Thousands of engaged residents, hundreds of events and meetings, and countless hours of conversation have added up to special recognition for the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project: top honors from the International Association for Public Participation's U.S. affiliate.
The 2015 USA Project of the Year award recognizes work to pursue the association's seven "core values" for public participation, which seek innovative approaches to meaningfully connecting public engagement directly to decision making.
Honors were shared by Metro and the cities of Portland and Gresham, all key partners on the project. The award was announced at a gala Sept. 10 at IAP2's annual U.S. conference, coincidentally held in Portland.
The Powell-Division project would bring a new kind of transit – bus rapid transit – to a 15-mile corridor connecting downtown Portland to Mount Hood Community College in Gresham via some of the region's most diverse neighborhoods. It also is pursuing a broad range of strategies for economic development, affordable housing and equity.
Engaging the diverse people of the corridor has been a top priority from when planning began in January 2014, said Dana Lucero, Metro's primary engagement staffer on the project.
Recognizing that many people in the corridor are from communities that might be skeptical or even distrustful of government, engagement was designed to revolve around their concerns – not just the transit project, Lucero said.
"This is a bus rapid transit project, but it means so much more to the people we've talked to," Lucero said, accepting the award at the gala on behalf of Metro. "This project will bring needed improvements to the most diverse part of Oregon. But people want to us to be thinking about measures that avoid unintended consequences, such as involuntary displacement and the disruption of community fabric. In partnership with the city of Portland and Gresham, we have begun a dialogue about community stability."
To that end, the project has employed several unique strategies. It included community representatives as voting members of its steering committee and held nearly all public meetings at locations in the communities it hoped to reach.
Planners worked with community-based organizations and consultants to hold discussion groups in multiple languages, including Spanish, Russian, Tongan, Chinese, Vietnamese and Bhutanese, as well as discussions with African immigrants and African Americans. It also engaged youth to canvass businesses in the corridor, and project staff attended everything from farmer's markets to an Asian night market and a Native American powwow.
The project also provided numerous online comment opportunities, including an interactive online comment map, a first for a Metro transit corridor project.
Part of the project's distinction was how it used all that input, presenting it to decision makers on the same level as technical findings – directly connecting engagement to project decisions.
“This vital project could have died on the vine or caused huge distrust and public backlash if it had been handled with a top-down approach,” said David Hovde, president of the U.S. affiliate of the association, which is better known as IAP2. “Instead, the planners and practitioners followed the IAP2 core values to ensure that people were involved, had an impact and ultimately benefited from the service.”
Gresham City Councilor Lori Stegmann, who serves on the project steering committee, shared that enthusiasm in her remarks at the Sept. 10 gala.
"We often hear words like collaboration, inclusion, acceptance, and representation," Stegmann said. "These are important values and principles that Metro not only strived for but achieved. And that is not an easy thing to do when you have competing interests and a diverse community."
"One of the reasons this project has been so successful is the amazing public outreach. There are well over 300,000 people who live in the corridor, and it's challenging to reach out to so many people," Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick said at a Sept. 24 Metro Council meeting in East Portland.
"This project has done remarkable public outreach, and of course that's what contributed to the award. The type of outreach has been so diverse and includes many people who don't speak English," said Craddick, , who represents Gresham and much of East Portland and co-chairs the project steering committee.
"I'm really proud of the work that's been done," she added. "We have a ways to go, but this sure is a wonderful start."
Project partners plan to keep the engagement strong in the next phase of the project.
The Metro Council approved a Transit Action Plan Sept. 24 that maintains a robust engagement approach as the project enters a more detailed period of design and seeks to finalize routes and station locations.
Planners hope to work with the steering committee to select a final transit route by spring 2016. The project could be complete as soon as 2020.
Learn more about the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project