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Rocket City considers future of mass transit as population rises

HUNTSVILLE – The City of Huntsville recently announced it received a grant from the Federal Transit Administration to be part of a pilot program study for a bus rapid transit corridor.

Implementation of a bus rapid transit (BRT) system will require a heavy commitment from  the city and residents since it would require lanes dedicated to the sole use of transit buses. For nine miles, inner city. It would also signal Huntsville’s continuous transformation from a “little big charming Southern city” to big league territory.

After all, Alabama’s largest populated city is adding citizens by the day.

But also know this: Though the study begins this summer with a report due in about a year, any changes in the local transit system to incorporate BRT won’t happen in the near future.

“We’re talking four or five years before we’re ever actually realizing this,” said Dennis Madsen, manager of Urban and Long Range Planning for the city, adding the timeframe is an aggressive estimate.

While bus rapid transit has been in use for more than five decades around the world, the study will examine unique prospects for residential and mixed-use growth catering to essential workers, students and families.

BRT is a high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast and efficient service that may include dedicated lanes, busways, traffic signal priority, off-board fare collection, elevated platforms and enhanced stations.

According to the Department of Transportation, BRT has advanced throughout the U.S. in the last decade as congestion has increased and community leaders have sought affordable transit alternatives. BRT systems operate in big cities like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, and is growing in popularity among mid-sized metropolitan areas like Eugene, Oregon, and Cleveland.

Because BRT contains features similar to a light rail or subway system, it is often considered more reliable, convenient and faster than regular bus services. With the right features, BRT is able to avoid the delays that can slow regular bus services, like being stuck in traffic and queuing to pay on board.

Huntsville’s study will emphasize three key areas along University Drive with the greatest potential for Transit-Oriented Development — Northwoods, University of Alabama in Huntsville and MidCity. Huntsville was among 22 communities selected for the study with a central theme of addressing affordability and policies tailored to supporting diverse housing options.

In an interview with 256 Today, Madsen painted a broad picture of the study:

  • Chicken and egg
    “One of the challenges in planning for transit is that a lot of times you want to have ridership before you’re willing to make the investment in transit. You want to know that you’ve got riders that you’re actually serving, but it’s also hard to get riders without showing them that transit is actually happening. So there’s a little bit of a kind of a chicken and an egg thing going on there. Do you look at the transit first or look for the riders first? What this does is this helps us really do a chicken and the egg approach.”
  • Worth the investment?
    “While we are currently talking with FTA about how we develop enhanced transit down this corridor, we’re also looking at how do we make sure that as we grow along the corridor we grow in a way that can fully take advantage of that transit. You want to answer existing needs for ridership and you want to build ridership in the future to really make the transit pencil out.”
  • TOD/landowners
    “TOD grant says that if you’re going into areas, let’s make sure there’s a lot of stuff happening at these station areas. Make sure that you have zoning in place to do that, make sure that the landowners there share your vision, make sure that they understand what’s going on. So, really one of our next big steps is to reach out to some of the folks in those key areas.”
  • Stakeholders
    “We’ve talked to a lot of the big stakeholders already like the Huntsville Housing Authority, which has Northwoods and is one of the areas we’re looking at. The University of Alabama in Huntsville actually has signed multiple support letters for improving transit along that corridor, and they’ve got that executive plaza piece on the northern part of their campus. MidCity (District) obviously works very closely with the city and the development of their property. We’ve already engaged them on a number of occasions, but we also want to talk with a lot of the other landowners around there.”
  • Timeframe
    “Implementing transit, especially on a corridor like that, can sometimes take a while. We’re talking about four, maybe five years or even longer before you actually see any kind of transit implemented along that corridor. And that’s a fairly aggressive timeline. This grant represents a lot of the homework that we’re doing. So in the early phases, it’s us meeting with a lot of those property owners and doing public meetings. We anticipate doing a little bit of outreach in terms of explaining what BRT looks like, what the different options are.”
  • Community relations
    “Federal agencies generally like to see what you’ve actually done with that grant that they’ve given you. So, yeah, we’ll work through the timeline. You know, it’s a pretty big corridor even though we’re focusing on those three nodes. It’s a lot of work. But I think a year is probably realistic to at least have a plan and that’s not just something we share with FTA. That’s also something that we share with the community. We want folks to recognize what’s coming. It’s always good for the community to see what’s being planned.”
  • Proactive approach
    “The centerpiece of this, the main reason for doing this, we know growth is gonna continue to happen out here. As UAH grows, as MidCity becomes more popular, you’re only going to see more growth out there. We want to make sure that we’re prepared in advance because it’s easier to do transit implementation before you really need it.”
  • Atlanta, Nashville lessons
    “Look at other communities. You can look at Atlanta, which was not fairly aggressive about growing their transit regionally and (now) struggles to do it. And Nashville, which grew so fast and really struggles to stay in front of their infrastructure. You don’t want to look for bad examples, but you do want to say there are other folks who have made mistakes about planning for growth and we want to make sure we don’t duplicate those mistakes.”

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