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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.


Cody said...

One key to the success of this is if Redstone Arsenal would cooperate with the plan and allow buses to pass through the gates quickly. Of course, something would have to be in place to maintain security, but I think any transit system in Huntsville will have to include something that interfaces with Redstone Arsenal. The buses could run up to the gates, and let people out to cross through where there would be a turnstile that would only allow entry when someone passes their badge over a card reader. Then, on the arsenal side of the gate, their own bus or rail system would take workers to their destinations.

Anonymous said...

"Its extent/hours are limited."

Bingo! I would happily spend up to $5/workday to not have to use my car, but I often work 9-hour days making the bus system simply impossible for me.

I think the problem was the bus system was designed for tourists and not workers, which is a shame. There is a stop near where I live and not too far from where I work, but I must drive past it everyday or I'd be stranded at the end of the day.

James said...

@ Cody: You're exactly right about having the Arsenal on board with the transit system, though I think it would be great if buses were able to bypass the gates using dedicated lanes and disembark at a central station within. Security issues notwithstanding, the buses would have the "advantage" of being able to breeze past gate traffic.

@ Anonymous: I get the feeling that there are lots of people in Huntsville who feel the same way.

Anonymous said...

I'd be happy to take mass transit of any form if it was even remotely convenient. The problem as I see it is the lack of direct non-stop/few-stop routes.

The bus routes ought to mesh together more smoothly. There ought to be direct routes from various high-traffic areas of the city, with separate local in-neighborhood routes that do nothing other than support the local direct route bus stop.

For example: Many people commute from east Huntsville (Hampton Cove) to Research Park. There ought to be a bus terminal in the area of Sutton Rd./431 which is served by local buses that run relatively short routes through various neighborhoods with many stops. A commuter would wait for the bus at the nearest stop in his neighborhood. That bus would take him to the Sutton/431 terminal. From there, the commuter would wait for the next express bus to the Research Park terminal. From there, he would get on the local bus route.

This would be similar to the way that many cities use their bus routes to support metro/light rail systems.

Bottom line, no one wants to spend an absurd amount of time taking circuitous routes to work - and very often, the reliability/wait for connections is unreasonable. Shortening the local routes and connecting terminals with express buses would address those problems.

Cost would be somewhat higher, but dramatically cheaper than building a road network to support short-lived periods of peak use. It's much easier to add bus routes than widen roads.

The most important aspect is scale. My plan would require costs be no more than driving, and comparable transit times, but overall RELIABILITY - which means it couldn't be done in half-measures. Tiptoeing into it will only create problems and thereby negative associations with buses. Go big, or don't go at all.