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To learn more
Context Sensitive Solutions is well explained, in layman’s language, at www.contextsensitivesolutions.org. Click on “What is CSS?” then click on “Publications: Context Sensitive Solutions Primer.”

New approach invites public input

When The Journal Gazette in a recent editorial (“Unintended consequences,” Nov. 15) mischaracterized an important City Council resolution on citizen input to transportation planning as “little more than Shoaff’s latest attempt to stymie the widening and straightening of State Boulevard,” it did a grave injustice to an effort by three of us to plug a serious loophole in the local democratic process. Council President Tom Smith, Russ Jehl and I have introduced a resolution that addresses the right and need of the entire community, not just traffic planners, to become involved in the planning for major transportation plans that affect the fabric of our city.

The resolution calls for adoption of an inclusive “context sensitive solutions” approach to design that the Federal Highway Administration recommends to all communities faced with major road projects. This approach was developed in response to a need seen by roadway designers themselves for better collaboration between citizens and traffic planners if new projects are to preserve “scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental resources,” be “broadly supported” and be “responsive to the unique character of the communities (they) serve.” It incorporates broad public input and takes into consideration everything of value in the “physical, economic, and social” setting of a project.

This approach brings the public into the process early, when a traffic problem is first being defined.

In the “old way,” with which Fort Wayne residents are all too familiar, traffic planners define the problem and determine the solution, then communicate it to the public, perhaps allowing the public a role in minor changes and embellishments.

In contrast, the Context Sensitive Solutions approach puts a complex problem before stakeholders and the public as soon as it is identified then initiates a process that brings together technical information, contextual considerations and public input. Planners encounter the public sooner, and more deliberative time is spent up front as the public, planners and elected officials sort and determine a proper coordination and harmony among competing interests. Engineers must grapple with issues that can’t fit into their formulas; but ultimately, because they are working directly with citizens and a broader range of issues, their work, although less simple, becomes more rewarding; and because major issues are resolved early, the follow-through becomes smoother and more efficient.

Given the Federal Highway Administration’s strong recommendation (also endorsed by the American Association of State Traffic and Highway Officials, which has its own handbook for the process), the assertion by an Northeast Indiana Regional Coordinating Council official quoted in the editorial – that federal funding of city projects would be jeopardized if we follow this process – is truly puzzling. It is hard to imagine that projects developed by a process strongly recommended by the FHWA would then be denied FHWA funding because its own recommendations had been followed.

Yet that is exactly what the editors, in strong agreement with the NIRCC official, seem to be saying. Even the harshest skeptic of our federal government can be expected to doubt the FHWA would act in such a contradictory manner. Even more importantly, this approach will strengthen our community, raise morale, improve respect for government and give us projects that make our city healthier, more beautiful and more livable.

The resolution is scheduled for discussion by council at 5:30 p.m. or shortly thereafter today. Citizens who would like to see democracy improved and their rights and interests assured of better protection may wish to attend.

John H. Shoaff is an at-large Fort Wayne city councilman. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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