Comments are welcome (positive or negative), but any self-advertisements or irrelevant posts will be deleted.

No new posts are being added to this blog. For planning news and updates, check out The BIG Picture Huntsville (also on Facebook). For transportation info, check out the Huntsville Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Lincoln Mill Project: Making a Comeback?

Yet another project seems to be coming back from the dead. A plan to renovate the Lincoln Mill in Northeast Huntsville into retail space and lofts could be back on the board, with construction starting in early 2010.

For more info: Check out past articles on this project.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Planning Commission Approves Buffer Zones

The proposed downtown historic district buffer zones passed a major milestone tonight, with the city planning commission passing the ordinance amendments unanimously (with councilwoman Sandra Moon abstaining). The only government hurdle that's left is approval by the city council, which should happen in a month or two.

A text description along with a map of the planned amendments' final draft can be found on the city Planning Department website.

Mellow Mushroom is Open!

Undoubtedly the most anticipated restaurant this year (and last year) had a soft opening this week in the Village of Providence. The "grand opening" for Mellow Mushroom will be June 1st. It seems like a long time since the story broke here that the Atlanta-based restaurant chain was opening a franchise location in Huntsville. It was originally expected to open in August of last year, but was delayed several times. Seeing how many people were already there today at lunch, there is quite a demand; I think I'll wait a couple of weeks before I stop by and get a Mighty Meaty.

Monday, May 18, 2009

First Private Development Deal for Councill Courts

The Huntsville Housing Authority this week voted to sell 1.3 acres at the corner of Gallatin and St. Clair to T1 Development, according to the Huntsville Times. The development company plans to build a 4-story mixed use building on the site called Resonant Pointe (why they called it this, I don't know). Plans call for ground-floor retail and restaurant space, second-floor offices, and "small, affordable" condos on the top floors.

Here's an aerial image of the area (courtesy of Sellers Photo) that shows the development's location in reference to Huntsville Hospital, Downtown, and Gateway Place (the senior housing complex being built by the housing authority).

Let's hope this is the first of many similar projects for this neighborhood-- there's still 15 acres of the housing project yet to be sold along with surrounding parcels of land (such as the old high school) that need to be redeveloped.

Light Rail Transit: A Feasible Option?

See? I told you it was time to talk transit. In this morning's Times, a developer discussed his idea for a light rail transit (LRT) system in Huntsville. His idea is to have a line from the airport to Research Park, eventually being extended as an elevated line over 565 to UAH and Downtown; another line from Research Park through the Arsenal to a Martin Road park-and-ride; and yet another line from Downtown to Martin Road.Now, hold up there. While I hate being skeptical on such an interesting proposal, LRT shouldn't be the first thing we should be looking into. It would be like building a house without a foundation. LRT is expensive compared to buses and commuter rail (but less expensive than building a highway), so a tax increase of some sort will be involved. Alabamians don't like taxes anyway; why would we give more to government so they can spend it on something that hasn't been proven to work here?

I'm also afraid that this proposal won't work in its current form, because it has the classic problem of Huntsville's transit system-- It doesn't go where people need to go. Say you drive over Chapman Mountain, one of the most congested stretches of road in Huntsville, every day to get to work in Research Park. Would it help your commute any if you still had to drive over the mountain to get to the Downtown Station park-and-ride (assuming there would be one in this plan) to complete the 5-10 minutes left in your trip?

First, we need to prove that well-designed, efficient public transit can work in Huntsville using less expensive options, such as bus (local, express, and rapid) and commuter rail, possibly a test line using existing track and diesel multiple units (DMUs, seen on the Sprinter line in San Diego County, CA) between Decatur and Downtown Huntsville. And only then, after we have a successful regional transit system in place, should we talk about LRT. (I like the idea that's been thrown around of a north-south line through Huntsville using mostly-existing rail rights-of-way.)

But like I've said, before anything is implemented, there needs to be a plan. And any transit plan needs to include the whole region. This "Huntsville-only" and "Madison County-only" mentality isn't going to work anymore. Mayor Battle's got the right idea (from the Times):
"Battle pointed out that Redstone Arsenal's employees are coming here from 13 counties, and that local and area rail or other public transport would be welcome. 'We need to go to a regional transportation mode,' he said..."
Now, of course it's not possible to have a rail system extending to every "bedroom community" of Huntsville. That's where a regional bus system comes in. Local buses would connect surrounding neighborhoods to transit centers, while express buses would provide non-stop service from park-and-rides in outlying areas like Meridianville, Arab, Athens, etc. to transit centers in major employment areas like Downtown, Research Park, etc.

