This week, I attended a workshop on Context Sensitive Solutions led by MNDOT. Since when is MNDOT sensitive to anything, let alone the community context in which the road lies? How many times have we heard “You just can’t work with MNDOT” in response to questions about whether something related to a state highway or state aid road might be changed? Have we ever heard anything different from city staff? MNDOT, indeed, has seemed rather like the Wizard of Oz – pay no attention to that man behind the curtain who controls everything, explains nothing, and cannot be challenged.
The perceived insensitivity and unchallengeability of MNDOT (and other engineer/planner types) to context, sensitivity, and (developing rather than imposing) solutions has bugged me for a long time. Finally, I’ve had the opportunity to pull aside the curtain and peek inside MNDOT and engineer culture. As an elected official, I was not the primary audience for this event (although the flyer for the workshop indicated “local government” should attend). Rather, it was continuing education for transportation planners, mostly MNDOT engineers from around the state and that’s what made it so illuminating.
The overarching theme was shifting transportation planning culture at MNDOT from imposing a fixed technical solution to having planner develop context sensitive solutions using the CSS
collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders in providing a transportation facility that fits its setting. It is an approach that leads to preserving and enhancing scenic, aesthetic, historic, community, and environmental resources, while improving or maintaining safety, mobility, and infrastructure conditions.
To me, coming from Northfield’s Planning Commission and trying to work towards smart growth and complete streets in Northfield, the CSS approach is common sense. To have MNDOT working toward implementing CSS in their projects is to feel like we’ve all gained a powerful ally.