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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.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Resurrecting the Huntsville Streetcar

With the news this past week that Huntsville is going forward with a $2.6 million tramway to nowhere that will probably serve only a few tourists a day and have no impact on the average citizen's commute, I thought I would indulge you with a little Huntsville transit history. Did you know that, for about 20 years, Huntsville had a mass transit system? And people actually used it?

  Early 1900s streetcar in downtown Huntsville. Source: Wikimedia/Huntsville-Madison County Public Library

From 1901 to 1931, Huntsville had two streetcars that connected Dallas Mill, Five Points, Downtown, and Merrimack. But sadly, like most streetcar systems in the US that existed in the early 20th Century, it folded because of the Great Depression (and the push led by "what's good for America" General Motors to acquire and replace streetcar lines with their buses, but that happened after Huntsville's line was gone).

Today, dozens of cities have built or are building streetcar lines once again. Some, like Little Rock and Memphis, have built New Orleans-style "heritage streetcar" lines that use refurbished streetcars from the early 20th Century. Other cities, like Portland, have constructed "modern streetcar" lines that are sleeker, more comfortable, and somewhat faster than the streetcars of old. Let's think for a minute about how, or if, the Huntsville Streetcar can be reborn in a city that's now 15 times the size it was when the line last operated. Here's my idea:

Full Map (click to enlarge)


Five Points (station placement example)

Fast Facts:
Length: 5.9 miles
Time: 25-30 minutes end-to-end
Frequency: every 10-20 minutes, seven days a week, from 6AM (8AM Saturdays and Sundays)-10PM (12AM Fridays and Saturdays)

Streetcars would run mostly in the inside lane of both directions of traffic. Since much of the route is on five-lane roads, two lanes would be used for streetcars, two lanes would remain exclusive to vehicular traffic, with bike lanes or widened sidewalks on each side and landscaped medians between platforms. Station platforms, 100 feet in length and spaced approximately 1/3 mile apart, would be put in between the tracks, accessible by pedestrian crosswalks at signalized intersections, and would have amenities like well-designed shelters that blend with the surrounding neighborhood, message boards showing the time until the next streetcar, and ticket vending machines.

Several of the stations would have park-and-ride lots. This would serve a double purpose of permitting denser, mixed-use transit-oriented development (TOD) in the immediate vicinity of the stations and freeing up surface parking in the CBD to be put to better use.

Note that the line would end at Gate 8 (Goss Road) at Redstone Arsenal. From there, riders could walk through the gate and enter the base, possibly transferring to a circulator bus. Streetcar line extensions could eventually be built along Church Street to the main bus terminal, Madison Street/Whitesburg and Governors to the Medical District/Lowe Mill, and Meridian Street to Lincoln Mill.


Streetcars are dangerous. Only if you're dumb enough to run into one. 99.9% of the time, streetcars stay in their lane, aren't subject to road rage, and go no faster than the speed limit. Imagine what a wonderful world it would be if car drivers were the same way (myself included).

Streetcars are costly. Not as expensive as your favorite highway, but yes, they are more expensive and less flexible than buses. Streetcars have lower maintenance costs and have a longer lifespan than their gas-powered counterparts, and they emit zero emissions. Streetcars bring more investment to surrounding neighborhoods, raising property values and the overall look, starting with the streets. Also of note: The Infrastructurist has 36 reasons streetcars are better than buses.

Huntsville is not dense enough to support any kind of rail transit. It's the "chicken or the egg" question of transit planning: What comes first: the transit or the density? If you build the transit infrastructure first, people might not ride it in large numbers, but TOD opportunities abound. But if you wait for an area to become "dense enough" for transit, you run the risk of the project becoming prohibitively expensive, such as in acquiring rights-of-way.

Why not put a streetcar line in Research Park? Nobody works downtown. A streetcar line in Research Park would be a tough sell considering that its streets aren't linear, and the opportunities for non-office transit oriented development would be few. The lack of a real residential component within Research Park (and commercial outside of Bridge Street) would make the streetcar effective only during daytime working hours. Why build a streetcar system if it's only effective for 9 hours a day, 5 days a week? Research Park needs better transit, but probably in the form of high-frequency circulator buses that run to University Drive and Bridge Street. Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods have the right street pattern and the 24-hour population to support a streetcar line. And did you know that the Downtown/Medical District workforce tops 30,000, as much as both Research Parks combined? The residential population surrounding the line was at 25,000 in 2000, the latest data available for specific neighborhoods.

A Cheaper Alternative?

If the $30-50 million per mile cost of a streetcar line is too much to risk, let's first give Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) a try. It would run on the same capacity and infrastructure (minus the rails), but would be about half the cost. However, studies of redevelopment/TOD potential along BRT lines have been mostly inconclusive, as it is a relatively new technology in the United States. Eugene, Oregon, a city similar in size to Huntsville, built a 4-mile, $24 million BRT line three years ago. Another Huntsville-like city, Fort Collins, Colorado, is constructing an $80 million, 5 mile BRT route starting this year, which is eerily familiar to the idea I'm proposing. For more info, check out Fort Collins' Economic Analysis Report on the BRT route.

