Is INDOT bypassing public on planning?

Indot boxGroups that perennially press the Indiana Department of Transportation to broaden its vision of mobility beyond highways now accuse the agency of “significant ineptitude or willful disregard” in eliciting public input.

“We assert that INDOT has not substantively conformed to the public involvement conditions delineated by federal law,” states the letter sent late last month to INDOT Commissioner Michael Cline.

The three-page missive was signed by leaders of AARP Indiana, Alliance for Health Promotion, American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, Hoosier Environmental Council, Hoosier Rails to Trails Council, Indiana Citizens’ Alliance for Transit and the Indiana High-Speed Rail Association.

At issue are INDOT’s draft 2035 Long Range Planning Transportation Plan and its draft 2012-2015 Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan.

The documents, which are updated every few years, identify future transportation needs and list projects expected to be funded and deemed significant.

The groups said they’ve stressed to INDOT for years the need to incorporate more diverse sources of public input into the plans, including a “robust” public involvement process.

INDOT counters that it has broadened its outreach, including making planning documents easily available online, but the department’s detractors don’t see any improvement.

Kim Irwin, executive director of the Alliance for Health Promotion and of one of its key programs, Health by Design, said key stakeholders have met with INDOT leadership at least six times in the last 18 months.

But despite requests for public meeting and hearing notices, the groups complain that they’ve not been notified in a timely manner. They cited an instance in March when they learned of a public meeting in Greenfield the day after hearings began.

“They’ve thumbed their noses at us,” Irwin said.

“As we see it, INDOT continues to ignore those people underserved by our current transportation system … essentially anyone who needs or wishes to travel by a mode other than single occupancy vehicle,” states the letter to Cline.

The underserved cited include the poor and disabled, transit riders, bicyclists and the elderly.

AARP says transportation planners nationwide can expect additional changes in the composition of travel as the older population grows.

About 21 percent of those age 65 and older do not drive, said June Lyle, state director of Indiana AARP. That’s up 1.1 million people since 2001. Meanwhile, in 2009, older people took more than 1 billion trips on public transportation, an increase of 55 percent since 2001, according to AARP.

“We have some ongoing struggles getting INDOT to really think more broadly in terms of mobility,” Lyle said. Seniors’ needs “are not being met by this sort of old-school approach we continue to see here in Indiana.”

From meetings to Web

Among specific changes the groups seek from INDOT is to move public meetings closer to where most people live.

In the Indianapolis area, for example, INDOT conducted the public meetings for long-range plans at its Greenfield district office.

INDOT counters that there doesn’t seem to be much public interest in such long-term planning. One meeting drew only one member of the public, said an official.

Low participation could be a function of location or the fact meetings are held during business hours, when many people are at work, the groups complained in their letter.

INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield said the agency has improved its outreach efforts—and seen better results—via the Web. He said INDOT has, since 2009, made it a priority to place more documents online for public review and comment.

The agency also outlines in the 2035 draft plan efforts to do a better job of reaching out to minority populations to assess their transportation needs, including the use of telephone surveys.

The 2035 plan and 2012-2015 plans are now front and center on INDOT’s website.

“We’ve gotten five to seven times the amount of comments through that” approach, said Wingfield. “Anyone with an Internet connection and a computer has access.”

The agency also counters claims by the groups that it’s not abiding with regulations on public comment. “We feel we’re following the federal procedures,” Wingfield added.

Highway obsession

The criticism of INDOT comes amid an unprecedented volume of highway construction in Indiana following the leasing of the Indiana Toll Road in 2005. Gov. Mitch Daniels directed that $2.6 billion from the lease proceeds be pumped into new highway projects under the state’s Major Moves program. That amounts to more than 100 new roadway projects by 2015.

The governor’s ambitious road-improvement plan includes construction of new terrain Interstate 69 in southwestern Indiana. Daniels also had proposed an outer loop to Interstate 465, east and south of the metro area. That idea was shelved after public and legislative opposition.

In 2009, INDOT dropped a Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati route from its application for funding from the Federal Railroad Administration’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program.

Instead, INDOT sought funding for a Chicago-to-Cleveland route that would cross the northern part of the state but could dip far enough south to go through Fort Wayne.

