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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 72 West- restrict entrances, widen to 6 lanes to Athens. Estimated Cost: $30 million to Mooresville Road.
- AL 53- widen to 4 lanes to Ardmore. Provides a main route for NW Madison County and points north. Estimated Cost: $100 million
- 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.
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 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.
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.