Voting process may shut out students

MnDOT will reintroduce sound walls for 35W despite concerns.

Voting process may shut out students

Kelsey Shirriff

Residents in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood will vote on a proposed noise barrier for Interstate 35W in April, but University of Minnesota students may not have much say.

Due to the weighted voting process conducted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, renters adjacent to the $5 million project can’t give as much input as property owners.

The sound wall, which would run along both sides of I-35W from Fourth Street to Johnson Street Northeast, was initially voted on in fall 2011 but was suspended because of residents’ complaints.

MnDOT officials want to build the sound walls because federal law requires them to address the noise impact, said Scott Pedersen, MnDOT Metropolitan District West Area engineer.

Besides protests that it would remove trees and gardens, block sunlight and encourage crimes like graffiti, members of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association are concerned that the voting process will shut students out.

MnDOT decides whether a wall should be built based on votes from residents or building owners the department has determined would experience a noise reduction of at least five decibels, Pedersen said.

The votes from each affected building are given different weight based on ownership, number of residents and proximity to the project.

Property owners’ votes hold the most leverage, followed by residents and then renters, who have the least amount of say.

Furthermore, Pedersen said in larger buildings, only renters facing the interstate and with a patio would be able to vote.

Fraternities and sororities located along the highway would only receive one vote because they have one owner, despite their high capacities, Pedersen said.

“It’s a highly unfair — almost you would think illegal — kind of process,” said Melissa Bean, the executive director of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association.

“We argue that the process doesn’t work in urban areas,” said Arvonne Fraser, vice president of the MHNA. “The rules are written for the suburbs … it doesn’t work in a neighborhood like ours.”

But Katie Sisum, who owns a condo adjacent to the proposed wall, agrees with the voting policy. Renters are less engaged in the community, she said.

“Nobody cares if they’re renting,” she said. “They don’t have as much of a vested interest.”

Fraser said that because the area is primarily rental, it’s too difficult to figure out who’s eligible to vote as a resident, owner or renter.

“Some students can vote, if they live in a benefited receptor house,” she said. “But who’s going to determine which students can vote and which can’t?”

The system is also problematic, Bean said, because the sound walls would still affect residents who don’t receive five decibels of noise reduction.

“They would have the same physical impact looking out their window every day,” she said. “Only they don’t get a say in it.”

Responses

The last time sound walls came to a vote, Pedersen said, only 22 percent of neighborhood residents responded.

Non-responses count as “yes” votes according to the MnDOT noise policy guidelines — something else the MHNA takes issue with.

“How do they determine the number of non-respondents? I assume they determine it by how many letters they sent out,” Fraser said. “But if the letters are wrong, then the vote count is wrong.”

Fraser and Bean said MnDOT doesn’t take into account multiple occupants when notifying residents of an upcoming vote and therefore doesn’t distribute the correct number of ballots.

Pedersen said ballots are distributed according to tax information and verified with the U.S. Postal Service.

In 2011, the ballots were sent by a consulting firm to residents as prepaid post cards. The ballots were sometimes mistaken for junk mail, Pedersen said, which kept residents from responding.

“If you were to receive this — especially if you were a student who was kind of oblivious to things in the neighborhood and more interested in your studies — you would have just thrown it away,” Bean said.

MnDOT will distribute and tally the votes themselves this April, Pedersen said.

He said 51 percent of polled residents will need to vote against the proposal to keep the sound walls from going up.

“If people who would benefit from the construction don’t want the wall,” Pederson said, “we won’t build the wall.”