For further reference, Huntsville's going to need to look at what other cities have done. Here are some we should look at:
  • Trimet (Portland, Oregon)- considered one of the best, most comprehensive transit systems in the country. An expansive light rail/commuter rail system complemented with a large bus system, and strict metro-wide planning controls that make transit more inviting. For more info on some of the measures Portland took to make itself transit-friendly, check out this recent interview of Trimet general manager Fred Hansen on Canadian public television.
  • Sprinter (Oceanside, California)- a commuter rail line in a city only a bit larger than Huntsville. This is the transit system we should look into if we ever start a commuter rail service to Decatur.
  • So, you think that public transit only works in so-called dense, "liberal" cities? DART (Dallas) and UTA TRAX (Salt Lake City)-- These newer systems are proof that mass transit can work in sprawled, conservative cities. They each have aggressive expansion plans, and their ridership numbers are comparable, and sometimes larger than, cities with established mass transit.
  • Metro (Washington, DC)- No, I'm not saying we need to build a subway system, but this system has good examples of two things Huntsville needs more of-- multi-level (city, county, state) cooperation, and their website looks cool, is easily accessible, and frequently updated.
I have no doubt that light rail (or any kind of mass transit) will be successful in Huntsville-- but only after its planned to meet the needs of the region as a whole, not just the Arsenal or a select few in West Huntsville.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Update: Redstone Technology Park

The Times reported in this morning's paper that the Redstone Technology Park, a 420-acre office/retail project on Redstone Arsenal property at the southwest corner of the 565/Rideout interchange, is moving forward. The Pentagon must approve a deal between the Army, the developer (Montgomery-based Jim Wilson and Associates), and the city of Huntsville, and that decision is expected any day now. However, it will probably be three years before anything is built, and at least a decade before the project is completed. The city is considering a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district to pay for infrastructure improvements.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Huntsville International: A Tale of Two Airports

This is the third in a series about transportation in the Huntsville area.

A little disclaimer here: I don't fly. Not that I have anything against it, I just like seeing the country from the ground, rather than 30,000 feet above it. But on the rare occasion that I do, I fly out of Nashville, which I'm sure many of you do as well. More on that later.
Huntsville International (HSV) is truly a tale of two airports- a cargo airport and a passenger airport. The cargo side of the airport is the pinnacle of our area's infrastructure, a product of visionary leadership. It's the largest airport in terms of cargo volume in the state of Alabama. It has the second-longest runway (nearly 2 miles long) in the Southeast, making it long enough to carry the world's largest airplanes. It is because of this that we have a true "international" airport, with cargo flights to Europe, Mexico, and Asia.

But the passenger side of the airport is plagued by several problems, despite having 1.25 million passsengers last year, a clean/modern/efficient terminal, and an aggressive expansion plan which includes new runways and terminals to the west of the airport in Limestone County (This is in addition to the $65 million expansion project that is well underway).
  • Outside of the "legacy" hubs-- Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, and Detroit-- and government hub Washington-- the airport can't seem to keep its destinations. Delta started non-stop service to New York-LaGuardia last spring, and ended it in September due to high gas prices. In the past few years, service has also been dropped to Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Newark, and Las Vegas.
  • HSV has problems with keeping/getting a low-fare carrier; therefore, it is more expensive to fly out of HSV than other airports in the region. However, it is not the airport's fault; they're just not lucky-- Independence Air went bankrupt in 2006, and Allegiant pulled out of the market because of bad service in 2008. Southwest, the original low-fare carrier, has around 25% of the market share, but refuses to serve Huntsville directly because of the proximity to Birmingham and Nashville, two cities Southwest already serves. (And yet, it serves four airports within 50 miles of each other in the Los Angeles area.)
  • Access to larger, cheaper airports is easy. Birmingham and Nashville are two hours away, and Atlanta, one of the largest airports in the world, is four hours. And, as you see with Southwest's large market share here, people use it to their advantage.
So, what can be done? Well, there's a relatively simple solution....

GET AIRTRAN! Do whatever it takes to get AirTran, or any low-fare carrier for that matter. But AirTran is a match made in heaven for HSV. And here's why-- look at the top final destinations (excluding top-ranked by far Atlanta) for HSV travelers in 2008:
  1. Washington, DC (National)
  2. Orlando
  3. Los Angeles (LAX)
  4. Dallas-Fort Worth
  5. Baltimore (BWI)
  6. Houston (Bush Intercontinental)
  7. New York-La Guardia
  8. Las Vegas
  9. Denver
  10. Boston (Logan)
Out of these ten destinations, HSV does not currently have non-stop service to Orlando, LAX, BWI, LaGuardia, Las Vegas, and Boston. And AirTran's hubs/focus cities (according to Wikipedia) are: Atlanta, Orlando, BWI, Boston, and Milwaukee. Could it be any more obvious? Don't blame it on the economy, or that "we're too small"-- Knoxville and Asheville, both smaller airports, are getting AirTran next month. Also, the old Southwest excuse for not coming to HSV doesn't apply here, as AirTran does not serve Nashville or Birmingham. Plus, our "close, but not too close" proximity to Atlanta, AirTran's largest hub, could put us in a good position to become an overflow/secondary hub.

