Last week, I talked about the possibility of a new "power center" on 72 West in Madison, anchored by Target and Academy Sports. Whether this happens or not, 72 is already a congested corridor, and any new development will exacerbate the problem. It seems like the simplest solution would be to spend $40 million-- a low estimate-- to six-lane 72 all the way to Athens, right? But if you've read the blog for a while, you'll know that I think the solution to traffic congestion isn't that cut-and-dry.
But if you're just joining us, here's my problem with just widening roads: when a road is built or widened, often costing tens of millions of dollars (as in 72's case), developers see the increased capacity and begin building homes. Nothing wrong with that if done intelligently, but they don't stop building, and a couple of years later, the road is congested yet again. (Don't believe me? Look at Chapman Mountain.) It's back to square one, and more taxpayer money is spent on widening the road yet again. Here are some alternate solutions that, when implemented in tandem with widening the highway, might make it worth the big bucks.
1) Better Land Use Planning
One problem with 72 West is the variation in zoning practices along the corridor, from Madison's "strict" zoning to unincorporated Madison County's complete lack of zoning.
A relatively simple but extreme solution would be to impose a building moratorium along the corridor. But from an economic development standpoint, that probably isn't such a good idea, plus it would more than likely move the sprawl elsewhere rather than stop it. A more sensible solution would be to draw up a uniform land-use plan for the corridor that crosses city/county boundaries. Restrict new "greenfield" development (e.g. new single-family homes on existing farmland) while identifying dense, mixed-use and "grayfield" redevelopment opportunities (parking lots, underutilized shopping centers) along the 72 commercial strip.
Whatever is done, every government entity with a stake in the corridor would have to support it. For example, it would still fail if Madison County approved it, but Limestone County didn't. If we had some sort of regional planning authority in place, this would be a whole lot easier to do.
2) Access Management
Why does every business need to have an entrance off this highway? And when that's not enough, there's crossovers every 1000 feet, filled with drivers trying to U-turn and turn left, creating a hazard for those just passing through.
Here's an idea: how about building a one-way service lane on the each side of 72, allowing access to businesses that won't interfere with through traffic, and eliminating all left turns except at traffic lights. Eliminating all crossovers as well should leave just enough space to create an undivided 6-lane highway, or keep the remaining 4 lanes of auto traffic and add either a landscaped median or a dedicated transit lane.
3) Public Transit
As with the rest of Huntsville, high-frequency transit along University is non-existent. A few Shuttle routes go as far out as the SuperTarget shopping center, but are infrequent and inconvenient for most commuters. The ideal transit option along this corridor would need to be something flexible enough to serve both commuters and shoppers. I believe in this case that would be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT allows the frequency of light rail for about a fifth of the cost along with the flexibility of a bus. Passengers board and exit at a station, much like a rail line. But there's a catch: even with a dedicated lane, BRT is still at the mercy of the traffic light, though they can be synchronized to give priority to the bus. Here's how a hypothetical BRT corridor along University would look (click to enlarge):
A transit center/park-n-ride would be built near the new Madison Hospital/Balch Road, where riders from areas farther out could either park or transfer from a local bus route. From there, they could take one of two routes: a Research Park express route that would run primarily during rush hours, or an all day route that would run to downtown, with stops at most major intersections and shopping centers. Buses would run every 10-15 minutes and would be equipped with Wi-Fi and bike racks.
With the new transit corridor, parking won't be as necessary, allowing for redevelopment of many of the large parking lots that line the highway.
There would also need to be serious pedestrian improvements along the corridor, from the addition of sidewalks along the highway (and connecting them to businesses) to crosswalks at every signalized intersection. Greenways can be built near 72 to allow for bike commuting, especially to Research Park.