How to Beat City Hall

September 30, 2014

Inside Insight

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Hitchcock parkwayCITIZENS 1, AIKEN CITY OFFICIALS 0

Hitchcock Parkway is a five mile stretch of two-lane roadway in Aiken. Much of it has beautiful old-growth trees on both sides, gentle curves and changes in elevation, which give it a postcard-like appearance. It is also the western boundary of Hitchcock Woods, a 2,200-acre wooded equestrian and hiker preserve, which is one of the largest urban parks in the country – two and a half times the size of Central Park in New York. And it’s a habitat for important (and threatened) animal species. Nineteen residential neighborhoods (think “eminent domain” takings), five churches and an elementary school are also touched by the parkway.

The City of Aiken and SCDOT have been engaged in a lock-step march to transform the parkway into a four-five lane freeway. For more than 30 months, a large number of Aiken citizens have been battling to stop this unneeded, nonsensical, extravagantly costly and destructive project. Some of those citizens, who have had a great deal of experience managing engineering and construction projects around the world, have observed that this is the most ill-conceived, ill-planned and ill-executed project that they have ever encountered.

The freeway concept has failed every test that has been applied – technical, financial, environmental, aesthetic and safety (Hitchcock Parkway is already one of the safest roadways in Aiken, and is twice as safe as the average of similar roads in South Carolina).

On Sept. 25, the mayor and city manger of Aiken announced that they were giving up on their dream of a freeway, at least for the foreseeable future. The city is returning $7 million to the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank. They cited inability to round up sufficient funding, without acknowledging all of the other factors which made the failure inevitable, including huge citizen opposition. This ill-advised adventure has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousand of dollars, with nothing to show for it.

All of the members of the Aiken City Council share the blame for this fiasco. They were willing to credulously follow the mayor’s trance-like walk over the cliff. To its credit, the Aiken County Council did not allow itself to get sucked into the morass.

What did we learn? We learned that, contrary to conventional wisdom, you can successfully fight city hall. We also learned you shouldn’t be surprised if:

1. You find yourself attending endless meetings of the policymakers and your remarks are greeted with blank stares.

2. Same as Item 1 above, only substitute “Your subject-matter experts” for “you.”

3. Policymakers are presented with a long list of facts that conflict with their cherished dreams, and they refuse to acknowledge them.

4. Policymakers refuse to engage in any form of good-faith and fact-based discussion.

5. You have to find the money to hire an attorney to get the attention of the policymakers.

6. Your local newspaper joins with the political establishment to beats the drums for the ill-fated boondoggle.

7. Same as 6 above, only substitute “your local Chamber of Commerce” in place of “your local newspaper.”

8. You find that despite the well-known huge backlog of unfunded road and bridge maintenance work in our state, as well as cash-starved public transit, the pols and bureaucrats seem determined to waste your money laying down huge amounts of unneeded (and destructive) new pavement.

Keep all of the foregoing in mind as you attempt to assemble a legion of citizens to assist in repeatedly hammering home your message of common sense, and fiscal and societal responsibility.

But if you keep at it, you’ll win.

Bob Gilbert is a resident of Aiken. He holds engineering degrees from The Citadel, Georgia Tech, and Pitt. He will not be directly affected, financially or otherwise, by any changes to Hitchcock Parkway. He can be reached at 803-649-4543 or nohitchcockfreeway@gmail.com.