So, let's get AirTran to begin non-stop flights from HSV to Atlanta, Orlando, BWI, and Boston. Then we'll have 7 of those top 10 destinations. As for the other destinations on that list, get Delta to restart its New York flights now that gas prices are back down, get American or United to fly to LAX (that is, admittedly, a long shot), and forget about Las Vegas (HSV's a business airport). Another good destination to think about with plenty of international connections is Philadelphia; that's something US Airways could do. That would give HSV non-stop flights to every major East Coast city except Miami.

If AirTran is successful here (it should be), maybe HSV will undergo a transformation like what happened with Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio, an airport that had less than 500,000 passengers go through in 1995. After AirTran came to the airport, its growth exploded; in 2008, 1.47 million passengers went through the airport. It is now advertised as an affordable alternative to busier Cleveland International, 50 miles away. While it's unlikely such a growth rate will happen here, having a stable low-fare carrier will lower fares and keep people from driving to the other airports in the region.

All things considered, the airport's issues are much less dire than the needs of the rest of Huntsville's transportation system, and the solutions are much simpler.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

(Updated) New UAH dorm/dining facility to open in Fall 2010

In light of new info/plans, this is an updated version of the March post.

The new dorms will be south of the recently-opened intermodal center/parking garage in the middle of campus. (For those who know the campus well, it will be across from Fraternity/Sorority Row.) A new dining facility will be added to the parking garage, and will connect the two. The 5-story, LEED-certified residence hall will house around 400 students and will feature lounges and a common kitchen on each floor. The new dining facility, the second on campus, will feature a Quiznos Express, a convenience store, and another yet-to-be-named chain restaurant (I'm guessing Burger King, Pizza Hut, or Chick-Fil-A). It will have the capacity to serve 350 students. The architects of the dorm/dining project are local architect firm SKT and Florida-based HADP Architecture. Construction is expected to begin this summer, with completion by the 2010-2011 school year. There are plans for a second residence hall, which will mirror the first one to the south. No word yet on when it will be built.

While this has been in the plans for years (and it's not a bad idea), I still don't think now is the best time to be building anything of this magnitude, considering the imminent budget/staff cuts and the obvious "lack of morale" among faculty and students on the direction the university is taking.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

It's time to talk transit.

This is the second post in a series about transportation in the Huntsville area.

I've heard nothing but good things about "Roads That Won't Be Built," so expect more road posts in the future. And hopefully we haven't seen the last of those old maps. But now, I'm going to discuss another part of transportation which I believe has not been discussed enough in this area.

Every once in a while, there's a newspaper article about how this region's road system is nearing capacity. Some roads are already well over capacity. So, what's the solution? "More roads! Wider roads!" say our government leaders. Which has somewhat worked... until now.

Don't get me wrong; I agree that roads such as 53, Winchester, and 72 need to be widened. Those highways are vital for commerce in the region. But every city comes to a point where more roads aren't going to solve all their transportation problems. For Huntsville, this point is coming quickly. Our population is growing, but there is less road money to go around. ALDOT seems ignorant to our need for better infrastructure, and the federal highway fund is on life support.

For some cities, like Atlanta, leaders didn't realize it until it was too late; now they're stuck with 12-14 lane freeways that are well over capacity-- one is now planned to be widened to 23 lanes. Another problem with Atlanta is that their region's governments were fragmented. Now, some smaller but growing cities like Nashville and Charlotte have learned from Atlanta's problems, brought themselves together, and invested heavily in alternate forms of transportation-- building bike paths, creating walkable urban neighborhoods, and improving public transit. (To Atlanta's credit, they have done these things as well in the past few years, though this is seen by some as "too little, too late.")

Huntsville has been a leader in creating bike paths and greenways, and there are plans for at least 130 miles of them in the future. We're working on walkable urban neighborhoods. But those only go so far; if you live in Athens, you can't walk or bike to work in Research Park. You could, but you run the risk of being run over by some soccer mom in a Yukon. But what about increased public transit?

