Posts Tagged ‘open house’

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Science seems missing from Project Connect’s “scientific” transit planning

10 February 2014
Project Connect's proposed "high-capacity transit" alternative alignments for "Highland" sector.

Project Connect’s proposed “high-capacity transit” alternative alignments for “Highland” sector.

By Lyndon Henry

This past Saturday, Feb, 8th, I attended Project Connect’s “interactive workshop” event at the Highland ACC site with a specific mission in mind: raising questions to gather information and data. I particularly wanted to refrain from actually providing input into the process, because Project Connect seems to use this type of public feedback as evidence of popular validation of, and acquiescence to, their overall process, methods, and conclusions — and I wanted to avoid that as much as possible. I did strongly encourage other supporters of the Guadalupe-Lamar alignment proposed for urban rail to attend this event if at all possible.

The most recent documents on the topic of the event, as far as I knew, were the “alternative route” maps that Project Connect had made available online, as a PDF:

http://www.projectconnect.com/connect/sites/default/files/Preliminary%20Alternatives.pdf

Through Project Connect’s presentations to the Transit Working Group and Central Corridor Advisory Group, and in other presentations and statements here and there, a multitude of questions had already been raised, and these maps raised even more issues. Much of my curiosity was motivated by unanswered questions associated with the “Phase 1” study process — supposedly a thoroughly “data-driven” study. Indeed, City Councilman (and Capital Metro chairman) Mike Martinez has emphasized that the route profiles selected by the Project Connect team are all based on a highly “scientific” process. So, in my view, it’s entirely valid to seek the “scientific” evidence that supposedly underpins the route alignment choices now being presented for public perusal.

At the Feb. 8th event, I didn’t have an opportunity to raise all my questions or obtain definitive answers to the ones I did raise, but I’m sharing much of what I did learn in this post. I’ll note that I mainly discussed these with a couple of volunteer Project Connect table moderators, and a couple of Project Connect consultants. I’ve categorized these questions into several sub-issues.

“Highland” issues

• The “Phase 1” study projected huge increases in population and economic activity in this sector by 2030. Where, exactly, would these increases occur?

Basically, the Project Connect representatives I discussed this with didn’t have an answer. They’re planning “high-capacity transit” routes on the basis of projections of enormous population and economic growth, but they seemed somewhat confused about whether there was any data indicating exactly where in this sector such growth would occur.

So, how could station locations be determined if you don’t know where the heaviest growth will be? Is there huge growth projected west of Red River, along the proposed Duval alignment? They couldn’t say.

• Do the proposed alignment alternatives take the actual locations of population and economic concentration into account? If so, how?

Basically, no — for the same reason as with the previous response.

However, I did overhear one of the consultants explain to another participant (who favored an alignment to the Mueller development area) that Project Connect was giving “major consideration” to the possibility that an alignment serving Hancock Center would “set you up” for an ultimate extension to Mueller.

• Of the routes within the “Highland” sector from the UT campus to Highland/ACC, I-35 is omitted. Yet heavy traffic on I-35 was included as a major factor in swaying the Phase 1 recommendation for this sector. So, why is this major travel artery not included as a possible “high-capacity transit” (HCT) alignment for this sector? Where’s the metrics-based evaluation to eliminate it?

The impression I got from discussing this is that there’s no “metrics-based” evaluation, just a sort of hunch that an alignment in or along I-35 would not be a good idea. So, if traffic volumes on I-35 were a major factor in selecting the “Highland” route, are there any park & ride sites in mind? I was told that the Highland/ACC site would be an excellent location for a P&R facility — and that seems a quite reasonable judgement.

However, there’s been no study of the relative attractiveness of such a P&R to I-35 motorists between access to the UT and core area via the eastern “Highland” routes or the more direct, western route via Lamar and Guadalupe.

• Duval and Red River are both capacity-constricted minor thoroughfares narrowing into 2-lane neighborhood streets. Are these routes appropriate for the mainline of a HCT service, particularly an urban rail alignment?

