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A Connection Between the Train Ride and the Tunnel

A Connection Between the Train Ride and the Tunnel

(More of a ramble than a crank)

Two issues of late are representative of the frustrations that come with 1) being engaged in city matters and 2) giving a damn about the outcome beyond ones own self-interest. I’m referring to the issues revolving around the  train ride down at Clinch Park and the pedestrian tunnel just west of there.

Recommended 2012 Design

Below, I’ve adapted an email response to a city commissioner that addresses the sticky history & situation of both the train ride and the tunnel. Again, full disclosure, I sit on the Parks and Recreation Commission and have participated in the working committees of the bayfront planning process since February of 2010. I stand by my recommendation to remove the train from the bayfront and I stand by my opposition to the tunnel. In one case, honoring the process and, in the latter, questioning it. That doesn’t mean I can’t move forward with either of them included.

There is an interesting connection between the two issues: the train ride is very likely to be included in the bayfront improvements because the city commission was swayed by an organized & vocal group that failed to engage in the initial decision-making process. The ride was removed during last year’s public process and at the recommendation of the lead agent for the Bayfront Plan, the parks and recreation commission. The tunnel, however, was included in the Baytfront Plan and is now a long-shot for implementation due to an unexpected, though not surprising, price tag attached to it. It also had/has a somewhat vocal opposition, though not organized.

The Tunnel

My contention all along was that the tunnel made it into the Bayfront Plan without much working group discussion; it was primarily included because of its presence in the TIF-97 plan (PDF) and the internal staff deal with the proposed hotel. Despite strong discomfort with its inclusion, I sucked it up and didn’t raise extreme opposition in the working group because it was clear that the effort would be wasted energy. At the time, there was a deadline. I didn’t realize at the time that a scheme was right around the corner involving The Hotel Indigo. When it did get fast tracked, I offered my perspective on the matter at both the Downtown Development Authority and City Commission meetings. I understood that many people wanted to see the tunnel, but the investment was being analysed with very optimistic information considering the need to have an attractive & comfortable tunnel. What many of the decision makers didn’t seem to understand was that tunnels are last resorts, not first priorities.

An option for the tunnel by NDG

My  questioning was focused on the premise that it shouldn’t be a priority (putting the “park” back in the “parkway” should be), but if it was the DDA/Commission’s choice to fund it, then the City needed to realistically fund it in the $2.4 to 3 million range to design and build it right. There are no points for vindication with the latest revelation that it will indeed cost much more than proposed (RE).

Perhaps the tunnel was a good idea 20 years ago when we didn’t have the understanding that we could actually calm Grandview Parkway. Last year, URS was hired in large part because of the reputation of their traffic engineer, Ian Lockwood, and his success in other cities calming major corridors over the past decade. It is one thing to imagine what $1.1-million (originally proposed tunnel budget) could do to calm Grand View parkway, let alone the $2.1 +/- now being proposed. That type of money could go a long way (Plan for TC) in transforming the section from Hall St. to Park St.

(Note: I emphasize imagining it happening, because there is no guarantee that a calmer corridor or more comfortable access to the bayfront is the priority of the DDA or the City.)

The Train Ride

The latest declaration by the City Commission on the train ride illustrates that the 2010 extension of the “Your Bay Your Say” and the work by the Parks and Recreation Commission on the matter will always be at the whims of political interpretation and judgement. If you serve on a board or volunteer committee for the City, the unfortunate lesson is that your leadership can easily be overturned by a small group of angry citizens who shout at the most opportune moment. Sometimes, the content of their argument is valuable, and other times it is full of entitlement and myopic interest. We elect leaders who we trust will critically think about the issues and not be easily swayed by a vocal minority. It can be a bit messy, but we are not, nor do we have the tools to be, a direct democracy. We elect and appoint representatives largely based on their ability to make informed decisions.

An option being explored for train inclusion

City plans need to be able to grow and change with time and different priorities, however, the outcomes still need to honor the previous work and not continually reinvent plans in relative short-terms. Regarding the train ride, it’s still unclear how the City Commission will honor both the previous work and the re-inclusion of the train ride. To date, they have played both sides. At a point in the very near future, clarity from the City is needed on the process to be honored.

More broadly, as we move forward, City Commissioners need to expect that with a project like the Bayfront Plan that there will always be a vocal minority willing to derail a specific detail; they may even be willing to derail the entire project.  Sometimes, the 11th hour crew’s arguments have valid and unavoidable merits, other times they are simply resistant to change and simply dropped the ball during the planning stages. The train ride issue falls into the latter category for me, because there were ample opportunities for the public to be engaged and speak out against any parts of the plan long before we entered this final implementation stage. From my experience of going to almost 30 of the 40 public meetings, the response to the train ride’s removal was mostly indifference.

There is no clear public will that has been expressed; it has been a mixed response with one faction just being louder, more forceful and having the advantage of it being an election year (RE). I can respect all that, but the broader goals of the Bayfront Plan still remain. 

The Big However & Moving Forward

However…We are where we are and we are now re-evaluating everything down at Clinch. This is at further expense, delay and risk of missed-opportunities to include the train ride. So be it; suck it up mister.

Contrast that with the tunnel, which has a built-in opportunity to be re-evaluated because the City Commission and the DDA need to sign off on the design. The City now knows that it will cost considerably more than what was first promised, that the scenarios don’t match up like they used to (Hotel Where’d You Go?) and we are more aware that other key features from the Bayfront Plan may be a bigger priority.

The tunnel can stay in the Bayfront Plan and if we transform Grandview parkway the community may decide that we don’t need it. If the DDA and the City Commission move forward with the tunnel they should look again at the design and see where any improvements to Grand View could simultaneously be made. It’d be a shame to rip the road up, temporarily move it into the Open Space, put it back and still in the end be left with the same old road.

As far as the train, it would be a shame to go through the hundreds of hours of public involvement to reinvent the bayfront and end up with the same old, same old down at Clinch.

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