Saturday, March 24, 2007

The City DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

The Inconvenient Truth
About Inconvenience

Driving down Elm Street the other day, I saw the electronic reader boards the City had put up to notify drivers of the pending reconstruction of portions of Elm. Along with information that the long awaited project would start “sometime” in April, was an emoticon. You know, those funny faces :-) people like to tack onto e-mails, text messages and the like.

At first I wanted to make sure it wasn’t winking, ;-), like this was an inside joke. Sure, we’ll start construction in April…wink, wink. Perhaps it was simply wishing me a nice day, or was it more like saying, good luck…you’ll need it. I was also wondering if they could rig these signs to receive and display text messages from drivers? That could get interesting.

I think it took a few people by surprise because you don’t expect those in government to have a sense of humor, but believe me, it is there…just below the surface. Personally, I applaud the person that added the smiley face to the message. You especially have to have a sense of humor when you work for the Public Works Department. That’s because a lot of what they have to do to reconstruct vital infrastructure like roads, bridges, water and sewer lines ends up creating dust, noise, traffic jams and, well, general inconvenience for neighbors, businesses and the driving public.

Inconvenience is somewhat like pain. Different people have different levels of tolerance. No one was happy the last time Elm Street was torn up for construction, hence the frequent references to the Nightmare On Elm Street.

What we hope makes this experience a better one, is the proactive attitude I have seen demonstrated by Public Works Director Mahesh Sharma and his staff. He came to the Street Committee of the Council months ago, with plans for the use of reader boards, frequent updates on the web site and other ideas of how to keep motorists apprised of the work.

We were candid with him about the type of problems people find infuriating. For instance, the days and sometimes weeks that go by, with no one on the job site and no explanation as to why work was seemingly abandoned. They may still be well within their deadlines for completion, but it is still maddening to not see progress being made every day.

Since contractors work on numerous projects at once, they move men and equipment around to other sites as they wait for ground conditions to be right, materials to arrive or utilities to be moved (a real problem at times getting cooperation from utility companies). One way to get the contractors to want to finish sooner and not push the deadline, is to offer incentives. We have been doing that lately on all major projects and a good example is the Mel Wetter Parkway, which was able to be opened months ahead of schedule.

Our Street Committee suggested adding even further incentives to the Elm Street project by extending the target period in which the contractor could achieve incentives. Incentives may add a $100,000 or so to a seven or eight million dollar project, but it is well worth it for the aggravation it avoids.

Another suggestion I made to city staff, is to never let a road get in as bad a shape as some portions of Elm Street. Those sections that jar you and your car’s suspension, should have been cut out and relaid. Instead, there was a reluctance to do anything to a street that everyone knew would just be torn up for major reconstruction a year or two later. Deferring maintenance that adds to frustration levels on the part of motorists is never a good idea.

Having a great Public Works Department is two-thirds perspiration and one-third public relations. I hope the smiley face is a positive sign of good things to come from a department that seems more committed than ever to public service.

Let me make this point clear, a major reconstruction project is going to be inconvenient no matter what we do. Unless the City flew a helicopter to their house to ferry them to work each day, we are going to make some people very angry and a lot of people somewhat frustrated over the next year with the Elm Street project.

But to the extent they can, I think that Mahesh Sharma and his department, will listen to your concerns and do everything in their power to accommodate and relieve problems as they come up. Don’t be hesitant to contact them with questions or concerns.

For everyone else, I would recommend switching to decaffeinated coffee, finding an easy listening music station and start planning alternative routs. It’s almost time to grin J and bear it.