Project Connect is seriously considering rail on these streets, but other than that confirmation, I couldn’t get any evaluatory comments. One participant mentioned a possible streetcar-type alignment, and another argued that these were “three-lane” streets, which is hard to believe from the visual evidence. (To procure a third lane, you’d have to eliminate neighborhood street parking on Red River and bike lanes on Duval.)

Both Red River (left) and Duval (right) are narrow 2-lane neighborhood streets, with barely space for local parking on Red River and bike lanes on Duval. L. Henry screenshot from Google Maps streetview.

Both Red River (left) and Duval (right) are narrow 2-lane neighborhood streets, with barely space for local parking on Red River and bike lanes on Duval. L. Henry screenshot from Google Maps streetview.

I mentioned that “HCT” by Project Connect’s definition could mean MetroRapid bus service, but I was assured that, for reasons not explained, they have rail in mind for this route.

• To install HCT in these alignments, are property acquisitions for right-of-way (ROW) being considered?

I couldn’t get a clear answer on this.

• For these alignments, are elevated or subway alignments under consideration for urban rail? In the case of a subway, where would the portal be located (this generally takes most of a city block)?

Elevated and subway construction seems to be under consideration only in a very general way; I got the definite impression that Project Connect’s thinking is focused more on a surface alignment. I didn’t have a chance to raise the portal issue.

• Where would a storage-maintenance-operations site for rolling stock be located?

I didn’t have a chance to raise this issue. (Previous urban rail planning tended to locate an SMO facility on the Mueller site, or just north of it.)

• For the alignments along Airport Blvd., wouldn’t these duplicate MetroRail service?

A consultant explained that Project Connect doesn’t see duplication, because the HCT service (whatever it is) would have intermediate stops, unlike MetroRail. Apparently, in their minds, you only have duplication if you duplicate all or most of the parallel line’s stations. I found it rather peculiar that Project Connect planners would regard it as impermissible to replace MetroRapid bus service on Guadalupe-Lamar with urban rail, but quite acceptable to in effect duplicate rail transit service along Airport Blvd. with, possibly, another form of rail transit.

• Is Project Connect planning to replace a segment of MetroRail service with urban rail? If so, how would MetroRail connect from downtown to Crestview?

Apparently they’re not planning to replace MetroRail with urban rail in this phase of planning.

• If Project Connect is planning on FTA funding for urban rail, would this be possible with a line paralleling existing MetroRail service?

As discussed above, Project Connect doesn’t consider such a route along Airport Blvd. as duplicate service to MetroRail. I doubt, however, that — in the case of a major rail investment — the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) would readily agree with this, especially after their recent award of a TIGER grant to upgrade the MetroRail line.

Core area issues

• Various routes are proposed through the core area. On what specific core area metrics analyses are these based?

Project Connect representatives were somewhat confused by this question about core area metrics. Having followed the “Phase 1” HCT study process closely, I never saw evidence of any metrics-focused study of the core area (Core “sub-corridor”, i.e., sector). One consultant offered the University of Texas’s campus plan as a factor in the decision to follow the East Campus alignment along San Jacinto, but I explained that a plan is more like a wishlist, not a metrics-based analysis. I was told that maybe there was some kind of comparison of ridership, cost, etc. between the eastside and westside (Drag/West Campus) alignments, but nobody could produce one.

• Was a data-driven analysis of various alignments, evaluating ridership potential, cost, etc., ever performed for alternative routes through the core area?

Apparently there has been no metrics-based analysis that would guide alignments within the core area. Project Connect basically is taking major activity centers, such as the planned medical school, into account — but this is more based on whim rather than a “scientific” analysis evaluating data-based metrics.

• Was any kind of data-driven analysis of projected demographics, economic activity, etc., ever performed on the core area in the “Phase 1” study?

No, per the answer to the previous question.

• On what “scientific” data metrics-based rationale is the Drag excluded as an alignment through the core area?

Apparently none.

• On what data-driven basis is the crosstown alignment on 4th and 3rd Streets included?

I didn’t have a chance to raise this issue.

“East Riverside” issues

• The “Phase 1” study projected huge increases in population and economic activity in this sector by 2030. Where, exactly, would these increases occur?

