Citizen Activist accused of “practicing engineering without a license”
Tags: citizen activists, city of raleigh, crosswalk, david cox, homeowners associations, nc department of transportation, nc dot, signalized intersections, traffic control devices, traffic engineer, Transportation, widening project
Recently in North Carolina news, I heard about a Raleigh resident who petitioned his local and state governments to add traffic signals at two intersections. The NC Department of Transportation responded with charging David Cox with “practicing engineering without a license,” a misdemeanor that could result in a letter telling Cox not to do it again.
How did this happen?
Cox is a member of the North Raleigh Coalition of Homeowners Associations (NORCHOA), which has been advocating for additional signalized intersections on a road scheduled for widening in Raleigh, NC. NORCHOA, a nonprofit group established in 2006 to work with public officials on the Falls of Neuse Road widening project, represents residents from seven North Raleigh subdivisions, which is more than 700 homes.
In response to a traffic accident where a 14-year-old child was killed by a car, NORCHOA began advocating for signalized traffic crossings on Falls of Neuse Road. NORCHOA discovered that a consultant hired by the City of Raleigh and DOT had decided that signalized crossings were unnecessary based on current traffic counts. NORCHOA then mailed a 4-page report to the NC DOT and government representatives stating that the existing traffic engineering analysis should instead be based on estimated future traffic volumes on Falls of Neuse Road after the widening project is completed. Using estimated future traffic volumes is a standard called for in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, a federal document that every traffic engineer uses.
At the end of last year J. Kevin Lacy, a State Traffic Engineer, filed a complaint with the N.C. Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors against Cox. Lacy alleged NORCHOA’s critique of DOT’s position qualified as illegally practicing traffic engineering without a license. The examiners board sent Cox a letter later in December that notified him that he is under investigation, because “Allegedly, this document should have been prepared and certified by a Professional Engineer” but was not.
Why does this matter?
In the US, constitutionally protected right to petition the government. By accusing people of “practicing engineering without a license” and encouraging citizen groups to hire engineers to express what they already know, it seems that the DOT is promoting a “pay to play” policy. In other words, in order for NORCHOA to have a conversation about traffic lights on the widening road, they have to hire an engineer to do the talking.
Second, the intent of the “practicing without a license” law is to prevent people from misrepresenting themselves as engineers and hiring themselves out to complete engineering work. By contrast, the four-page NORCHOA report is clearly labeled as work “Submitted by the Residents of North Raleigh.” If citizens call officials out for not following the standards that they ought to be following, it is scary to think that the mere act of referencing those standards in the critique could be construed as practicing without a license!
The State Traffic Engineer, Kevin Lacy, was quoted as saying, “I’m not by any means saying don’t send us more questions or more comments. I’m not opposed to people questioning us.” But he added, “Would we allow citizens to do an alternate analysis of the structure of a bridge?” So, is he saying that the standards supposed to be so opaque that only the initiated understand them?
This leads to the greater issue of professionalizing planning. The professionalization of planning takes away from citizens the voice to opine on good urban form. The kind of dialog going on in Raleigh suggests that only traffic engineers are qualified to talk about roads. Realistically, are traffic flows so complicated that they should be treated like bridge design or other areas of civil engineering? One blog in NC goes further, accusing the DOT of “practicing planning without a license.” Take that, engineers!