INDOT at the time explained that federal railroad officials were favoring routes further along in planning and with the potential to be completed more quickly. INDOT did file a preliminary application for $22 million to conduct environmental and engineering studies for the Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati corridor.

Roger Sims, president of the Indiana High-Speed Rail Association, said the Indianapolis route may be even more relevant today amid soaring gasoline prices and even greater highway congestion.

Sims, among leaders who signed the April 27 letter to INDOT, said he remains frustrated with the agency’s rail-planning efforts. He said details of a long-range rail plan that INDOT plans to discuss later this month in LaPorte still aren’t available for review.

Irwin contrasted INDOT public outreach efforts to those of IndyConnect, a local initiative looking at expanded bus service and the launch of commuter rail here.

IndyConnect has had a high profile that includes numerous public meetings, surveys and a coordinated media and advertising campaign to elicit public response.

“This is what could happen on the state level—what should have happened on the state level,” Irwin said of INDOT’s long-term planning process.

INDOT’s estranged public stakeholder groups, in the letter to Cline, recommend that the agency empanel a citizen’s advisory council, whose members would be “integrally engaged” in the state’s long-term planning process.

Wingfield noted that the agency has had ongoing dialog with the community on many of its projects, such as on the rebuilding of Interstate 465 and I-69 on the northeast side.

INDOT also regularly works with local transportation-planning organizations. The agency’s 69-page manual on public involvement and procedures includes the requirement for community advisory committees on some major projects to “ensure meaningful public involvement.”

Innovative outreach

Some states are better than others in public outreach.

The transportation consulting firm Cambridge Systematics conducted a best-practices study recently for the state of Oregon. The report noted that Minnesota’s transportation department has taken notable outreach efforts, such as seeking out pedestrian and bicycling groups as well as those representing the elderly and ethnic groups such as Latinos and Native American tribes.

It’s also developed an online community for randomly selected public members who provide continual input and conducted public hearings via video conferencing so it can hear from additional people at remote locations.

The Virginia Department of Transportation created webinars for its 2035 long-range plan, allowing people to participate from the comfort of their homes.

The New Jersey Transportation Planning Authority uses You Tube to help the public understand its 2035 plan. Videos are used to explain what the plan is, what challenges regions in the state face and what the plan is trying to address, said Cambridge.

Some efforts to hit specific ethnic populations are low-tech. The California Department of Transportation’s public outreach plan includes placing advertisements in ethnic media and providing outreach materials at public transit facilities.

Lots of ideas, fewer dollars

However INDOT’s outreach efforts evolve, it’s sure to face even more pressures from a diverse group of community organizations with a stake in transportation and its effects.

Kharbanda Kharbanda

Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, notes that central Indiana increasingly has been having problems with fine particle pollution—much of it traced to motor vehicle emissions.

Soaring gasoline prices are affecting some businesses as working-class motorists struggle to pay for their commutes. Gasoline prices and highway congestion make a more compelling case for planning new transit infrastructure in the years ahead, Kharbanda said.

He said INDOT’s rhetoric of late has been supportive of diversity in mobility as part of its long-range planning, but that doesn’t necessarily play out in actions by the agency,

Earlier this month HEC asked INDOT to address a number of public input issues and then re-release its draft 2035 plan “and pursue a more robust public input process before finalizing this document.”

HEC says the current planning document offers scant details on multi-modal plans.

INDOT’s Wingfield said many of INDOT’s activity in growing rail and transit may not be so evident to the public. For example, the agency has been working to channel funds to a project aimed at freeing up a railroad logjam that’s plagued freight and commuter rail movement in the northeast corner of the state, near Chicago.

It’s also partnered with Greyhound Lines Inc. and Miller Trailways on “Hoosier Ride,” an intercity bus service launched last year that serves more than 30 communities.

The agency coordinates more than $48 million in state funding to transit agencies around the state.

“There’s a lot more to the transit side than many people realize,” said Wingfield.

But with INDOT’s funding growing tight it’s more important than ever to get public input on state transportation planning, said Irwin.

“We really have constrained fiscal resources. We want to make sure that those dollars are spent the wisest ways possible.”•

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