Tackling the Big Infrastructure Projects

By David M.  Feehan

It was 20 years ago, in 1997, that Des Moines, Iowa, was about to start construction on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Freeway–an elevated, limited-access highway skirting the southern edge of downtown Des Moines. Traffic engineers believed the road was needed to meet 2025 traffic demands. Downtown business leaders were not so sure, and commissioned a local architectural firm to build a model. When they saw the model, they were even more convinced the elevated road would cut off development to the south, an area of underused warehouses, factories, and vacant land.

The mayor resigned for health reasons, leaving the city council with an even split–three votes for, three against–and the $120 million road was in severe jeopardy. City leaders were loathe to let the project die because it would be years before another project of this size would even be considered by the state and the feds.

But what to do? Go ahead with a project that few believed was really needed, or kill the project and lose millions of outside dollars?  Building the road could jeopardize development opportunities in an area with more than 100 acres of developable land. And City Manager Eric Anderson was caught in the middle.

Eric came to me (I was president of the Downtown Partnership) with a proposal: He would ask me to work with the former director of planning and the head of the planning commission with what amounted to a blank check and 90 days to solve the problem.

Our little team quickly engaged a value engineering firm that assembled a team of crack traffic engineers and we devised a public-input process to determine what the community wanted. The result: community demand for an at-grade boulevard with signalized intersections, public art, and access to peripheral parking.

The engineers holed up in a downtown hotel and worked virtually around the clock for a few weeks. When they finished, we had a workable plan. The state and feds signed off on the design, and other engineers went to work on producing working drawings and budgets.

Today, the MLK Parkway is heralded as a tremendous success. Development in south downtown has exploded. Community support for additional downtown projects was secured. Des Moines has built a new arena, a new convention center, a new downtown library, and a plethora of other new multi-million-dollar projects, as well as hundreds of units of downtown housing. Most would argue that none of this would have happened if the city manager had not had the courage to trust a transparent community process.

For city officials considering controversial major parking and transportation projects, there is a lesson that can be learned from Des Moines.

David M. Feehan is president of Civitas Consulting, LLC.

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