Scandal of the Green School and the 705 Connector/Mileground Road Expansion Project

DANGER ALERT: OBLIVIOUS OFFICIALS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

Are the officials stealing the 705 Connector/Mileground road expansion project from the public in a manner similar to that of the green school dealings? What are the consequences for any new elementary school, and for the public at large?

The public gets shut out of too many important decisions until too late. Such operation-on-the-hush causes even the institutional actors problems. For example, Bill Austin, the Director of the Monongalia Morgantown Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), in a March 17 note to the West Virginia Department of Highways (DOH):

“…the Mileground [expansion/705 Connector project] is becoming a textbook example of the issues we are trying to address in the Policy Forum. I had heard that the School Board was considering placing a new large school in the 705/Mileground Corridor but I was not sure how far along it was. The School Board is taking the site to the State as their preferred alternatives for consideration by the State. I think this could be an example of where better coordination would be useful to everyone.”

Two and a half months later on June 4, WVU, the DOH, and Mon Schools finally met face-to-face to coordinate the road expansion project with the proposed green school siting plan at the 705/Mileground intersection. However, the public remains essentially in the dark about what is going on. On June 9, Richard Warner of the DOH writes to MPO Director Bill Austin:

“Just listened to a replay of you and Bruffy online [David Bruffy, General Manager, Mountain Line Transit Authority]. Very nice jobs, both of you. Nice dance you did around Kay’s question about the traffic effects of the new school on the Mileground.”

Austin replies the next day:

“Thanks, I learned to waltz from the best.”

Why is the MPO Director “waltz”ing the public on the traffic effects of the new school on the Mileground?

Because, apparently, he doesn’t know the answer about the traffic effects of the new school on the Mileground.

And apparently neither does anyone else. Least of all the school district – even though Mon Schools needs to meet fast approaching funding deadlines to build the green school as it wishes at the 705/Mileground intersection, over the substantial opposition of many.

Why does no one know and announce the traffic effects of a school at the 705/Mileground intersection? Because the studies are apparently not yet complete. And/or have not been made public.

The School District is required to do a traffic impact study by law. Where is it? [Correction: This was stated by a DoH official in April; however, the DoH has since learned that no such study is required, we are now told.]

Meanwhile the WV Department of Highways scrambles to figure out the possibility and effects of a new school that it did not know would exist at the 705/119 intersection until recently.

MPO Director Bill Austin informs the DOH on March 19:

“In regard to the issue of a school being constructed within the Mileground/705 Corridor. It is not common knowledge, but the current proposal is to place the school behind the Armory [and extending to route 705].”

On June 1, Chris Haddox, a concerned Woodburn resident and father of a future green school student, writes to MPO Director Bill Austin:

“Does the MPO have lingering concerns about traffic patterns if the new elementary school is developed on the Mileground? If so, can you please advise on how you plan on addressing those concerns with the BOE?”

On June 2, Austin replies:

“We are working with DOH and the Board of Education to understand the implications of the proposed school to the areas transportation network. We hope to have more information on this for public review in four to six weeks.”

The reality is considerably more complex and bigger in scope, since far beyond the DOH and the BOE, the City, the broader County, and area businessmen are actively involved in shaping “the area’s transportation network,” green school or no green school.

For instance, before replying to Chris Haddox, MPO Director Bill Austin on June 1 emailed MPO Chair and School Board member Mike Kelly to update him on the status of a meeting about the Mileground expansion, attended by two of the Monongalia County Commissioners and many state officials, including:

“the Sec. of DOT (WV Department of Transportation), the DOH Planning Director, Planning and Admin Director, the Manager of the Design group, and numerous other DOH officials”

and attended also by numerous area businessmen.

Why such a power gathering?

Austin relates to Kelly:

“The meeting consisted of an introduction to the project and how we got here by DOH. DOH informed the business owners that the project is in the early stages and that many of the details the businessmen wanted are not available. This introduction followed by a heated discussion. At the conclusion of the discussion it was agreed that the business owner[s] would be allowed to have some input into the project…

“I would appreciate your calling me to discuss this in more detail. …”

Then Austin replied to Haddox that the MPO was working with the DOH and the BOE on traffic implications of the green school at the intersection of 705 and 119 on the Mileground, and Austin noted that they “hope[d] to have more information on this for public review in four to six weeks.” Now, four to six weeks has come and gone and where is the additional information? When will it be made public? The deadlines for Mon Schools meeting the green school grant are fast approaching. Does Mon Schools really know what it is getting into regarding access to something as basic as the surrounding roads and transportation problems at one of Morgantown’s most congested and high traffic intersections? Can it be known, given the impending expansion? an expansion that will gobble up land and further pollute the air even closer to the school? And the public? How have they been meaningfully included?

One of the experts responsible for developing the project also wondered about the public’s role in relation to his assignment: Transportation Planning Manager, Tom Creasey, of Kentucky-based ENTRAN, a transportation infrastructure consulting firm. On May 28, Creasey asked the WV DOH, in a note copied to Bill Austin:

“In developing our scope of work, should I include meeting(s) that will involve a presentation to decision-makers and/or the general public? If so, to what extent?”