As with the responses to similar questions in regard to “Highland” there seems to be no data for this.

• Do the proposed alignment alternatives take the actual locations of population and economic concentration into account? If so, how?

Again, apparently not, as with the previous responses. It would seem that much of the placement of alternatives is based on hunch and whim rather than a “scientific” evaluation of data elements.

• Why have other major potential alignments through this sector, such as Oltorf St., Congress Ave., and S. Lakeshore Blvd., been excluded? All of these were included in the original “ERC” sector in the “Phase 1” study. Is there data-based evidence for singling out East Riverside as the sole alignment?

Again, no one could explain this.

• Project Connect has repeatedly referred to MetroRapid, with buses running in normal general road traffic, as “high-capacity transit”. Why, then, are bridge options being considered for the “East Riverside” area? Could these buses not use existing traffic bridges?

Bridges are being considered for urban rail or possibly special bus-only use. But representatives agreed that, if MetroRapid is HCT, you could have Project Connect’s definition of “rapid transit” fulfilled by running MetroRapid buses in mixed traffic over existing bridges.

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Project Connect’s “interactive workshop” event was tiny gesture toward democratic engagement

9 February 2014
Structured around issue-oriented tables, Project Connect's Feb. 8th "interactive workshop" finally managed to get dozens of community participants engaged in lively discussion.

Structured around issue-oriented tables, Project Connect’s Feb. 8th “interactive workshop” finally managed to get dozens of community participants engaged in lively discussion.

Project Connect’s Feb. 8th “interactive open house-workshop” event was interesting both in the information to be learned (discussed in another posting) and in the way it was structured — at last, an opportunity in an event, open and publicized to the public, for community participants to actually raise questions and discuss issues in a small-group community environment.

In that sense, it can be regarded as at least a minuscule gesture toward actually democratic community engagement. One can only imagine how the outcome might have been different — in terms of the process of selecting routes — if even this very minimal kind of “interactive workshop” event, rather than the art-gallery-style “open houses” and highly managed shut-up-and-click-on-the-choices-we give-you “clicker workshops”, had been deployed in the “Phase 1” process of this “high-capacity transit study” process.

With at least dozens of people in attendance, the event was structured mainly around small-group tables discussing various issues, such as mode and alignment, for the proposed “high-capacity transit” services along routes selected in “Phase 1”. At these tables, questions could, at last, be asked in a group setting. This facilitated a more earnest discussion of issues, and allowed community members to interact more effectively with one another — learning things, encountering different viewpoints, exchanging new perspectives and information.

This, however, is a very long way from what’s needed for a fully democratic process with effective community oversight (along the lines of the precedence of years ago). Instead of seeking validation and acquiesence from poorly informed and misled participants, an authentic community involvement process would have one or more ongoing, widely accessible oversight committees, meeting with Project Connect staff and receiving reports — somewhat like the so-called CCAG (“Central Corridor Advisory Group”) or TWG (“Transit Working Group”), but with some members well-seasoned in the issues and armed with expertise to enable them to ask the really crucial and trenchant questions, and raise far more critical issues.

General community meetings would dispense with Project Connect’s “lecture-and-clicker” approach, and allow short presentations by staff followed by open public questions and comments at an open mike. These would be supplemented by true workshops and charettes (for which the Feb. 8th event gave a small taste of how this could work).

But don’t hold your breath — Project Connect’s leadership all along has seemed to have a firm idea of what it wants this process to propose, and doesn’t appear to be prepared to allow community input to divert it from its course.

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From community participation then … to community exclusion today

1 December 2013
As democratic involvement and real meetings have disappeared, public participation at Project Connect's events, such as this "open house", has withered. Photo: Project Connect.

As democratic involvement and real meetings have disappeared, public participation at Project Connect’s events, such as this “open house”, has withered. Photo: Project Connect.

By Lyndon Henry

This posting has been excerpted, adapted, and expanded from a personal Email sent by the author to someone involved with Austin’s urban rail study, in response to an inquiry.

