East Siders talk big picture transit

State Sen. Fong Hawj, an East Side DFLer, signs a covenant in support of community engagement for transit planning. The Fostering East Side Transit Conversations group drafted the document as the result of numerous meetings, surveys and outreach to East Siders.

As part of an effort to get the East Side thinking about transit, Fostering East Side Transit Conversations (FESTC) has been reaching out to neighbors.

Over the course of six months, the group conducted surveys of East Side residents and businesses, held discussions and finished off with a summit on Thursday, Dec. 5, at the Dayton’s Bluff Recreation Center where organizers presented a working pact to plan future transit projects around community needs.

With several transit projects expected to go through the area, including the Gateway Corridor, the Rush Line Corridor, and a city streetcar route, the goal of the transit conversations was to have a comprehensive study of the East Side’s needs.

Basically, the idea was to talk about all these projects while they’re still in early stages, said Deanna Foster, executive director of the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council.

Before FESTC, “that really was not happening,” she said. “People weren’t really thinking about it in the broader picture.”

The effort comes from a $150,000 federal grant, given out by the Ramsey County Regional Rail.

Josh Olson from Ramsey County Regional Rail said the project was “designed to be different than how we’ve done things in the past.”

He noted that the participants are “informing these transit projects at a very early stage.”

FESTC is comprised of community councils from Districts 1, 2, 4 and 5 as well as the East Side Area Business Association and East Side Prosperity Campaign.

Novel approach

“(FESTC) is a very different approach,” Foster said. Working with officials early on, it bridges the gap between policymakers and the community, “so we don’t have to do so much adversarial, last-minute, fight it out political kind of thing,” she said. “It’s much more intentional.”

John Levin, director of service development at Metro Transit, said the project seemed to be a good way of moving forward with transit planning.

He said the approach is a relatively new one.

“In many ways I think this is somewhat novel ... (with outreach) not organized around a specific project, but rather thinking about the issue more broadly.”

He said it’s often challenging to get meaningful input from residents about what they want out of buses, trains and the like.

“By getting people engaged ahead of time, it really primes the pump,” he said.

Ground rules

Foster called the event “a celebration of a lot of work beforehand.”

Namely, months of door knocking, surveying and community outreach to engage people who are typically left out of the conversation when it comes to transit.

At the Dec. 5 event, organizers presented a covenant of the East Side’s transit needs, with the idea that it would shape how transit is developed in the area.

The document lists six basic points: ensuring everybody benefits, race equity, safety, accessibility, community involvement in decision making and continued community effort as transit projects like the Gateway Corridor are hashed out in further detail.

Foster noted the presence of officials who will ultimately have a say in the upcoming transit projects.

Representatives from Metro Transit, Ramsey County Regional Rail and Washington County were all present for the conversations, as well as St. Paul City Council president Kathy Lantry, and Senator Hawj and DFL state Rep. Tim Mahoney.

Lyssa Leitner, a Washington County planner, said the presence of state-level representatives was a promising sign.

“It was rewarding that these folks thought this conversation was important enough to require their attendance,” she said.

Nitty gritty

While the event considered the larger picture of new transit projects in the area, it also got down to the details.

Participants broke up into small groups to discuss the covenant -- they talked about everything from student discount rates to the closed-circuit cameras that will be on the Green Line light-rail train, and the issues involved with safety versus overreach.

That stemmed into a larger conversation about ways to improve safety on public transit. They talked about the role of the bus driver, which can sometimes extend well beyond simply driving the bus, into managing the safety of passengers.

One table discussed how, typically, residents feel left out of the planning for new transit.

Dayton’s Bluff resident Chris Argetsinger said that it can often feel like the planners say “we make the decisions, but we’ll listen to you.” 

Future plans

The group will run out of funding from the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority at the end of the month. From there, they’ll be submitting a report, which includes surveys from residents and qualitative feedback gathered at meetings and by doing door knocking. Wilder Research is processing the surveys.

Though funding is drying up for the time being, Foster said she’s hoping to keep the conversation going. The plan is to pursue other sources of funding, so the momentum created by the group isn’t lost.

Regardless, the conversation will likely continue in some capacity, she said. She thinks the group’s approach is one worth sustaining. “(FESTC) is the beginning of showing that (transit planning) can be done in a more logical way.”

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com, or follow on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

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