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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.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Public projects moving forward

There might not be a lot of activity with commercial development right now, but the government is a buildin'! Four major public projects are beginning construction in the next couple of months:

VBC Concert Hall (Mark Smith Concert Hall): A $5 million expansion/renovation/makeover which will include new seats, a new sound system, a renovated lobby, and a new exterior. Construction Start: October. Completion: Summer 2010.

VBC Arena (Propst Arena): A $15 million renovation, including new bathrooms, concession areas (with a new cafe/bar with outdoor seating), and skyboxes. Construction start and completion are similar to the Concert Hall renovations.

Huntsville Museum of Art: A scaled-down expansion of the decade-old museum. The $7 million expansion includes new gallery space, an auditorium, and new entrances on the park and Williams Street sides of the museum. Bid date: September 24th. Construction start: November. Completion: 2011.

Lee High School: A new high school for Northeast Huntsville. The new school will be across the railroad tracks from the current one; if you've driven down Meridian lately, you've probably noticed the land has already been cleared. Bid date: October 15. Construction start: November. Completion: Opening by the 2011-2012 school year, maybe sooner.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Passenger Rail Coming to Huntsville?

There was an interesting article in Sunday's Montgomery Advertiser. It seems there is some interest in bringing intercity passenger rail service back to several Alabama cities. Since Katrina, Amtrak has run only one route, the Crescent, through the state, stopping at stations in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Anniston on the way between New Orleans and New York. Amtrak has shown interest in bringing back service between Mobile and Birmingham, a route that ran as the Gulf Breeze between 1989 and 1995. It would be part of a plan to increase Amtrak service in the Southeast region, which the rail company believes is "underserved."

According to the Advertiser, a state passenger rail plan is being developed using stimulus funds by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA). In most states, the state DOT performs this study, but ALDOT legally can't do it, as seen with a proposed regional feasibility study of a high-speed rail line between Atlanta and New Orleans. Thank your state Constitution of 1901 for that bit of ignorance.

So, what would this mean for Huntsville? According to Huntsville's long-term transportation plan, there have been preliminary studies on introducing a Huntsville-Birmingham passenger rail service. But they were done back when Amtrak wasn't doing too great financially, and wasn't looking to expand service. Maybe now they would be more eager to start such a route. A north-south passenger rail service through the state could also be extended to Nashville, another city that currently lacks Amtrak service.

And here's another idea-- you know that "Memphis-Huntsville-Atlanta highway" pipe dream that's never going to get built? How about looking into an electrified high-speed freight/passenger rail line between the three cities? It would be cheaper, more fuel-efficient, and faster than a highway. Think about it: right now, it takes about 4 hours to (legally) get from Huntsville to Atlanta via highway. A direct highway would get you there in about 2 1/2, if you don't get stuck in traffic. A high-speed rail line, even with a low average speed of 85 mph, could make the trip in less than 2 hours-- and no traffic.

Finally, a little bit of trivia: the last time there was regular passenger rail service to Huntsville was in 1968. However, an Amtrak service called the Floridian stopped in Decatur until 1979.

More info:
Southern High Speed Rail Commission
Federal Railroad Administration: Passenger Rail

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.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Looking Elsewhere...

Well, it's been a slow couple of weeks in Huntsville's urban development (it's always like this this time of year), so I thought we might look at what other cities in the region are doing:

Nashville's Gulch district is having trouble filling 800 condos built in the district in the past few years, according to The Tennessean. Despite TIF District improvements and its proximity to downtown, Music Row, and the West End (Nashville's Medical District), nothing could stop the recession; only 165 condos have sold in the three largest high-rise projects. However, it has had some success in bringing restaurants, clubs, and retail. Some familiar names, like Cantina Laredo and Urban Outfitters, have opened up shop there in the past year.

Those looking for more Sweetwater-type mega-developments might be interested in May Town Center, a project struggling to get approval from Nashville's planning board, partly because of access issues to the project, which will be surrounded on three sides by the Cumberland River. Another reason for the opposition is that it will be located in Bells Bend, a mostly agricultural area that is one of the last major open spaces left in Davidson County.

Chattanooga has 1-up-ped us again. A Monaco-style 12-screen movie theater is under construction downtown to replace the Bijou, a theater built during the first revitalization about 20 years ago. RiverCity Company, a non-profit organization responsible for much of Chattanooga's rebirth (Huntsville has tried to imitate its success with an organization called Big Spring Partners. Never heard of them? Exactly.) is developing the project along with Carmike Cinemas.

Birmingham is looking at building a downtown ballpark (sound familiar?) for the Barons, who currently play at Regions Park in Hoover. A development company is looking at the site near Railroad Park for the new stadium.