What do you do when you find out the road “improvements” in front of your home include a tractor trailer turn around that will take out 1/3 of your yard? You reel over the details, imagine how the plan will reshape your family’s future. You sit in shock and ruminate the change.
At least that’s what I did when I learned about the John Street Widening project; initially a superstreet design, now a 4-lane design with medians. Either way, the project will bring I-485 levels of traffic through Matthews. To my husband and I, the road killed the dream of our kids being able to ride their bikes across the street to the library. To others, I soon learned, it meant losing their homes. For all of us along the corridor, we were being held captive by a road design that would alter all aspects of our lives.
NCDOT builds roads for cars, not people.
It’s a scramble to fight North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), especially when you’ve been living in a happy little suburban bubble with little understanding of the way the town functions. There are a lot of elements in play, most of those elements are not apparent. If you don’t have allies in the town hall, that means you have to dig harder, research more, and follow every possible lead to figure out what to do. We’ve won a few battles, but have yet to win the war. Below are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
First and foremost, know who the decision makers are. We thought it was just NCDOT, 7 months into our fight I learned there was also a municipal transportation planning organization the CRTPO, with a great deal of sway in the project. Imagine my surprise to find out the Mayor of Matthews was the chair of the board!
Organize, educate and coordinate to elevate your voice
Find your allies. Go to every meeting you can. Introduce yourself to every council member and staff member. Let them know your concerns. Look for the council members who speak publicly with similar concerns, those are your allies.
Utilize open meeting laws. Ok, so actually this one I didn’t know about until this past weekend, but one I’m going to take advantage of. Find out when officials are meeting with NCDOT and sit in. You won’t be able to speak, but you can hear the conversation firsthand. That’s invaluable.
Read. Everything. Make friends with people who will also read everything. Find a core of like-minded individuals who can bounce ideas and solutions off each other. These people will guide the movement of the group and keep your actions calculated rather than reactionary. This is what will keep you focused on your goal.
Data and Experience Matters
Read all the meeting notes you can on the history of the project. Read the Environmental Assessment (EA) from cover to cover. You need to know the indisputable facts because many will still try to dismiss those. You need data on your side. If the data is unclear, ask around until someone can address it. The EA for John Street did not address the air quality impact of 140% increase in vehicles idling in our town, so I asked Clean Air Carolina if they could address it for me. While a statewide organization, consideration was given due to the impact this roadway would have on the region and they submitted comments to the support our considerations for the potential negative air impacts this project would have.
Find others who’ve already fought the same fight, ask for their wisdom. I read about Dana Dunbar on Streetsblog and contacted her. We talked for a long time about the most effective strategies, many of which Preserve Matthews adopted. She also suggested names of other people to contact, such as acclaimed urban planner Jeff Speck who happened to know a couple people locally for additional perspective. All of these resources will reassure you that your fight is legitimate and worthwhile. You’ll need that reassurance, fighting a road is exhausting. Find your common language, your common voice and keep at it!
Find your common language, your common voice and keep at it!
Know your language, the wording is everything. We at Preserve Matthews were fighting a road widening in Matthews and using the term “superstreet” as a catch-all phrase for that design. The town was fighting a superstreet while advocating a road widening. We were all using the same language, but with differing intentions. It took us 5 months realize the difference and that was a difficult setback. We’re now spelling out expectations in the most elementary terms possible.
Remain sure-footed, but occasionally question yourself. The issue may evolve, but is your intention still true and relevant? Know both sides of the issue: Why might some want the road? Empathize with their points. Does it make you question your own or strengthen your resolve?
If you have a budget, make swag and accept donations to pay for it. Many people aren’t comfortable with public speaking but will gladly give a few dollars to further the cause. First, we printed about 4,000 postcards with a few strong facts. We have signs and car magnets with a simple, straightforward message. T-shirts were donated by a local screen printing company. A website was donated by a local graphic designer. More people in Matthews found out about this road widening because of our swag than publicity from either NCDOT or the town.
Keep the issue at the forefront. Signs and car magnets are a great asset for this, but also attend every council meeting and speak, even briefly, about the issue and its impacts on the town. People will probably play on their phones, roll their eyes, and smirk while you talk. That’s ok, you’re fighting, and fighting in and of itself is an uncomfortable experience. A few people will listen, connect with you after the meeting and join forces, and that’s how you build momentum.
It’s that dedication, momentum, and community of talent and support that have gotten us this far and given us a chance for an improved road for Matthews.