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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Transit planning, revisited

The Times on Sunday ran a story about the state of public transportation in the city. By 2011, federal operating assistance for the Shuttle will disappear, making the city the only source for funding, thanks to a state constitutional amendment that prohibits transit funding and a state Department of Transportation that publicly supports that law. The article incorrectly stated that the average commute time for Madison County is 18 minutes; according to the Census Bureau, in 2007, the average commute time for Madison County was 20.5 minutes, for the Huntsville-Decatur region, 24.25 minutes. By comparison, New York County, NY-- Manhattan-- has a average commuter time of 30.5 minutes. An editorial by John Peck had some interesting statistics. Nearly half (45%) of transit embarkments are in Northwest Huntsville; 30% in Southwest. Only 40% of riders are commuters, according to a city survey.

And last night, developer Doug Gooch did his pitch to the Madison City Council for their support on his light rail plan. For those who need to refresh their memory, here's my blog post about it from a few months ago.

People, I cannot stress this enough. The lack of reliable, convenient public transit is a city problem that needs a regional solution, and I don't mean just Madison County. It also won't be solved behind closed doors by some developer or a group of "civic leaders." And as long as transit is run only by the city of Huntsville, it will remain the "empty bus to nowhere." For transit to be truly successful here, there will need to be a planned regional system in place, and it will need to involve everybody, from mayors/councilmen/commissioners from every sizable town and county in the area, to the average rush hour commuter, to even college students and teenagers. Any less than that, and it will fail.

But first, like I've said before, we need a comprehensive regional transit plan. A regional transit plan would give the region specific alternatives to expanding roads and explore all the options and their costs. Some cities include this "Transportation Alternatives Study" in their long-range transportation plan (LRTP). Huntsville's 2030 LRTP has a section for public transit, but it fails to provide specific plans or options-- it basically says the area might need more in the future. We're due for an updated LRTP in the next year or so. Need some ideas?
  • Birmingham, for all its faults, has a neat transit plan. The Regional Transit Improvement Strategy was completed five years ago. It includes alternatives and costs for transit improvements for major corridors in the Birmingham region.
  • Chattanooga is currently developing an alternatives study, which will be included in their 2035 LRTP. This page gives a good summary of what a region the size of Huntsville's should be looking into for future plans, including: bike/pedestrian accessibility, local and express bus service, even an eventual rail transit system.
  • Atlanta has a very comprehensive transportation plan, part of a larger regional plan called "Envision6"-- the 6 is for the projected 6 million residents of the metro area. While we're not envisioning 6 anytime soon (more like 1), it's cool to look at all of the options available. And they looked at just about everything.
All of the cities I listed above have strong regional planning councils who coordinate transportation and land-use planning, among other government functions, in their respective areas. Huntsville and Decatur should seriously look into getting one of these.


Anonymous said...

Complete waste of time and money.

Very few people will give up the freedom and flexibility of driving to ride on a crowded, dirty bus or train.

Look at Birmingham, Chattanooga, Mobile, etc. No one who owns a car in those cities uses public transportation.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Huntsville, but now live in Washington, DC. I'm an avid supporter of mass transit, and it works great in cities like New York and DC, which have high population densities. I live 8 blocks from the subway here, I use it everyday.

I'm just not sure if Huntsville has the density necessary to support mass transit beyond buses. Driving in Huntsville is pretty convenient for most people, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

James said...

@Anonymous #1: Crowded and dirty? Been on a bus or a train lately? And do you know everyone who owns a home in BHM, CHA, and MOB? Before you start making generalizations, know what you're talking about.

@Anonymous #2: I agree that Huntsville can't support more than a bus-transit system right now. But considering that our current growth rates put Huntsville at 1 million-plus in about 30 years, the lack of road funding, and the amount of federal red tape we'll have to get through for a mass-transit system, it's in our best interest to start planning for one now.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest maybe focus on widing research park blvd and other highway improvements. Folks from decatur might take public transportation into huntsville, but i would doubt it would be generally worth the cost as most jobs here are really good high paying jobs.
I would agree about birmingham, chattanooga, and mobile...if i was in any of these cities i would drive myself 100%

James said...

@Anonymous #3: Building mass transit, such as a light rail or commuter rail line, is much cheaper and more sustainable than road expansion. A light rail line and a 6-lane urban freeway have about the same capacity; the light rail line would cost between $25-35 million per mile, while a mile of the freeway would cost $100 million. Which one would you pick? Unless you're ignorant, flush with money, or ALDOT, I think you would pick the light rail line.

Jordan said...

I think a park-and-ride bus system that follows arterial roads is an ideal short-term solution. Imagine how many cars could be taken off of Hwy. 53, Research Park Blvd, Memorial Parkway, and other local thoroughfares if there were even something as simple as a bus running from these locations to Research Park and Redstone Arsenal.

It seems so simple! But the most productive bus routes wouldn't lie completely within the city of Huntsville. Somehow, we have to get past this hurdle. I'm not quite sure how, because it seems like local government (and people like Anonymous) are interested only in preserving the status quo. How do we get things moving in a more productive direction?

By the way, if you've never commuted by bus before, you're missing out on some great benefits like having extra time to read or work and no stressful drive. Imagine... buses with Wi-Fi... now there's a good idea...

Cody said...

I believe the key to this system, initially, will be the light rail connection between Research Park/Bridge Street and Redstone Arsenal. If there is some way to secure a train that takes people onto the arsenal, and if MSFC and the Army provide a way for people to get from the stations on the arsenal to their destinations, then a light rail line would take many cars off the road around the I-565/Research Park Blvd interchange and Gate 9 of the arsenal. The system can be expanded from there.

I fear that the funding will not be in place not only to build the system, but also to maintain it.

Mari said...

This is an excellent idea, and I'm all for it after my stepmother explained it to me. She works for the Huntsville Times and gave me some insight...

She says the problem is that Huntsville, Redstone and Madison cannnot agree with eachother. No one wants to commit first...Redstone has said it will commit to the light rail system idea once Huntsville and Madison do it first. but we all know how Redstone has a history of not being a team player and messing up really good ideas just because they can *coughMemphisHuntsvilleAtlantaSuperhighwaycough*....So basicly, Huntsville and Madison are refusing to commit to this plan without Redstone being on board first, since they're so finicy in the first place and will most likey back out.

She said that according to the federal transportation stimulus thingy, everything will be paid for, including the preliminary studies..the only thing we have to pay for is half the cost of each train car. Everyone should just get over themselves and dive in! What a great opporitunity we're messing up for ourselves! I just can't watch us throw away such a great step foward. This could be a good starting point for a light rail system that could connect ALOT of the huntsville areas in a few years! Now if only we could get those dumb yuppies out of their massive hummer SUVs and into the rail cars....

James said...

Huntsville and Madison seem to be getting along a lot better these days, at least better than the Spencer/Kirkindall days. A regional transit system is closer to reality now than it ever has been. Let's just do it right the first time.

We must not forget that our region doesn't include just Huntsville, Madison, and Redstone Arsenal. We'll end up right back to where we are now.