Well, let's put it this way: the recently released Tennessee Valley Regional Growth Coordination Plan explicitly stated 89 "priority" road projects in the Primary Study Area (PSA) of Madison, Morgan, and Limestone counties totaling $3.5 billion. While the plan was supposed to include all forms of transportation, this is all it said about the future of transit in the area:
"Increased attention should be paid to improving public transportation in the PSA with particular emphasis on providing effective home-to-work linkages for major employment centers such as Redstone Arsenal, Cummings Research Park and the Jetplex Industrial Park. This will require more funding for public transportation equipment and services; the cost is unknown at this time."
It went on to talk about the current transit services available in the area, which include the Shuttle/Handi-Ride in Huntsville, TRAM paratransit in Madison County, and MCATS demand-response service in Morgan County. Later on in the report, community leaders from 12 counties in North Alabama and Southern Tennessee were asked to pick their top 15 priorities for the future of the region from a list of 45, one of them being a better transit system. And guess what-- not one of them (we're talking about at least 100 people here) thought transit was a top priority.

And considering the current state of transit in this region, I don't blame them. Only 1,500 riders use the Shuttle daily, or about 0.009% of the population of the city. I challenge you to find a public bus system in a similar-sized city that has less ridership than Huntsville's; I haven't found one yet. This is of no fault to the people who run the Shuttle; I'm sure they're doing the best they can with the little resources they have; by the way, it's an amazing feat that they've kept bus fares at $1. And I think they're spending the stimulus money they received wisely, regardless of views on the stimulus package as a whole.

So, why doesn't it work here?
  • There's little funding. The Huntsville Shuttle Bus, the only fixed-route bus system in the area, is funded solely from city and federal funds; none is truly dedicated and could go away at any time. There is no state funding for public transit-- you can thank our state constitution for that. And don't expect that to change anytime soon either; ALDOT maintains the view that "there is no place in Alabama" for transit. This lack of funding and its sources are the main causes for the other problems.
  • It wasn't planned right. There is no real plan for fixed-route commuter transit in the region. Even within Huntsville, it's not commuter friendly-- note that there is only one route in Research Park West; it's not very visible and only goes to UAH, not downtown.
  • Its extent/hours are limited. The Shuttle is run by the city of Huntsville, meaning that there can't be routes to, say, Madison or Decatur. Plus, there is little to no bus service on weekends or after 6pm, stranding many of those who need public transportation the most.
We could go on ignoring the need for transit, but there's a problem if we continue to do that.

Imagine Huntsville thirty years from now, in 2039. The metro population has just hit one million. It's a sprawling metropolis; cities like Fayetteville and Arab look like Madison today. The average commuting time has tripled; as a result, Huntsville is no longer one of the best places to live. Quality of life has taken a drastic hit as residents spend over two hours a day stuck on a road system that has barely changed in 30 years, leaving them little time to do anything else. In fact, the only list we're on is "America's Worst Traffic." Huntsville's become a miniature Atlanta-- but even that city now has better traffic.

Only then do we think about a transit system, but public/political pressure makes planners hastily design it without enough thought/public input. It takes years to get through government red tape and funding issues, and when it's finally introduced after millions of taxpayer dollars are spent, it's a "bus to nowhere"; few ride it because it still doesn't go where they need to go...

Definitely a worst-case scenario. The only thing I wasn't exaggerating about was the population projection. It's not a good idea to have a million-plus metro and no public transit. It's also not a good idea not to plan for transit after we really need it. Huntsville's growing, but our traffic problems aren't of epic proportions yet; so now's the perfect time to do something about it!

Here's what we can do today, without too much money being spent:
  1. Create a Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), an appointed/elected transit board with representatives from cities and counties in Madison, Limestone, and Morgan Counties (eventually expanding to Marshall, Lincoln, and Jackson). Give it a catchy name, something like the "Valley Regional Transit Authority" (VRTA). The RTA would oversee operations like fixed-route bus service, paratransit (Handi-Ride), RideShare/Park-and-rides, etc. within the region. Need an example? Take a look at Chattanooga's RTA, CARTA. A website like theirs might help too.
  2. Make a plan. The key to success for an efficient, well-run transit system in the Huntsville-Decatur region is comprehensive short- and long-range transit plans. Like the Long-Range Transportation Plan is to roads in the area, these would be a "road map," so to speak, for transit projects over the next 5 and 30 years, created by the RTA with lots of public input from throughout the region. Find out where people go frequently; for example, if a lot of people commute from the Winchester Road corridor to downtown, plan accordingly. The plans would include the feasibility of increased bus service and commuter rail, among other options.
  3. Start over. Using the plan, begin a "reboot" of the transit system. Drop all of the old routes, use the money to add new, more efficient ones, and as demand permits, begin looking into rush-hour express bus service between Decatur, Athens, and elsewhere to major employment areas like Research Park.
I tried to not be too specific, as this is only to serve as a foundation. I'm sure if you've read this far, you have your own ideas for where a Huntsville-area transit system needs to go.