Reducing lanes, slowing traffic, adding on-street parking and encouraging pedestrians could bring new life to one of the city’s main corridors between midtown and downtown, an engineer told Columbus Council last week.
Richard Hall, a Tallahassee-based urban designer and transportation engineer, has been working with Midtown Inc. and other community and city leaders to capitalize on a state-funded re-striping and repaving project on 13th Street, the east-west corridor that serves as a major gateway between Phenix City and Columbus.
The Georgia Department of Transportation is slotted to resurface and re-stripe the road in 2019, giving Columbus what advocates like Hall and Midtown Inc. say is a generational opportunity to change the way the road is used — all without using the city money.
Tripp Wade of the Wade Companies spoke on behalf of Midtown Inc. and other community partners at a public forum about the plans on Tuesday.
“As a community we should do better and expect more. We can change in a positive direction,” he said, pointing to the Columbus 2025 goal of creating “vibrant and connected places.”
Here what’s going on now
The vacancy rate of the buildings in the specified area of 13th Street is at 61 percent, said Hall, with the average price per square foot at less than $30. To put that in perspective, the price per square foot only a block or two west is a median of $156, according to real estate website Trulia.
The street mainly serves as a highway designed to move people to and from downtown and Phenix City, Hall said. Currently, 13th Street has four lanes of fast-moving traffic and a central turning lane.
Hall produced a pocket radar gun and said he clocked cars regularly going as fast as 45 mph.
The conclusion, Hall said, is that the vast majority of people are driving past those businesses on 13th and the pedestrians who pump lifeblood into the downtown area only a few blocks away are terrified by the traffic and dangerous design.
“This cannot continue,” Hall said. “These buildings’ faces will become more dilapidated, then there will be a call for them to be torn down. That’s the worst thing that can happen to a corridor like this.”
Hall advocates cutting the number of main travel lanes on 13th Street from four to two — one lane in each direction.
Each outside lane would be transformed into on-street parking, and the center lane would be used for medians and turning lanes. On the bridge across the train tracks, the outermost lanes would be blocked off from traffic and re-striping would turn some travel lanes into turn-only lanes.
“The urban design and transportation design were done separately for the current design of 13th Street,” Hall said. “Engineers that decided to scrape the parking off and give you extra travel lanes were not thinking about any of the businesses along each side of the road and the degree to which it would plunge those businesses into a lower economic status.”
Eventually, street trees would be planted, the speed limit would be reduced and enforced, and amenities like nicer traffic lights, lamps, planters and benches could be installed in the area.
Cars would slow and be more likely to actually stop at the businesses in the area. On-street parking would make it possible to get out and patronize businesses safely, and the barriers of parked cars would protect pedestrians and work to slow down traffic down even more, Hall said.
The beautification of the area also would attract business investors eager to stake out a spot on a major path between both major parts of the city and the two states. Jobs would come, businesses would open, city revenues would rise, and quality of life would improve, Hall said.
How in the world would this work with the traffic?
Back in the summer, the city performed a pilot traffic test on 13th Street by blocking off some lanes with orange bollards and keeping count of how many cars made the trip.
It wasn’t a popular move. Residents railed against the change on social media and counselors expressed their misgivings over the project. A community event challenged residents to come out and “re-imagine” 13th Street shortly after the barrels went up.
“It’s just to give an indication of, ‘Oh, retail could flourish here, or a restaurant,’ if we made it more walkable and a place that you don’t just drive by, but a place where you want to stop and linger,” Midtown Inc., executive director Anne King said at the time.
At the end of the study, travel delays were “minimal, and in most cases less than a minute,” according to a proposed resolution read in June.
Hall shared data from that study which showed that throughout the day, no more than 700 cars passed through the road per hour.
A little traffic-engineering math puts that number into perspective. Hall said traffic engineers generally figure around one car passes every 2 seconds on average in heavy, free-flowing traffic.
That equals a maximum of 1,800 cars comfortably traveling through one lane per hour (assuming the lights are green all the time).
But if a driver spends, say, half the time sitting at a red light, then the number of cars that can pass through a lane shifts down to 900 cars per hour. That’s still far more capacity than the peak demand 13th Street saw during the pilot, Hall concluded.
The street can comfortable handle much more than what it sees even at peak times now, Hall said.
“It will work, if you narrow it to two lanes of active traffic. Those are the engineering conclusions, and the GDOT engineers we’ve spoken to agreed with this analysis,” he said.
Plus, when roads change, people naturally fan out and began exploring other route options. It happened during the pilot — there were about 70 fewer cars per hour traveling down the street per hour, presumably because people had chosen different routes.
So what’s the problem?
The plan’s counter-intuitiveness cannot be whisked away, Columbus said during the meeting. The street — wide and always flowing with speedy traffic — does not seem like it would adapt well to suddenly being adapted into pleasure lane.
“Sometimes we have an understanding out here that’s not matching the understanding out there,” said Councilor Bruce Huff. “We just had a downsizing and I was told last year, we’re good. So now I’m told we’re are at the next step.”
Council Walker Garrett asked City Manager Isaiah Hugley whether funding would be available for the parts of the project the GDOT wouldn’t cover if the city decided to go for it.
Hugley said largely, no. But he added that projects like this don’t happen all at once.
“It takes working one piece at a time. I can see that if we pursue this, that we’ll start out with the resurfacing, and its no different than the streetscapes on Broadway,” he said. “We didn’t start out with narrow streets and a broad median and all the streetscaping that we have.”
Councilor Judy Thomas expressed the most misgivings about the proposal, saying that “everyone I have spoken to, with very few exceptions, and most of those exceptions are here in this audience, has told me, ‘Please do not change the lanes on this street.’”
She pointed out that Spur 22, which includes that section of 13th Street, is the major east-west corridor through the city.
“I shudder to think what will happen with the traffic that comes down that 13th Avenue hill onto what you have shown here as a one lane, 25 mph road,” Thomas said.
“It’s a beautiful rendition that you have put up there,” she told Hall. “I like it, I wish we could do it. I’m just not convinced that we should take half a mile out of this 12-mile corridor and reduce it ... and it will continue to serve the purposes.”
She pointed out most of the corridor is bordered by relatively thriving businesses. “I’m not sure why this three block area on 13th Street is not any more economically viable than it is,” she said.
What comes next?
The city can discuss and debate the possibility of moving to make the proposal the official “vision” for 13th Street.
If the city decides to reject the proposal and make no changes, the GDOT will repave the road exactly as it is now.
If they decide to move forward, or make all or part of the proposed changes, a process would begin to work out the details about things like signal timing, turning lane length, and nitty-gritty intersection designs, Hall said. Design would be done through the spring, summer and fall of 2018 and then construction would start sometime in spring 2019.