The lack of bona fide democratic discussion and participation by the public has been seen by many in the Austin community as an ongoing problem with Project Connect’s “community outreach” and “public participation” procedures. However, the current problem merely continues and intensifies a policy tendency, over approximately the last dozen or so years, among some local Austin-area public bodies — particularly involved with transportation and urban planning issues — to discourage and suppress authentic community involvement in planning such proposed projects and services.

This stands in stark contrast to the vibrant, lively public involvement of the 1970s through early 2000s, where popular input was encouraged and solicited in the form of participatory community meetings and personal involvement of a widely representative array of individuals in actual planning committees.

Finding a suitable model for implementing true democratic discussion today in Project Connect and other programs would be simple — reinstating the types of outreach, public participation programs, and community discussion activities that were typical of Austin-area transportation planning up until the early 2000s. These types of participatory processes have gradually been attenuated in recent years.

A fully democratic and effective process of community participation and discussion is essential, particularly so that community participants feel they have true involvement, engagement, and a stake in the planning process. At least as important, critical planning issues are effectively scrutinized and analyzed, and additional professional expertise (in architecture, engineering, planning, finance, etc.) in the community is accessed and brought to bear on various aspects of the project.

Almost certainly, the lack of such oversight and engagement of community expertise has been a major factor in the array of serious methdological and data problems that have characterized Project Connect’s urban rail study process and impugned its credibility. See, for example, the wide range of problems and community discontent documentted in this blog’s recent posting TILT! Project Connect’s gerrymandering and data fiddling ignite public skepticism, pushback.

Public participation process of the past

Ongoing citizen advisory committees used to be (and should be now) much larger, with multiple members typically appointed by each councilmember, Capital Metro board member, etc. In the late 1980s, Capital Metro’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee involved over a hundred members, with at least several dozen typically attending a given meeting. Professionals with transit-industry expertise and community activists on transportation issues were often appointed to these bodies, rather than specifically excluded, as they are now.

My longtime friend and professional colleague Dave Dobbs and I served on several such committees through the development of the regional transportation plan by the Austin Transportation Study (precursor to CAMPO) and the creation of Capital Metro (we both served on the Austin-Travis County Mass Transportation Commission that recommended creation of a regional transit authority for the Austin metro area). Another particularly important example of our community participation involvement was the advisory committee to the Transitway Corridor Analysis Project (TCAP), in the late 1980s. The TCAP committee had at least several dozen members, including interested stakeholders like Alan Kaplan and Roger Baker, and met regularly with the Capital Metro personnel and consultants directly involved with evaluating either a busway or light rail transit (LRT) for a fixed transit line from the core area to the northwest, possibly using U.S. 183, the railway alignment, I-35, or a combination of these alignments.

The democratic involvement of highly interested and technically savvy community members was critical to the final outcome of the TCAP study. Dave and I and other committee members questioned or challenged assumptions and methodology point by point, in a democratically interactive process that altered the course of the study. The original intent had seemed to be to justify a busway in this corridor, and if this had prevailed, buses would probably be rolling along through Crestview, Wooten, and other neighborhoods on a paveway in the Capital Metro railway right-of-way today instead of MetroRail DMU railcars. But instead, the advisory committee and consultants ultimately recommended LRT, and this was selected by the board as the Locally Preferred Alternative.

Trend from democratic involvement to “democratic” pretense

There has been nothing comparable to this kind of democratic community interactive planning within roughly the past decade.

Community meetings have likewise virtually disappeared. I recall open, fully democratic meetings, with large attendance, in various areas of the Capital Metro service area when I was on the authority’s board during the original LRT study in the early 1990s. Board members like me, and top officials like General Manager (CEO) Tony Kouneski, would attend these meetings. Participants weren’t just given clickers to respond to the contrived choices presented by Capital Metro — they were free to voice their opinions, ask questions, even respond to other views expressed in the meetings. New views, new options, could be voiced. The community members learned things from one another and felt a far greater sense of involvement in the process that is totally missing today.

Real community meetings, such as this one focused on transit options in Toronto, allow free and open discussion and facilitate questions and comments from the attendees. In contrast, Project Connect's events have squelched community discussion and sought to manage and muzzle discussion. Photo: Torontoist.

