Long range transportation plan shaped by public involvement

Planning for the future. Participants work on the CONNECTIONS exercise in Fargo, North Dakota, helping to update the area’s long-range transportation plan. Photo by Patrick Hollister.

Planning for the future. Participants work on the CONNECTIONS exercise in Fargo, North Dakota, helping to update the area’s long-range transportation plan. Photo by Patrick Hollister.

by Adam Altenburg, Fargo, North Dakota

Public participation is an integral part of any planning process, whether it be at the local or regional level. Through early public involvement, citizens are better able to engage in the decision-making process, which helps to increase the legitimacy and validity of plans or proposed improvements to the community. It is important that in the public involvement process, participants are given a clear chance to express their opinions with meaningful mechanisms for recording their views and ideas about particular projects.

The Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments (Metro COG) is the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for Fargo, North Dakota, Moorhead, Minnesota, and surrounding jurisdictions, serving an area of nearly 176,000 as of 2010. Metropolitan planning organizations are federally funded transportation policy-making organizations required for any urbanized area with a population over 50,000. Metropolitan planning organizations are responsible for working closely with area jurisdictions to ensure that existing and future expenditures for transportation projects are based on a comprehensive, cooperative, and continuing planning process. Of the 342 MPOs in the United States, Metro COG is unique in that it is one of only 40 that are multi-state and thus works in close collaboration with jurisdictions in both North Dakota and Minnesota.

As an MPO, Metro COG is responsible for developing and maintaining its long range transportation plan (LRTP) to guide the development of multimodal transportation systems and to assure that transportation needs are being met in the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan area. In accordance with federal law, the LRTP is updated every five years to accommodate the changing needs of the area and to reflect changes in socioeconomic composition of the area, as well as changes in local transportation policy. The LRTP must be compliant with the national goals set forth in Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), the current federal funding and authorization bill which governs transportation and other transit programs.

MAP. Compilation map summarizing public investment priorities during the CONNECTIONS exercise. Source: Metro COG, 2013.

Metro 2040 is Metro COG’s 2014 update to the LRTP. Metro 2040 is designed to gauge the success of adopted outcomes with established performance measures and to prioritize the majority of transportation spending over a 25-year period. Many of these adopted outcomes reflect the choices and desires of the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan area’s residents through the public involvement process.

According to the Metro 2040 Executive Summary, projections estimated that the population and number of households in the Fargo-Moorhead metropolitan area would increase by 42 percent between 2010 and 2040. Slightly over 90 percent of the projected household growth is expected in the outlying developing areas. Whereas growth between now and 2020 could be accommodated within the area’s existing plus committed network, 2040 growth would result in congestion throughout the system, particularly in the developing areas without additional improvements.

The public involvement effort for Metro 2040 sought meaningful public input from community members in the region. This public participation strategy focused on providing multiple ways for residents and liaisons representing various organizations to get involved and influence the development of the LRTP update. Activities included workshops where people could discuss future directions and transportation priorities, as well as online surveys and electronic notification updates. Events were tailored to key decision phases in the planning process.

Planning. Participants discuss different transportation improvements during a long range transportation plan roundtable discussion in Fargo, ND. Photo by Patrick Hollister.

Planning. Participants discuss different transportation improvements during a long range transportation plan roundtable discussion in Fargo, ND. Photo by Patrick Hollister.

As part of workshops for the issues and needs assessment phase in September 2013, participants were asked to work in groups on CONNECTIONS, a mapping exercise in which participants teamed up to determine needed transportation improvements for the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan area. Improvements came in the form of various game pieces that could be laid out and adhered to a game board. These pieces included new roadway construction, roadway widening or reconstruction, intersection improvements, new or improved interchanges, new or improved river crossings between North Dakota and Minnesota, and grade separations at railway crossings. Each improvement was assigned a dollar amount according to improvement type or length. Participants were also asked to identify areas that were in need of new or enhanced bus transit service, enhanced bicycle/pedestrian corridors, and sections that would benefit from better bicycle/pedestrian connectivity or barricade removal.

In order to fiscally constrain the CONNECTIONS exercise, groups were given a limited budget for federal/state and local improvements for both North Dakota and Minnesota. Totals were based on historic and projected revenues including programmed revenue in Metro COG’s Transportation Improvement Program and funding changes brought about by the implementation of MAP-21.

TOP PRIORITIES. MAP-21 goal priorities by Metro 2040 participants. Source: Metro COG, 2013.

Additionally, each participant was given ten chips and asked to prioritize the seven national goals of MAP-21. These goals are meant to help transition the highway program to a performance and outcome-based program. The rankings by participants were used by Metro COG to evaluate projects based on definable performance measures later in the LRTP process.

Over 100 individuals participated in the CONNECTIONS exercise at three different venues in the community. This resulted in 18 completed exercise maps, each of which provided different potential solutions for addressing the region’s future needs. These maps were instrumental in assisting Metro COG identify additional needs and issues regarding the transportation system in the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan area.

During February 2014 workshops for the alternatives development and evaluation phase, participants were once again asked for their involvement on future transportation-related issues. Consistent with the CONNECTIONS exercise in phase one, attendees participated in roundtable discussions where each group completed game board exercises which assessed a number of proposed transportation-related projects. To generate discussion, participants were asked to review the priority of transportation improvements based on technical evaluation and the prior public weighting of MAP-21 goals. If groups felt that a specific project’s priority should be changed, they were asked to trade that priority with another project. At the end of the project review, groups chose their top three project priorities for federal/state and local projects for both North Dakota and Minnesota.

In addition to the phasing and prioritization of identified roadway projects, groups were tasked with providing recommendations for bridge reconstruction or the construction of additional river crossings between North Dakota and Minnesota, evaluating the adequacy of the transit vision plan for future transit needs, and deciding whether limited transportation funding should also be allocated to transit capital projects or bicycle and pedestrian needs.

For the public involvement in Metro COG’s update to the LRTP, both the CONNECTIONS exercise during phase one and the roundtable discussions of phase two were designed to be more than public education or standard public input. Instead of public involvement strategies used more for disseminating and collecting information, Metro COG sought methods to encourage public interaction and enable better communication between planners and the public. This active approach to public participation creates a dialog where shared ideas can better enhance the planning process. Each participant was encouraged to express their views on the transportation system of the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan area, as well as respond to the ideas and suggestions of others. The ultimate goal was to reach consensus on which improvements the community believed were vital to the continuing success of the transportation system in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

Adam Altenburg is the Community & Transportation Analyst with the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments.

Published in the December 2014/ January 2015 Issue

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