Paving way for road design

Collaboration: Highway planners have abandoned old ideas to focus on design and work with residents.

August 13, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

The battles waged by townspeople to save 51 trees on Main Street in Sharpsburg, dozens of parking spaces in downtown Cumberland and the quaint charm of Westminster have triggered a quiet revolution in road planning.

Maryland's highway gurus call their new strategy "Thinking Beyond the Pavement," an idea that is winning kudos from Washington and being copied around the country.

It means design comes first, engineering last -- a radical departure from the past. Landscape architects, environmental consultants and the public are working closely with engineers on even the smallest projects.

"This is an idea that is catching on, and it marks one of the significant changes in the role of transportation in the 21st century," said Gloria Jeff, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.

"Transportation today is about more than highways, asphalt and steel. It's about how people use the system," she said.

The new approach challenges two established practices.

It abandons cookie-cutter roads in favor of tailor-made thoroughfares that complement a community. Every project is unique and should be treated so, the thinking goes.

It also permits citizens to weigh in early with design ideas and concerns. That step is giving communities enormous influence over projects. Historically, Maryland and other states have not shared their plans publicly until late in the process, when changes can be difficult.

`A real change'

As simple as those ideas may seem, they are powerful. In other states, "thinking beyond the pavement" has dislodged projects stalled in court for years and turned longtime adversaries into collaborators.

"What happened here was a real change in how we did business," said Thomas B. Beyard, Westminster's director of planning and public works, of the town's relationship with state officials on the 1992 Main Street project.

An earlier road widening project on Pennsylvania Avenue in Westminster had left residents bitter and distrustful after the state, without warning, cut down a stand of old trees bordering the street.

When highway planners then proposed to widen Main Street at the expense of a few century-old trees, it was the last straw.

Residents were fed up with outsiders who presumed to know what was best for their town. Highway planners were tired, too, of fine-tuning projects only to watch their work crumble under controversy.

State officials realized that there had to be a better approach. They tore up the Main Street plan and started over.

Once it became clear that the State Highway Administration was willing to listen and work with residents, "it completely changed the process from confrontation to cooperation," Beyard said. "People once diametrically opposed to the Main Street project could see the light."

Bricklike sidewalks and crosswalks create a period look. Metal boot-scrapers and carriage steps that might have been lost to street widening were preserved. Where the citizens felt parking was needed, space was made -- but it was the town's decision.

Tearing up the original plan and starting over delayed the project by a year and cost an extra $200,000. No one apparently has regrets.

"If we had gone with the original plan, it would have looked like York Road," said Dan Uebersax, the project's landscape architect.

Maryland is among five states in a federal pilot program this year that teaches highway planners the more imaginative approach to road projects, and how to communicate ideas and collaborate with residents.

`Build consensus'

State Highway Administrator Parker F. Williams, who has been instrumental in getting the idea on the national transportation agenda, has made it a top priority here and set new criteria for his staff.

"These people are not just civil engineers," he said. "We want people who understand urban planning and landscape architecture and historic preservation, and people who have good communication skills and can build consensus.

"This is about projects fitting into communities," he said.

Last year, in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration, Maryland was host for a national conference on the issue, drawing more than 300 people from 39 states.

The idea appears to be succeeding in situations more complex than Main Street, Westminster.

In Wisconsin, farmers and other residents who had long opposed a rural road-widening project had a change of heart last year after highway officials tried the new approach and promised to protect adjacent land from development and preserve views, the two chief concerns.

The same sort of flexibility in Lexington, Ky., helped liberate a project that had been stalled by court disputes for more than 20 years.

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