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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Updated Transportation Plan Coming

The Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP), updated every five years, literally maps out the transportation needs of the Huntsville Urbanized Area (most of Madison and East Limestone Counties) for the next 25 years. A draft (.pdf file) can be found on the city's website. Hundreds of projects are listed, from pedestrian crossings to eight-lane freeways.

The 13-mile Southern Bypass is still in the plan, despite being rejected earlier this year by the Army because of post-9/11 security issues. The estimated cost of the highway is approximately $550 million, or about $42 million per mile. The irony of the bypass is that it is predicted to increase traffic congestion in many cases, as shown by these maps in the LRTP:

With Southern Bypass:
Without Southern Bypass:
These maps use the V/C (traffic Volume/road Capacity) Ratio to predict future congestion points.

Out of the 109 road projects explicitly listed in the LRTP, only a handful would be beneficial to the region as a whole; the other hundred or so could be avoided with cheaper options, mainly stricter land-use planning, but also expanded transit and ITS (explained below). Here's eight of the more beneficial projects:
  1. Winchester Road- widen to 4 lanes to the Tennessee state line. This would provide a safe main route for an area that doesn't currently have one. Estimated Cost: $33 million.
  2. 72 East- upgrade to expressway standards to Brock Road (Madison County High School). This would minimize the entrances to a highway where people already drive at freeway speeds, plus provide a complete east-west route through Huntsville. Estimated Cost: >$85 million.
  3. Memorial Parkway- an uninterrupted expressway from Hazel Green to the Tennessee River. This would provide a complete north-south route through the city. Estimated Cost: >$400 million.
  4. Improvements to either Wall-Triana Highway or Zierdt Road. This project would provide a main route for SW Madison County. If either of these roads were extended a little further to include a (tolled?) bridge over the Tennessee River, it could also be used as a cheaper alternative to Southern Bypass. Estimated Cost: ~$20 million for either, excluding bridge.
  5. Widen/extend I-565 between Wall-Triana and Decatur. Anyone who has driven this during rush hour knows why this needs to be done. Estimated Cost: $34 million to widen to 65.
  6. 72 West- restrict entrances, widen to 6 lanes to Athens. Estimated Cost: $30 million to Mooresville Road.
  7. AL 53- widen to 4 lanes to Ardmore. Provides a main route for NW Madison County and points north. Estimated Cost: $100 million
  8. AL 255- extend expressway to North Parkway, eventually to Winchester and 72, with interchanges at AL53, Pulaski, Mt. Lebanon, and the Parkway. This could eventually provide an alternate route to I-565/72 East in case of construction, weather, or traffic. Estimated Cost: $85 million for 4-lane service roads.
But enough about roads. Here's what the plan says about other forms of transportation:


The LRTP assumes that the Shuttle will remain a Huntsville-only entity, providing no regional bus service. It calls for new bus routes to the Airport, Arsenal/MSFC, and Blossomwood, along with extended service hours and shorter turnarounds (time between buses), plus more paratransit service for the aging population. And that's about it.

So according to this plan, in 2035, Huntsville's metro will be approaching a million people, but there'll only be 16 bus routes that might run on nights and weekends and not outside the city limits. Where is the imagination that thought of the 109 "necessary" road projects, where money was obviously not an obstacle in planning them? Surely we could do the same in transit planning.

There is a glimmer of hope for a more comprehensive transit plan, as the LRTP states that a "Huntsville Public Transportation Study" will be performed "sometime in the future." Problem is, there's no way of telling when this will happen (as this was also stated in the 2005 LRTP) or if it will be a regional effort.

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS)

Say you're creeping along on 565 and you're thinking to yourself, "Wouldn't it be great to know why I'm going 25 on the Interstate?" Sure, you could unplug your iPod and turn on the radio, but who wants to believe a guy named "Captain" or "Commander" broadcasting from the "Hardee's Traffic Center" in Birmingham? In most cities, Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) allow motorists to get more accurate traffic info from several sources.

What is ITS? It's a complex network of traffic cameras, dynamic message signs (DMS), speed meters, etc., that are connected to a central Traffic Management Center (TMC). From there, the people who monitor the system can notify emergency workers and drivers of accidents, construction, and weather hazards through DMS, websites, radio, and the "511" travel information hotline (available in many states, but not Alabama).

ITS networks have been constructed in Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery, and Tuscaloosa. So, what about Huntsville? Back in 2005, the city of Huntsville sponsored a comprehensive study of possible ITS components and their usefulness. It called for the installation of up to 60 cameras, 11 DMS signs, and a traffic website-- all before 2008. Furthermore, it discussed launching a 511 system for the region before 2015, plus coordination/tracking systems for public transit and a way to remotely shut down the 565 "urban overpass" in case of emergency or weather. The cost for the entire plan was estimated to be between $40 and $65 million, or the cost of building about a mile of the Southern Bypass.

In 2006, Huntsville launched its new traffic website with a camera installed at the intersection of Governors and Monroe; others were installed at University and Jordan, and most recently at Moores Mill and 72. But it seems that for most of the time, the cameras are down for "maintenance." Plus, having only three cameras city-wide doesn't provide you (or other interested parties, such as emergency workers) with reliable traffic information.

