the bridge that was supposed to connect it to Downtown was never built.

Similar stories could be told about many other projects. The transportation projects all used what is the official, mandated federal planning process, so by definition, the decisions were not made in a smoke-filled room or through some rigged process designed to come out with someone's favorite option. The Point State Park project was conducted using even more extensive input processes than are required for federal transportation projects, with a goal of making it a model for public participation and consensus.

The point here is not to debate whether any of these projects is or was addressing an important need. The point is not whether the approach selected was really the best option. And the point is not whether the project was a desirable use of public funds.

The point is that millions of dollars in public funds were spent to conduct a formal, analytical process using best planning practices, with extensive opportunities for public input, in an effort to make the best decision about how to address what was, at the time, viewed as an important priority for public investment, and yet the results were or are viewed today by many as ill-conceived with no opportunity for public involvement.

Is there a better way?


Maybe not.

More on that in a future post.


Anonymous Robert Pfaffmann said...

The assessment you make about public process is only the surface of what is happening behind the scenes among often "seatless" community groups and interests with valid concerns. If public officials listened early they could avoid a few of the "controversy" headlines.

Public process protocols were put in place because of the horrible mistakes made by people like Bob Pease and the Allgheny Conference. Lets talk 5th and Forbes and the attempt to ram a bad idea down our throats! While it is a sometimes a painful process having been on both sides of the issues you mention, we need to avoid going back to the past which was MUCH worse!

Yes, there are some laudable projects that cannot happen because of publci process, but more often than not it is because the public discourse process has not been well thought out.

The public meetings conducted by many agencies and planners is getting stale and people are tired of being patronized...If you want people to show up and take the time to educate themselves you have to be creative and have patience!

I will never forget the the presentation of a DOT exc admitted that if the agency he headed had not treated their opponents as such and responded with real "compromise" solutions, the project would have cost MUCH less!

The attitude of many in this town is still condescending and old school Allegheny Conference. When that changes then expect to see more trust and more effective process.

The "process" of consensus cannot be a paternalistic one of the past! It will always be messy! Want a clean process move to North Korea or the former Soviet Union!

Lets watch closely how the Hill, Uptown and good planning advocates are treated in the upcoming months as the badly (non) planned new arena site is shoved down our throats by the the city. I hope we are wrong and will be the first to praise them if they do it right and exhibit patience in finding a real plan not just a Penguins centric one!

1:00 AM  
Blogger Harold D. Miller said...

Thanks, Rob. My comments on the problems with public input processes were not meant to imply that having public input was a bad thing, but rather that the input processes that do exist are not structured in a way that invites or uses input in a meaningful way, which in turn discourages meaningful input, which in turn seems to discourage efforts to improve the process, when it should force a complete rethinking of how public input is gathered.

7:36 AM  

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