Real community meetings, such as this one focused on transit options in Toronto, allow free and open discussion and facilitate questions and comments from the attendees. In contrast, Project Connect’s events have squelched community discussion and sought to manage and muzzle discussion. Photo: Torontoist.

During the LRT study process in 1999-2000, numerous small community meetings were held all over the city to explain the LRT plan and alternatives, and receive real input, freely voiced, from the community. Then-General Manager Karen Rae herself typically led these meetings, usually accompanied by one or more staff personnel. This interaction helped fine-tune the eventual alignment that was proposed.

Even after the LRT referendum narrowly failed, in 2001-2003 democratic public meetings continued, involving both smaller meetings around the city and larger public meetings, including charettes. Attendees had the opportunity to speak, voicing comments or criticism and asking questions, at all meetings.

Workshops in past periods previously were far different and more democratic than the recent ones sponsored by Project Connect. The groups, often subdivided by particular topics, would discuss an issue for perhaps 20-40 minutes. A participant was also free to visit other groups at other tables and inject comments, suggestions, etc. Each table group (“workshop”) would select one member to summarize the group’s conclusions, or controversial issues, to the entire meeting in a summation period. Individual group members had a chance to clarify points covered in the discussion.

In contrast, Project Connect’s recent “workshops” seemed more like mechanisms to contain and squelch discussion rather than facilitate it. Discussion was confined to each individual small group, for perhaps 5-10 minutes at most. Only very narrow topics — basically, “choices” presented by Project Connect — were presented for discussion within each table group … with no real opportunity for alternatives and questions to be presented. Project Connect staff members, present at each table, then filtered and briefly summarized some of the discussion to the larger group.

Similarly, “open houses” are not public “meetings” but mechanisms to fragment and granularize public involvement into one-to-one interactions with project representatives, who can “listen” and then rationalize official decisions to individual participants. Attendees are expected to wander through the room, viewing the results of project decisions previously made by the project bureaucracy, results that are typically presented with lots of graphics — prompting me to describe these as “art galleries”. But these are definitely not democratic community meetings. See:

Back to “art galleries” Project Connect reneges on community meetings

Meetings, “open houses”, workshops … and democratic process

In contrast to the Transit Working Group (TWG) meetings, which at least allowed a few 3-minute “citizen communications” at the end of each meeting, Project Connect abolished even such minimal community input at meetings of its successor, the Central Corridor Advisory Committee (CCAG), until the last one before Project Connect made its decision on urban rail sectors. In other words, CCAG could not formally be presented with alternative views, ideas, and proposals, or criticism of the official methodology, throughout the critical period when decisions were being made and ratified by CCAG.

In sum, Project Connect’s overall “public involvement” exercises have seemed more like a gesture at public involvement as a CYA effort to fulfill federal requirements.

Outline for bona fide community participation program

What would a more truly democratic public involvement program look like? For starters, here are some thoughts, based on examples and experience from the past:

• A general advisory group that is large and inclusive, with representatives appointed by all councilmembers, Capital Metro board members, and possibly other public bodies — rather than a small group hand-picked by the mayor. This advisory committee would also be able to co-opt additional members to itself. It would provide a forum to consider both official proposals and alternative proposals and ideas from the community, while seeking a consensus with the official project team.

• Numerous smaller meetings (covering several sectors with several neighborhood areas per sector) at least every couple of months, where participants could voice their alternative ideas, concerns, questions, criticisms, and other comments to the meeting group — thus sharing and disseminating alternative views and approaches within the general community as well as among project staff.

• At least a couple of charettes, open to the public at large, over the course of the project. These would focus on key issues particularly needing public input. The emphasis would be on the voicing of ideas and assessments, not just clicking choices among prescribing alternatives.

Major public meetings, every 3-4 months, in a “hearing” format, where community members could at least have a chance to voice their views.

