They Are Not Your Friend

Word on the street is that TDOT has given the city's Broad Street bike lane grant application the one-finger salute (or two fingers, depending on where you’re from). Surely, you’re not surprised? I suspect that this is one small measure of retribution for the community that dared question their plans for the US-27 expansion. It was also pointed out to me that the overwhelming majority of those grant funds ended up in cities with Republican leadership (which, I suppose, is the way government is run these days). Either way, they told us to have a Coke and smile…and you know the rest.

I’ve said it before, and will say it again- if you love downtown Chattanooga, TDOT is not your friend. They do not care about you unless you are in your car. They do not care about your business. They do not care about social equity in our community. They do not care about our natural environment or the scenic nature of the city. The do not care about our economic development, or long-term job creation. They are laser-focused on the needs of automobile and truck traffic as it moves through places. They do not care about places.  Yet, it is hard to blame TDOT for compromising the character of our downtown in much the same way that it is hard to blame the lion for eating the baby wildebeest. It is their nature to do this. American transportation engineers move cars, they do not care about the bigger picture. For them, quality of life is measured by the quality of your drive.

It's my understanding that the reason we rolled over so easily on US-27 was that by agreeing to acquiesce we would curry favor on future projects. So much for that. Bike lane grants aside, does anyone seriously believe that when the I-24 project rolls around that TDOT will produce anything other than a mega-suburban design? If TDOT fails to realize how bad the US-27 project is for our community, do you think they'll be any more sympathetic when dealing with an interstate farther away from the city core?
Don't worry, I'm not jumping into the union fray...

TDOT talks a good game about community input and participation, but talk is cheap. Developing a design, then holding a public meeting for lay-people to comment does not work. This approach assumes a basis for design that may or not be aligned with the needs of the community. In this case TDOT first developed a design that satisfies their internal needs (derived from their traffic manuals). They then held a town hall meeting in the Westside to show off their design and get to input. What the hell kind of input do they expect to get? (To be fair, they don’t really care about input unless it is negative and gets into the paper). First off, most lay-people can’t read maps. Secondly, those two-dimensional maps don’t do justice to the three-dozen massive retaining walls that wipe out topography and vegetation in reinforcing the divide in the community. In any event, the feedback that they got is that the community wanted to maintain the on-ramp from the Westside onto US-27. We’ll come back to that.

The correct way to go about community-based design is to start in the community. Working with the community before a design is attempted establishes a basis of design that frames the problem. This crucial part of the process establishes the question of the project. As the great Louis Kahn once said “A good question is always greater than the most brilliant answer”. Once the true question of the project is established, only then should pen be put to paper. In fact, after the problem is established, the rest is easy (for as another great Louis [Sullivan] once said, “it is of the very essence of every problem that is contains and suggests its own solution”.) A more equitable process would have seen TDOT conduct the meeting before drawing anything, and talking to the community. I suspect that they would have heard that lack of connection is the problem. US-27 is a massive barrier between a disadvantaged population and the jobs, stores, health facilities and other opportunities in downtown. One only needs witness the “cow paths” that the Westside residents have worn through the existing off-ramp cloverleaf to understand the disservice done when they installed the road in the first place. When they heard about the desire to maintain an on-ramp in their rigged public meeting that was the only way that the community could express their need for greater connection in that context. No other options for connectivity were even on the table.

This begs the question of what else would TDOT have heard had they listened? Obviously, there is no way to know for sure, but I suspect that they would have heard that we place a high value on the character of our natural setting and want to preserve and enhance that. They likely would have heard that we value downtown as an economic development engine for the community and the region, and that scarce downtown land should be put on the tax rolls. I don’t think that they would have heard that we are willing to sacrifice all of the things we hold important for the sake of getting trucks through our town more quickly, or for shaving thirty seconds off of driving times for downtown commuters. They never asked, so we’ll never know. They question they framed came from their traffic manuals in Nashville, not Chattanooga. 

The good news is that the sub-urban motoring culture of the DOT is becoming an anachronism. It is apparent that it doesn’t work, and it’s not sustainable from an economic, environmental, or social standpoint. The bad news is that it appears that US-27 is going to happen before that archetype collapses upon itself. We have only ourselves to blame. The community has to look out for itself; no one is going to do it for us. When we cede decisions concerning our community to "experts" from elsewhere, we get what we deserve.

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