Battle: LA

12 June 2012

Los Angeles has seen a showdown over a subway extension for more than a year now. In October 2010 the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) approved the draft environmental impact report for the Westside Subway Extension on the city’s Purple Line.

Beverly Hills officials and residents were concerned about tunneling under the city's high school and homes, and while they 'expressed support' for the Westside Extension, just not that particular route. Thinly-veiled threats of a lawsuit were thrown about in the local media.

This spring, as Metro moved toward approving the final environmental impact report for the USD 5bn project, an overly-dramatic and highly-charged video depicting catastrophes at the high school was released in opposition to the alignment. Only in Hollywood is CGI (computer generated imagery) an option among bake sale and literature drop when it comes to the PTA (Parent Teacher Association).

For engineers such as you, reader, the public documents outline which of the four alignments is best for the project. Of the 34,000 people living in Beverly Hills, how many can process that information and arrive at the same conclusion?

There is the slightest possibility that everyone employed by Metro, all the engineers, directors and contracted companies, do not have students' best interest at heart, and do want to be associated with a high school going up in flames.

More likely, there is an uninformed public, and in the gap where effective communication could have educated the residents of Beverly Hills, the concerns of a special interest group grew into a fireball of misconception.

If left to their own devices, the public will leap to wrong conclusions, particularly the most dramatic. Hollywood makes all that money for a reason. Engineers have a responsibility to educate the public and present information in way that all can digest it. And it is especially important to present all information, and early.

Compare the situation to that of a doctor. Good bedside manner makes all the difference when explaining a surgical procedure, administering cancer treatments or jabbing a needle into your baby's leg. Telling your patients what to expect in a way they can understand makes them less anxious when you slice open their abdomen -- or drive a TBM under their school. Telling them to expect the unexpected is better received when administered with some compassion.

Engineers supply water, transport and remove waste from our communities. You are the healthcare workers for our infrastructure. Treat the public like your patient or its concerned family member; offer respect, courtesy, listen and anticipate its needs.

On May 24, Los Angeles County transportation officials voted in favor of the alignment under Beverly Hills High School. There is no doubt that a legal battle is on the horizon, perhaps a sequel, too.