In Transit: App for Route 53 extension feedback takes flak
If the Founding Fathers had used Poll Everywhere at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia -- would the final result be a better Constitution?
It might have depended on how fast they could type.
Illinois tollway consultants are using Poll Everywhere, a web-based audience participation system, at meetings with a group of local officials and others advising the agency on whether to extend Route 53 into Lake County.
The question has roiled Lake County for years, dividing residents over weighty problems like right of way, traffic, pollution and cost.
At a meeting Thursday, those divisions extended to use of the smartphone app to conduct the meeting, with some opponents of the new highway saying the technology is silencing their voices.
"I am extremely frustrated with how the tollway has engaged the stakeholders overall," said Mayor Joseph Mancino of Hawthorn Woods, which could be bisected by a Route 53 extension. "Not only is the application unstable at best, it severely limits our input and quite frankly is a bit insulting to the stakeholders who are forced to use it."
He said a feature allowing audience members to vote up or down on other audience comments or questions prevents a healthy exchange of ideas.
Tollway officials said they used a mix of round-table discussions and Poll Everywhere at three meetings with stakeholders -- representatives from communities, organizations and other interests providing input into a $25 million environmental impact study of the Route 53 project. There are 145 identified stakeholders, but only about 60 showed up Thursday.
"We have consistently made adjustments based on public feedback to ensure that every voice is heard throughout this process," tollway spokesman Dan Rozek said. All questions from participants and responses are posted online, Rozek said.
Illinois Road & Transportation Builders Association CEO Michael Sturino, a stakeholder who favors the new road, commended the tollway for the "transparent" process.
During Thursday's session at the Holiday Inn in Crystal Lake, tollway consultants provided information on the Route 53 concept and gave stakeholders a few minutes to type in questions or statements on their smartphones. Audience reaction popped up on screens as anonymous comments and consultants typically responded to a handful of them, promising to reply to the rest online. According to Poll Everywhere's website the application "is used by millions of audience members and students every year."
Long Grove Trustee Michael Sarlitto, however, drew applause when he asked tollway consultants to drop the electronic format and allow real-time conversation.
"Nobody can type near fast enough," he said. "It would take me 20 minutes to (type) just what I said to you."
The tollway "wants to be able to parse through and say, 'this is what people said,' but that's not what you do at a meeting where you want to have stakeholder participation," stakeholder and Environmental Law and Policy Center chief Howard Learner said.
Sturino, of the builders association, said the new tollway needs to be built "to resolve the chronic (traffic) congestion afflicting the Tri-County region. Maintaining the status quo or applying Band-Aids is not a solution."
One more thing
Mancino contends the tollway is being secretive about stakeholder group meetings. Information about the meetings is not posted on the tollway website but on the Tri-County Access Project website on a "Stakeholder Participation Group" icon at the bottom of the screen. Dates and times aren't released on the website until two days before the meeting, though members of the group get schedules in advance.
The tollway did not explain the short public notice, but Rozek said "open houses, which are geared toward public input, have been widely publicized through news releases and the distribution of over 450,000 invitations to tollway customers, stakeholders, elected officials and interested members of the public."
Two public relations firms are working on the Route 53 project. Naperville-based Images Inc. was hired specifically for that purpose and has billed the tollway $146,781, as of March. Morreale Communications of Chicago, which has a $6.6 million tollway subcontract, includes Route 53 outreach among its duties.
Learner contends that "notices of meetings haven't been sent out. The high-tech system they're trying to use for comments just functionally doesn't work. Why are they spending so much money on communications consulting firms?"
In response, "we're always looking for new ways to engage the public and encourage community input," Rozek said. A Thursday open house on the Route 53 study is set from 4 to 7 p.m. at Concorde Banquets, 20922 N. Rand Road, in Kildeer. Got an opinion on the Route 53 study? Drop an email to email@example.com.
The DuPage Railroad Safety Council holds its 12th safety summit from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, at the Drake Hotel, 2301 York Road, Oak Brook. The topic is "Prevent Tragedy on the Tracks." To register go to dupagerailsafety.org.