Robert Pennington of the DOH replied that day:

“I would expect at least one presentation to WVDOH and then a subsequent one to the MPO Policy Board. Public meetings at this time I would not plan for. If that becomes necessary, then we can deal with it then.”

The general public gets iced out.

Unless “necessary” to include them.

At which point, the officials, the ostensible “decision-makers” will “deal with it,” if forced.

Parents who drive their children to school every day or send them on the bus to travel – what do they care about the design of road that goes in?! And commuters? And area residents and other drivers?…surely they will be just fine with whatever the DOH and area businessmen settle on. Pollution, safety, traffic flow, aesthetics – nobody in the general public cares about such tiny details, do they? Certainly not the parents of small children forced to travel these roads twice per day, 180 days per year.

Creasey follows up with another question the same day:

“We will need to develop future year traffic forecasts…. We typically do this by developing growth factors and applying those to the base year traffic counts. Is there an MPO model that can be used in this process?”

Pennington replies, and in so doing indicates that the intended green school is an unknown factor:

“The MPO has an updated model…and the growth factors can be provided by [the MPO] as well. The proposed school is obviously not in the model at this time….”

Creasey responds:

“If the MPO is OK with providing ENTRAN with the files for the demand model, then we can do the modeling and develop our own growth factors. I’m OK with the MPO doing the modeling if there is a concern about proprietary issues, but allowing ENTRAN to do the modeling lets us have more control over the overall schedule. You guys can make the call. I’m OK with either option.”

Though the MPO has a model of traffic demand, MPO Director Austin emphasizes in response:

“…that the school proposed for the Mileground corridor is NOT included in the future year model. I believe the projections at that location were for some commercial development. … Would it be possible to analyze the build versus no-build scenario for the proposed school? I understand that takes more time and budget but we would appreciate some analysis on that issue as well.”

In a subsequent email to the DOH (still on May 28), Austin continues to emphasize that the planners and managers not forget the proposed green school:

“…we will need to make sure that we address the issue of the proposed school in the modeling done by the consulting team.”

Thus were the MPO and DOH forced to scramble to account for a new school in the middle of a congested, high traffic area, and impending construction project, a new school that Monongalia Schools heedlessly pushed for and voted on, shoving it through, while not seriously or carefully considering other options, despite widespread public opposition to the 705/Mileground intersection site: a terrible, really shameful site for a school that remains seriously challenged, logistically and otherwise.

At long last by early June, WVU (which intends to sell the land for the new school) and Mon Schools met with the DOH. MPO Director Bill Austin comments in a note to MPO Board Members:

“705 Connector/Mileground Widening Project – there have been two meetings since the June 1, meeting at Yesterdays Restaurant reported to you on June 2. The first meeting was held June 4 – attending the meeting were WVDOH, WVU, and the Monongalia County School Board Superintendent Frank Devono. This meeting was to coordinate the activities of the WVDOH and the School Board with WVU. These discussions focused on the impact of both the five lane cross-section and the four lane cross-section under discussion with DOH. It was the consensus of the group that WVDOH could work with the School Board under either scenario by providing the new school with access to either alternative (traffic signal or roundabout) for the intersection of the Mileground and 705. The WVDOH design team and the School Boards architect will be keeping in touch to make sure their activities will be coordinated.”

So there it is. Another big moment in the dealings done behind closed doors. It is the “consensus” of the “decision-makers” that “either alternative (traffic signal or roundabout)” works just fine and dandy for WVU, the Mon BOE, and the DOH. WVU and the BOE apparently raise no objection to either option. Or did they? Will it ever be reported? Is it possible that WVU and the BOE don’t know the consequences of either option? Don’t care? Did they ask? No opinion? And what of the public? What’s the consensus with them?

Never mind that the Easton and Woodburn school closure hearings were at that time still weeks away. What of the safety issues, traffic flow, pollution? What of the look? Which option is safer, cleaner, provides better flow? What does the public prefer?

The who?

The public gets “waltz”ed, with DOH admiration – June 9/10 .. and DOH delay, at best: “Public meetings at this time I would not plan for. If that becomes necessary, then we can deal with it then” – May 28.

And the difference between the safety, pollution, traffic flow, and look with each of the two alternatives? Is there any difference?

Apparently so, one may learn, upon some serious investigation. Evidently a big difference…which we will look at in future posts.

Not that this is remotely easy for the public to find out. Not that WVU or Mon Schools provides any clue. Hey, best not to ask! For those two institutions, either option seems to present no problem. And the public is left to…trust…WVU and the Mon BOE.

Oh, sure. See: Cash GrabThiefDestroyingTraffic — and Iceberg.

We’ll take a look at some of what we already know about the qualitative differences between the two options, 4 lanes versus 5 lanes, in future posts, and the preferences of various actors. We’ll take a look at who is pushing for what, and why:

“A second meeting was held yesterday with the Business owners along the Mileground.” …

By which we see that the interests and concerns of businesses and owners take precedence over the interests and concerns of parents and children and students.

Additional FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) sunshine needs to be cast on these dealings, especially on the business angle, in future posts.

In the meantime, the idea of a new elementary school on the Mileground remains as FUBAR as ever. It should be stopped.

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