Home Commentary Op-ed IT''S TIME TO RETHINK AN UNTHINKABLE HIGHWAY

IT''S TIME TO RETHINK AN UNTHINKABLE HIGHWAY

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A magnificent historic town like Charlotte Amalie should be approached with humility. This is especially true for major capital projects proposed for the district, such as the disputed four-lane highway project known as Plan 8. In its lack of vision and proper analysis, Plan 8 if implemented, would entomb Charlotte Amalie's waterfront, its economic future, and its soul, beneath a sea of concrete and red ink.
Critical to the success of large urban projects is the willingness of planners and decision makers to listen to the community's concerns and recommendations in order to identify the core issues that will ultimately define and shape the proposed project.
Plan 8 failed to address this important aspect of the planning process. Moreover, Plan 8 does not address the causes of the traffic congestion that it is supposed to solve. These facts should be the driving motive to rethink this $75 million Highway Demonstration Project.
If all these arguments against Plan 8 are true, how is it that the plan to build a highway into the harbor, has survived so many years of public opposition? It is because the public has lacked accurate information that reveals the inherent flaws of the plan. Until recently, if concerned citizens wanted to evaluate Plan 8, they had to spend months deciphering a discouraging stack of technical documents, reports, and contracts. In order to eliminate this public participation barrier, and to stimulate creative public discussion on the issues, Governor Turnbull and the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce decided to open the process to the public during a November 8-12, 1999 Charlotte Amalie/St. Thomas Transportation and Community Development Workshop.
The list of invited participants numbered over 117 individuals representing 39 groups from the public and private sectors. This included, among others, concerned citizens, the chief counsel, of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Karen Skelton, the chief legal counsel of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Betsy Merrit, transportation planning consultants, including several who were instrumental in formulating the federal legislation known as ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, 1991) and TEA-21 (Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, 1998), and the press.
Residents attending the workshop expressed their dismay at the way the island is being transformed. They spoke of their hopes for the district as well as the harbor, and discussed possible solutions to the parking and congestion problems. Many participants said that it was the first time in the island's history that the public was heard and encouraged to participate in defining the future of the district. They said this workshop was fundamentally different from the past highway "meetings", where predetermined proposals were imposed on them.
Karen Skelton from the FHWA, explained that V.I. federal funds allocated to highway construction could also be used to solve congestion in more context sensitive ways, consistent with progressive planning approaches. She said the FHWA has refined its programs to be more responsive to recipient community's economic, social, and cultural needs. ISTEA and TEA-21 confirm the fact that federal transportation projects can be powerful agents of change to a community and can have devastating effects if poorly planned, as is the case with Plan 8.
Mayor Frank Sartor of Sydney, Australia, during an international conference on waterfront development strategy held at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design in October 1999, warned politicians and planners to plan carefully and in small steps because large scale urban design mistakes are almost impossible to reverse. At the same conference, government officials and planners from around the world echoed Mayor Sartor's views and presented successful waterfront projects that utilized public funds strategically to revitalize their cities.
With so many precedents worldwide that illustrate intelligent transportation planning and successful public waterfront design, should St. Thomas spend millions of dollars it doesn't have, to disfigure its waterfront with an obsolete highway concept it doesn't need? As it was unanimously felt at the Workshop last November, it is time to rethink both Plan 8, and the decision making process that has inadvertently placed the social, cultural, and economic future of the district in the hands of a traffic engineer, rather than in the collective hands of the community.
Editor's note: Torgen Johnson is an Urban Designer with a professional degree in Architecture from the University of Southern California, and post-professional degrees in Urban Design, and Landscape Architecture from Harvard University. He was responsible for the redesign of the new Coral World on St. Thomas.

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