Unpublicized Route 39 meetings violate common sense, federal guidelines

December 18, 2009
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I thought I was reading an article from the 1960s when it came to people talking about public participation (“Route 39 bus planning resumes in secret meetings,” JP Gazette, Dec. 4). Back then, public participation was pretty much limited to attending a meeting at the end of the planning and design process and “commenting” on the plans.

Fortunately, things are different now—or are supposed to be. Things started to change with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, as its purpose is to “consider environmental factors through systemic interdisciplinary approach before committing to a course of action” (emphasis added). The landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 shifted the emphasis of public participation from projects to process and early coordination before the details of a project are debated.

Now I read that the public will be invited to “review the final plan at the end” and that only a very small number of people will help develop the Route 39 bus plan. I am stunned that someone supposedly representing me on the working group thinks it’ll be OK for me to have no other chance to comment except when it’s a final plan, weeks away from being advertised for construction.

Too late. The basic issues have been decided, and only tinkering can be done at that late stage. This “bus planning” process has been a design review process, not a planning process that should be designed to find out what the problems are from a wide range of perspectives and commit to tackling them.

The Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration’s manual on public participation lists this as the number 1 guideline:

“Acting in accord with basic democratic principles. In a democratic society, people have opportunities to debate issues, frame alternative solutions, and affect final decisions that respect the roles of decision-makers. Knowledge is the basis of such participation. The public needs to know the details about a plan or project…Through continuous interaction with the entire community, agencies help build community support and, more importantly, assure that the public has the opportunity to help shape the substance of plans and projects. In short, public agencies act as public servants.”

Anne McKinnon
Jamaica Plain