In contrast with this kind of open process from past times, the new model of “public involvement” by public agencies, exemplified by Project Connect’s process, seems designed mainly to muzzle the public, procure some kind of very shallow public acquiescence for official decisions, and thus allow project officials to claim validation. It also ensures that officials can proceed with planning effectively isolated and insulated from democratic community scrutiny and input — thus (as I’ve characterized it) operating “inside a bell jar”.

Neighborhood groups and other community organizations need to make it clear they’ve had enough of this sham pretense at “public participation”. They need to demand a reinstatement of at least the level of democratic participation that was the norm in the past.

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Meetings, “open houses”, workshops … and democratic process

1 October 2013

ARN0_PrjCon_mbrs-logo-xx

In ARN’s previous blog entry, Back to “art galleries”! Project Connect reneges on community meetings, we noted that “In a sudden reversal — and what appears to be a breach of trust and a breach of a de facto agreement with many in the Austin community”, Project Connect (the current ongoing rail planning consortium) had abruptly changed its forthcoming Urban Rail Central Corridor public involvement events from meetings into so-called “Open Houses”.

Our commentary went on to point out that

Meetings are fundamental to truly democratic process. They allow for community interactive input, i.e. community discussion along with the project personnel. They bring members of the entire community together, allow them to hear ideas and views from one another, allow them to interact on the public record (or at least with public witnesses) with officials present, force official representatives to deal with and respond to difficult questions and issues, and allow officials and participants to get a sense of community attitudes expressed in a community manner. One person’s question or comment may give ideas or motivation to other participants.

It should be noted that Project Connect is also deploying other means of communication with the public, in addition to “open house” events — a webinar was held this past Friday, and project staff are also considering workshop-style small-group activities. Plus the team are outreaching through individual meetings with various community groups.

However, while these are worthy activities, they still don’t substitute for the fully democratic process inherent in full, multi-group, diverse community meetings. To repeat our previous observations: Community meetings enable community interactive input; they “bring members of the entire community together, allow them to hear ideas and views from one another, allow them to interact on the public record (or at least with public witnesses) with officials present, force official representatives to deal with and respond to difficult questions and issues, and allow officials and participants to get a sense of community attitudes expressed in a community manner.”

Project Connect, the City of Austin, Capital Metro, and other public agencies have a crucial responsibility to facilitate these kinds of cross-community, cross-demographic, cross-organizational, fully diverse, fully democratic public meetings. So far, they seem to be trying to avoid them like the flu.

Austin Rail Now will continue to support efforts to reinstate the truly democratic public meeting process as Project Connect moves forward with its planning activities.

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Back to “art galleries”! Project Connect reneges on community meetings

25 September 2013
Community meeting (left) vs. art gallery (right)

Community meeting (left) vs. art gallery (right)

In our article of Sep. 17th, If you support urban rail for Guadalupe-Lamar, attend these community meetings! Austin Rail Now reported that

… Project Connect has scheduled some upcoming meetings (and a “webinar”) between Sep. 4th and Oct. 2nd (details below) that seem to offer a bona fide opportunity for the public to meet in a community fashion, both discussing the issues and interacting with one another.

Unfortunately, the prospect of bona fide public meetings “for the public to meet in a community fashion, both discussing the issues and interacting with one another” no longer seems valid.

In a sudden reversal — and what appears to be a breach of trust and a breach of a de facto agreement with many in the Austin community — Project Connect has abruptly stopped describing the forthcoming Urban Rail Central Corridor public involvement events as meetings, and instead is now promoting them as so-called “Open Houses”.

The Sep. 23rd edition of the Austin Mobility Go! Email newsletter from the City of Austin’s Transportation Department now describes the activities this week as “open houses”, not meetings. This was confirmed in Email comments from Capital Metro/Project Connect community outreach specialist John-Michael Cortez:

It is labeled as an Open House because that connotes that people are free to show up at any time, unlike a public meeting or workshop, which usually has a set agenda and starting time, thus limiting full participation to those who are able to show up at the start of the meeting. These meetings will be more of a hybrid open house/workshop. Participants can come at whatever time they choose and be able to see exhibits and speak directly to agency staff to have their questions answered, and formal input will be gathered through questionnaires and encouraging participants to draw and make comments on sub-corridor maps.

