Elevating the potential for economic development above traffic concerns, Columbus Council voted Tuesday to reduce the number of main travel lanes on a portion of 13th Street from four to two to help revitalize the area.
The plans proposed for 13th Street, from Fifth Avenue to 13th Avenue, passed with an 8 to 2 vote after a lengthy debate at a regular council meeting. Councilors Judy Thomas and Bruce Huff opposed the measure, expressing concerns about the reduction of lanes on a major east-west thoroughfare that accommodates business commuters in Columbus and Phenix City.
Proponents believe reducing lanes, slowing traffic, adding on-street parking and attracting more pedestrians will bring new life to one of the city’s main corridors between midtown and downtown.
Community leaders who spoke in favor of the changes included William Burgin of Jackson Burgin Inc.; Russ Carreker of the Development Authority of Columbus; Ross Horner of Uptown Columbus; and Trip Wade III of Midtown Inc.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson also received a letter from Columbus State University President Chris Markwood sharing his perspective on the changes. Though he stopped short of advocating for the change, he expressed support.
“You already know that 13th Street is a major connector between Columbus State University’s main and RiverPark campuses, and we welcome any changes that would make this thoroughfare safer and more attractive, ” he wrote in the letter. “You may not realize that our shuttle buses between our two campuses travel that road 40 times a day, stopping at the Piggly Wiggly on every trip to allow our students to visit the grocery store.
“It does not appear that these proposed changes would hinder our bus traffic in any way along that road,” the letter continued. “And if there are indeed more businesses that emerge along that corridor, our stop in front of the Piggly Wiggly may be utilized even more frequently.”
Some 13th Street business owners also spoke in favor of the project. Amy Sudduth of Bloomers at Midtown, a garden center located at the corner of 13th Street and 13th Avenue, said the proposal was a major factor in the family’s decision to purchase the building they’ve been leasing for a little over two years.
“One complaint that we do have from customers is that it’s hard to get out of our parking lot once they’re in just because of how fast the traffic is moving,” she said. “We are in support of this proposal; we think it will bring a lot more customers to the area and make all of us in that area more successful.”
A little later, at Green Island Hills, business leaders commended councilors for the decision at a Columbus 2025 meeting hosted by the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
“Council just had a vote on whether they wanted to support this effort and I’m glad to report that they did in a really big way,” said Billy Blanchard, making the announcement to a room full of community movers and shakers. “... It’s a great opportunity for Columbus 2025 to partner with the Department of Transportation, with the city, with MidTown to make sure that while we’re going through this process, let’s not just do things the way they’ve always been done. Let’s take a fresh look at how we do economic development and how we revitalize an area that has been depressed for quite a while.”
Thirteenth Street is part of Spur 22, a state route maintained by the Georgia Department of Transportation. The re-striping will be done as part of a GDOT resurfacing project on Spur 22 from I-185 to Veterans Parkway.
The current configuration of 13th Street from Fifth Avenue to 10th Avenue is seven lanes (six travel lanes and one center turn lane) and from 10th Avenue to 13th Avenue is five lanes (four travel lanes and one center turn lane).
In May 2017, GDOT and the city performed a test to determine the impact of reducing the lanes on the section of 13th Street in partnership with Midtown Inc. Councilors said they received many calls from residents complaining about the changes. But city officials said the results of the test indicated minimal travel time impact.
They said the re-stripping project would be done at no to the city.
But Councilors Thomas and Huff said they still weren’t convinced it is a good idea.
Thomas said she had recently driven all the way to Tallahassee to check out a changes to a road that had been touted as an example of success by a Richard Hall, a Tallahassee-based urban planner and designer.
“I got in my car and drove to Gaines Street in Tallahassee to see for myself what’s so great about Gaines Street,” she said. “And I found out a lot of information.”
“We were told that that Gaines Street had a similar traffic count to 13th Street and therefore was a successful project,” she said.
But it’s immediately south of Florida State University and abuts Florida A & M University, she explained. The road parallel to Gaines Street is called Tennessee Avenue and carries 40,000 cars a day. So to take traffic off Gaines Street and put it onto Tennessee wasn’t a problem.
“I believe that if we do as has been suggested and find alternate parallel corridors that the Columbus taxpayer is going to foot the bill to improve those corridors,” she said. “Yes, the Georgia DOT is going to pay for the re-stripping of 13th Street if it comes to that, but they’re not going to pay for some of the other areas that are already impacted by traffic.”
Thomas mentioned Wynnton Road and Linwood Boulevard and Talbotton Road as examples.
She said 13th Street has already been approved as part of Tax Allocation District and that funding mechanism can be used for improvements rather than reducing traffic on such a major thoroughfare.
Thomas said councilors had been told that a May 2017 road count never exceeded 700 vehicles per hour in a single direction. But the most recent official Georgia Department of Transportation traffic studies, conducted in 2015 over a 48 hour period, found that 12 hours of east bound traffic exceeded 700 vehicles per hour and 15 hours of westbound exceeded 700, she said. A total of 15 eastbound and westbound hours exceeded the federal highway recommended threshold of 750 vehicles per hour.
Thirteenth Street, from Fifth to 10th Avenue, had and annual average daily traffic count of 20,408, Thomas said.
“We were told that the streets with fewer than 20,000 average daily traffic count are ideal candidates for what is being proposed here,” she said. “.... And that greater than 20,000 you need to do a real feasibility study, which I do not think has been completed on this area, on this stretch of traffic.”
Huff said some people have labeled him the “automobile council person” because of the position he has taken on the project and other issues.
“I’m not against bikes, I’m for equal stakes for the bike riders and automobiles,” he said. “But the automobile industry is not downsizing, and the bike industry is also not downsizing. So we have to figure out a way to get everybody here together.”
The Chamber has been talking economic development and trying to attract more businesses, he said. But if new businesses come how will their workers get around? He believes 13th Street should remain a major east-west thoroughfare.
The city has great bike paths, “but as far as you trying to convince me that majority of these people are going to ride in the humidity of the heat that we have here to work in the morning,” Huff said, “I don’t buy that.”
He said everyone should come together to determine what’s best for the entire city, not just one neighborhood.
Councilor Gary Allen asked about the potential for future expenses for parking and improvements to other alternate routes that will have to accommodate more traffic.
Other councilors said they also had some reservations, but they thought the project was well worth the risk.
“You’re going to make some people angry, and there are going to be pros and cons to whatever decision we make,” said Councilor Walker Garrett. “But right now things are not changing without any catalyst.”
Councilor Skip Henderson said he was almost dead set against the changes when they were first proposed, but he now sees it as an economic development opportunity.
“... I’m going to vote for it.” he said before votes were cast. “I think it’s something we’ve got to give a shot to try to grow our economy a little bit and grow a quality aspect of life for the folks that want to use this area.”
Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, firstname.lastname@example.org