Should we build it, and if so, when will it happen?

The Huntsville urban streetcar/BRT line should be a long-range goal of a greater regional transit system, to get to "hard-to-reach" neighborhoods that might not be well-served by other modes of mass transit offered (except for fixed-route regular buses). Because of this, smooth connections should be made to any future bus and rail routes.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jefferson Place: Office Redevelopment Downtown

The Hale Brothers Furniture building on Jefferson Street is finally being renovated. Sidewalk barriers are now up for "Jefferson Place," which will include mostly offices, but we can't rule out the possibility of ground-floor space for retail and restaurants (I've always thought this would be a great place for a bookstore and/or a coffee shop).

The Hale Brothers building has sat vacant for about a decade. Within that time, various ideas about reusing the building came and went, including renovating it into fifteen condos or apartments, a microbrewery, and a new downtown home for Sci-Quest.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Non-attainment": What It Really Means for Huntsville

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed lowering the ground-level ozone standard from the current .075 ppm (parts per million) to .070 ppm or even .065 ppm. Areas that don't meet these new standards will be designated as "non-attainment" areas. Madison and Morgan counties are projected to not meet these new standards, with 3-year averages (2006-2008) of .078ppm and .076ppm respectively. Even with a record-low 2009 average of .066ppm for Madison County, the 3-year average is still at .074ppm. These proposed levels are not final, however; the official EPA designations will be announced on March 12, 2011. 

If the proposed levels are approved, here are some possible consequences of non-attainment for Huntsville:
  • Higher energy costs. As the Times pointed out, while a TVA coal power plant near Florence might be 70 miles away, it still affects the air quality of the region. TVA might have to make significant and costly improvements to the plant, in turn raising energy costs for all of us.
  • Emissions testing for automobiles. 
  • Lower speed limits, especially on 565. The 70 mph speed limit we all enjoy (and break) all the way to downtown will probably be lowered to the 55-60 mph limit seen on most urban interstates.
  • Transportation conformity plans for new roads. While these are costly and time consuming, they would ensure that a new road project would not have a negative impact on the region's air quality. In other words, a new road that increases congestion won't get federal/state funding. (Adios, Patriot Parkway.) This will hopefully put a greater emphasis on better transit and pedestrian/bike access on congested corridors.
  • Better land-use plans. While the Times makes it sound like "growth" will come to a standstill once we reach non-attainment, that is not true. Unhealthy growth (sprawl) will continue to happen, but at a slower pace. Expect smarter growth practices throughout Madison County, with more land preserved for greenspace and better, more walkable mixed-use designs for neighborhoods.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Look Ahead: 2010

Another year, another decade. So, what can we expect? Here's my 2nd annual list of predictions. Let me repeat, these are predictions. While they are educated guesses from hard facts, they should not be taken too seriously; someone last year didn't understand that, got scared, and one of the predictions made it onto a local TV newscast.

Downtown/Center City
Several projects will begin to take shape downtown this year. The VBC renovations will open in the summer. Parking Garage D on the corner of Holmes and Greene will begin construction in the spring, possibly along with the adjacent apartment building. The Madison County Veterans Memorial in what was once Gateway Park will open around Veterans Day. And last, but not least, serious construction on Constellation could start sometime, and since all the previous official estimates have turned out to be wrong, let's just say... February.

Just on the fringes of the CBD, Lowe and Lincoln will continue with their promising revitalizations. 

Research Park

More office buildings! (Didn't see that one coming, did you?) Serious construction will get underway on Bridge Street's second office building, which will look identical to the first.

The new Madison Hospital is the only project that is definitely getting off the ground this year. One commercial project has a pretty good chance this year: Madison Lakes. I have my doubts over Colonial Promenade and Waterstone starting anytime soon.

East Huntsville
About the only project that might get going out that way this year is Harris Hill, but even that's iffy. Besides a couple of outparcel restaurants, don't expect anything big to open this year.

Huntsville's sustainability plan will come out early this year, and some of its short term recommendations will be put in place. On a related note, Huntsville will join the growing list of cities using the successful Complete Streets and SmartCode planning methods. The results from the 2010 Census should greatly enlarge the Huntsville metropolitan area from its official current Madison/Limestone setup. More on that when the census forms are sent out in March.

The Year of the Grocer
Yes, I've declared 2010 the "Year of the Grocer", and here's why. Kroger may announce its most aggressive expansion in years; even if not, its new store at 72 and Jeff will open late this year. Despite them being the top traditional grocery in the market, don't expect any new Publix stores this year; they have pretty much saturated Madison County. EarthFare will open its new store in the old Circuit City on University sometime in the spring. ALDI will hopefully find us on a map and build a couple of stores (probably 2-3) here. The Birmingham Business Journal in November reported that Save-A-Lot is looking at building up to 100 stores in Alabama, a drastic increase from the current 19. A "green grocer" is expected to be announced for Constellation-- could be Greenlife out of Chattanooga.