The LRTP calls for the ITS plan to be fully implemented, pending funding of course.

Greenways/Pedestrian Access

Greenways are a bright spot in Huntsville's otherwise dismal and vacant selection of alternative transportation options. Huntsville currently has six greenways partially completed, with three more under construction: the Indian Creek Greenway on the west side near Providence, and two portions of what is to become the Flint River Greenway in Hampton Cove. Madison is about to begin construction on the Bradford Creek Greenway. "Share the Road" signs have been posted throughout the city in the past year as part of an ongoing campaign to educate the public about bike safety.

About 120 miles of bike routes, greenways, and trails are proposed in a 2006 plan. The LRTP supports this plan, along with an expansion of designated bike routes throughout the county and the inclusion of wide shoulders/bike lanes in new road construction. (Why can't we be this ambitious on transit planning?)

The LRTP also puts a great emphasis on pedestrian walkability. About 100 small projects, from building crosswalks to narrowing streets, are listed.

Passenger Rail

The LRTP summarizes the current nationwide High-Speed Rail Network promoted by the Obama administration earlier this year. No passenger rail has been proposed for Huntsville, and though service has been discussed in the past to Nashville and Birmingham, it has all been clearly theoretical. The closest seriously-proposed lines are a New Orleans-Birmingham-Atlanta line, discussed further in the LRTP, and a Maglev route between the Chattanooga and Atlanta airports.

In conclusion, this transportation plan continues to be politically-motivated, and will only create more unsustainable sprawl (what our political leaders call "growth"). That's why I think the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the government entity that approves the plan, should be separated from the city of Huntsville, with its own full-time planning staff dedicated to regional, comprehensive land-use and transportation planning.


Anonymous said...

Contrary to popular belief, bigger roads don't relieve congestion, they create it. All one has to do is look to Atlanta or Los Angeles as proof.

Anonymous said...

"About 120 miles of bike routes, greenways, and trails are proposed in a 2006 plan. The LRTP supports this plan, along with an expansion of designated bike routes throughout the county and the inclusion of wide shoulders/bike lanes in new road construction. (Why can't we be this ambitious on transit planning?)"

At a meeting a couple of months ago with city bike planners, I learned that there is actually a percentage of ALDOT road funding that is legally designated for bike lanes, and that all state roads are supposed to have a couple of feet of shoulder. The state has largely ignored this designation until now, when they are being "encouraged" by the government to do the right thing with that money. So we should finally see more bikeable roads soon.

Also, after living in Minneapolis, where a light rail system was installed, I fully support any effort to implement it here. People said the same thing then, "oh, it's politically motivated," especially since it was then-governor Jesse Ventura who pushed the plan through. But now, with the line running from the suburbs through downtown, linking such traffic-critical places as the MSP international airport, the Mall of America, the Metrodome and the new Twins stadium, not to mention all the businesses in between, it has drastically reduced traffic problems on game days and some of the daily commuters who use park and ride facilities. As Huntsville grows, as we expect it to do, this would only help, not hurt us.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Huntsville's fabulous greenway plan remains mostly a fantasy and there's little chance of that changing. A mile here and a mile there isn't a greenway system, especially when those systems don't provide corridors to get around the city. It's great that Hampton Cove is getting a extension to its 100% recreational greenway, but how about extending it over the mountain and into Huntsville? Why are we not prioritizing connecting the in-town regions to encourage bike commuting and more walking?

Plus we need a lightrail system, and we need to start now, not wait until is gets more difficult and prohibitively expensive to retrofit the city. You only need to look at cities like Sacramento to see what impact a well-thought out park & ride lightrail system can bring.

Many of the rail lines in Huntsville are woefully underused, and in most places the owners of those cargo rail lines are happy to get paid to share them up to passenger rail.

Spending money encouraging more and more suburban tract homes in the outlying regions is utterly foolish. Huntsville has many poor examples in other cities to look at to show the long term pain it causes.

Anonymous said...

For all the accolades, studies, high rankings on lists, Huntsville really does very little in the form of transportation or creating a dynamic environment outside of technology which is extremely important. I guess I figured we would be much further along.

nothing but "net" said...

high speed rail from nashville to birmingham then to atlanta/n.o. would be biblical!!!!

Cody said...

Did anyone notice that the routing of the Southern Bypass changed in this plan? It is routed away from the main office complexes inside Redstone. Instead of following Rideout Road into the arsenal, it follows Jordan Ln/Patton Road due south, and returns to its former alignment close to the Patton Road/Neal Road intersection. I wonder if that routing would be acceptable due to its proximity to the barracks. The routing also comes a bit close to some of the office buildings.

Anonymous said...

+1 NicoleC.

Huntsville needs some density to make public transportation economically feasible. I cringe at the sprawl-promoting billboards that exclaim, "Drive 8 miles to save $80,000!"

James said...

The Times has an article this morning about the route change to the Southern Bypass ("Patriot Parkway") that Cody mentioned earlier. Looks like ALDOT is now going to kill two birds with one stone: create a highway that will only increase congestion and pollution, and take out the blighted neighborhoods along Jordan in the process. Makes you feel patriotic, doesn't it?

Link: http://blog.al.com/breaking/2009/12/new_patriot_parkway_route_foll.html