December 14, 2006

Web exclusive: Public's had every chance to affect Bridges

(taken from The Lip: LEO's News Blog) Designs for the pair of bridges Louisville will get through the Ohio River Bridges Project have been selected, and from an objective standpoint, they are spectacular to behold. Both are supported by a series of cables angling from the roadway to the cloud-scraping towers that define their profiles. As the renderings suggest, they are modern and clean; they look light on the water, which is how it should be.  LEO has taken a clear position on the Bridges Project and its intellectual counterpart, 8664. However, that does not -- and has not, at any time during the paper’s reporting -- precluded it from being fair and accurate. To that end, we feel it necessary to weigh in on the selection process of the bridge designs and the way it’s been reported by the only daily newspaper in the city. The headline on yesterday’s C-J piece was “Bridge designs in; public’s vote out.” The rational conclusion to that headline is obvious. And technically speaking, it’s true. The powers-that-be were required by law to consult the public on the designs of both bridges, which is a very good thing. Some have said they went above and beyond the required participation.  In the end, though, the real story of how the public weighted the design choices for the downtown and East End bridges is not nearly as dramatic as the C-J might’ve wanted.  A quick analysis of the report released in tandem with the decisions, by the Executive Bridge Type Selection Committee (could’ve been a good early ’90s band name, eh?), has plenty of useful information to grasp the nuance behind the choices.  First, on the downtown bridge, which will be a three-tower cable-stayed bridge: There were 2,755 votes culled from four open houses, voting on the project’s Web site, ballots at state transportation offices, and mail-in ballots also available at the public Bridges Project events. The difference between the winner and the one ultimately chosen by the committee was 11 votes. Eleven. Consider, for a moment, the amount of public input people like Mayor Abramson and transportation officials have been getting over the past decade about what kind of bridges to build. Think about the pressure from the development community currently rebuilding downtown. Is there any mystery in just how much public opinion these people have been given, even in the last two years?  In addition, as Hizzoner told the C-J, they decided the three-tower cable-stayed design flowed more with the rhythm of its new best friend, the Kennedy Bridge. That’s an important point. The design the public chose was nearly the same, except it had one center tower rather than three. And frankly, it looked weirdly out of place next to the Kennedy. The East End Bridge is something of a different story. The public chose a bridge with bulky towers the shape of diamonds. The vote was 1,428 to 902 (the second choice was, again, the one the committee ended on). In the context of the location, the public's pick looks oppressive. Its thick towers and columns lack the subtlety such a serene, unpaved area requires. The choice the committee made was a solid one. The design has its meat and guts in the center, with no cables or towers suspended over the actual roadway. The view of the bridge, and over the side when you’re driving over it in a decade (maybe), is grand and graceful.  Having chosen the public’s “number two” in both instances, the committee might expect to get the kind of jealous reaction many surely had when they read in yesterday’s C-J (Bob Hill’s column today) that their votes didn’t matter. However, looking at the way the votes were cast offers a pretty different picture.  By far, most of the design votes were cast online. There, people were able to view detailed renderings of each of the six finalists, on the flat screen of a computer. By contrast, voters at the open houses – where attendees were able to view scaled models of each decision in three dimensions – chose both bridge designs that the committee ultimately chose. A Bridges Project representative told me she thought those folks were the ones most engaged with the process, most interested in what was happening, most likely to be directly affected, whether through their neighborhood or general traffic patterns. I don’t disagree with that a bit.  Would anyone challenge the idea that people seeing actual, 3D models are better suited to make such decisions than those looking at them in two dimensions on a computer screen?  Call me cynical, but I find it shocking that they actually chose a design that close to the one the “public” wanted – forgetting, for a moment, how woefully unqualified Joe Blow might be in choosing a bridge design. Granted, it’s doubtful the planners would’ve put something before the “public” that would require a more complex decision than that based on its aesthetic.  This kind of participation requires an effort on the part of the general public that’s usually reserved for sports games and messageboards. It’s irrational to expect gargantuan reactions, even when it’s something as essential to the growth of our city, one way or another, as the Bridges Project. People are lazy and turned off, even when public officials ask them to turn on for something like this. Why that’s the case is an entirely different discussion.  Maybe things like this should be ballot referendums. Maybe it’s time people remember we live in a representative democracy, not a true one, and we elect representatives to be responsible for just such decisions as these. That’s why we pay them with our tax money. It’s as basic and brutal as the nature of this system of governance. To suggest outright that the people were squeezed out of this decision, one of aesthetics more than anything, is rather absurd. We’ve had every opportunity, for at least 20 years, to make a real, impacting decision about this project at the ballot box, which is where the true power of the citizenry lies anyway.