This is a crucial point, and one that many community activists involved with the urban rail planning process thought had been settled — in favor of community meetings.

Meetings are fundamental to truly democratic process. They allow for community interactive input, i.e. community discussion along with the project personnel. They bring members of the entire community together, allow them to hear ideas and views from one another, allow them to interact on the public record (or at least with public witnesses) with officials present, force official representatives to deal with and respond to difficult questions and issues, and allow officials and participants to get a sense of community attitudes expressed in a community manner. One person’s question or comment may give ideas or motivation to other participants.

This community interactivity is lost in the individual, one-on-one format of “Open Houses”, which have no set agenda, no community public speaking, and involve agency personnel displaying graphics of their pre-determined plans and chatting individually with the occasional community members that might attend the event. Transportation consultant Lyndon Henry (an Austin Rail Now contributor) has compared these events to wandering through an art gallery, with the chance to chat individually with the gallery guards (agency personnel). There’s no opportunity for real interactive community involvement.

In the view of local Austin researcher and transportation activist Roger Baker,

The major problem I see is that while Open Houses usually have lots of big impressive maps, these meetings commonly tend to evolve toward little unstructured conversation clusters, with an official at their center, near a map, and with others standing around, trying to hear, waiting to ask their own questions. Every citizen can come in and ask the same question as those who came earlier, and these exchanges are essentially rambling private discussions that tend to go on and on without clearly answering certain important policy questions. Usually there is no record of the questions asked, nor the responses given. These events tend to become a succession of unrecorded one to one exchanges.

In a comprehensive explanation and analysis of public involvement, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) explains that

Meetings provide a time and place for face-to-face contact and two-way communication-dynamic components of public involvement that help break down barriers between people and the agencies that serve them. Through meetings, people learn that an agency is not a faceless, uncaring bureaucracy and that the individuals in charge are real people. Meetings give agencies a chance to respond directly to comments and dispel rumors or misinformation.

Far from being passive gatherings, meetings are interactive occasions when people discuss issues of consequence to them and their neighbors, listen to opposing viewpoints on the issues, and work together for the common good. Agency staff people who handle public meetings need to be trained in skills that encourage interaction and also keep the process focused and productive.

In contrast, says FHWA,

An open house is an informal setting in which people get information about a plan or project. It has no set, formal agenda. Unlike a meeting, no formal discussions and presentations take place, and there are no audience seats. Instead, people get information informally from exhibits and staff and are encouraged to give opinions, comments, and preferences to staff either orally or in writing.

Is the planning and decisionmaking process really that important to the kind of plan that emerges? You bet it is.

Vigorous, authentic community involvement is absolutely critical, particularly in injecting new ideas and perspectives, raising special concerns, scrutinizing and evaluating official approaches and decisions, safeguarding the project from the influence of special interests and extraneous political issues, and generally keeping the official planners and decisionmakers “honest”.

Furthermore, voters are far more inclined to support ballot measures for major rail projects if they have a sense of ownership through opportunities for bona fide participation in the process.

Project Connect’s seemingly abrupt decision to downgrade the format of these public events from meetings to “art galleries” (“open houses”) suggests more of a desire to minimize, or squelch, rather than maximize, public involvement and dialogue in the urban rail planning process. This would also appear corroborated by Project Connect’s rather puzzling lack of publicity for these public events.

As Lyndon Henry recently warned, in comments Emailed to a list of community transportation activists,

The consistent and steady pattern by local public agencies (particularly involved in public transportation issues) of degrading the bona fide democratic public participation process over the past period has been alarming, and I did speak out about this when I worked at Capital Metro. Individual chats between individual community members and official personnel do not represent a democratic process of community participation, and I’ve personally seen the level of such participation decline significantly over the past couple of decades. It’s very troubling to see this same policy now being carried forward and rationalized despite assurances made otherwise.

Despite these efforts by Project Connect to discourage public participation, Austin Rail Now continues to urge supporters of a Phase 1 urban rail starter line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor to attend these events and vigorously express their views.