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Can’t go around it, can’t go under it, don’t want to go over it…

7 February 2007
Reason enough not to have an elevate 280 blogged about here

Like the camp song says, “can’t go around it”… “can’t go under it”… “can’t go over it”. On the subject of Highway 280’s congestion problems, some want to “go over it”. Personally, I think it’s best to improve our way THROUGH IT.

My home sits a scant 2 miles off 280, but north of I-459. In the parlance of Atlanta, that’s “inside the perimeter” (if, in fact 459 created a loop around Birmingham). Four years ago, my family and I sucked it up and paid a higher price for a smaller (older) home in Vestavia Hills instead of buying something more akin to what we had previously owned, such as the homes found in Brook Highlands and other points south down 280. Besides the best schools in the area, this was a fair cost to cut down on my commute to the office or wherever my day’s meetings take me. It was a concious choice and one that means severely slimmed-down discretionary income.

I should also point out that while my day job is focused on growing technology companies, I am classicly trained in architecture and facilities design and my degree is in urban design. I have a passion for these things and while I would not pretend to know what the industry professionals know, I am versed in the topics. I love “systems” and am always interested in how individuals elements in a system affect the others.

Near where I grew up in Silicon Valley, we had the “Camino Real”. It was a major road where all the businesses and restaurants were located. It was once also the main (read pre-interstate) thoroughfare and was justfiably congested day and night. It was the price to pay for zoning decisions that spread commercial districts from interesection to intersection and built neighborhoods outside the corridor. Birmingham’s Camino Real is Highway 280 in Shelby County. Communities such as Mountain Brook, Homewood, and Vestavia Hills have eschewed this concept of land planning and instead built “villages” (old fashioned centers of commerce accessible to local residents). Shelby County, however, chose the path of least resistence and zoned themselves into a quagmire.

280 has long been a topic of conversation here in Birmingham. BhamWiki has chronicled some of the history, back to the days of Governor Siegelman. There’s even the “Stop Elevated Highway” Blog built for the singular purpose of opposing the building of the “let’s go over it” scenario. The Regional Growth Alliance has even published a white paper about the history and current focus. Here is what the Regional Planning Commission says about the corridor in their thoughtful Alternatives Analysis:

U.S. Highway 280 is a principal arterial serving both suburban development in southeast Jefferson County and northeast Shelby County and regional traffic to and from southeast Alabama (Alexander City, Auburn, Opelika, Phenix City, etc.). The segment of U.S. 280 between the E.B. Stephens Expressway and Hugh Daniel Drive is a densely developed suburban retail corridor with direct access to large residential communities. As such it currently exhibits congested traffic during much of the day. Recent traffic counts recorded an average daily traffic (ADT) in the vicinity of the I-459 interchange of over 70,000 vehicles per day on a six lane facility. A previous traffic engineering study found that nearly half of the signalized intersections on this segment operate at or near capacity during peak hours (Sain, 2001). There have been numerous discussions in recent years about upgrading U.S. 280 in order to improve traffic flow and reduce delays, including recent proposals to widen it to eight lanes or construct urban interchanges at key intersections and make it a limited access facility. At present, however, there is no consensus regarding what course of action should be taken. Contributing to the lack of direction is the fact that there has been no systematic evaluation of these proposals and the impacts they would have on the corridor as a whole.

The analysis does a fair job of providing a “systematic evalution” of the proposals on the table. While very technical, I found the report rational and without obvious bias. The authors apparently agree with the Alablawg post questioning the issue about dumping traffic onto the Red Mountain Expressway where 280 and 31 merge in Homewood. I think they also successfully show that the “let’s go around it” Grants Mill Road parallel project may have limited benefit, although I think that this was too easily tossed aside and needs further consideration. I especially like many of the “at-grade” improvements suggested in Table 3-5 of the document. The report also debunks the “transit solution” as misguided (a conclusion with which I agree).

Now, onto the real (current) debate… over an elevated highway. I think everyone is missing the point. This is an issue of multiple sections of the same highway, between Red Mountain and Double Oak Mountains and distinctly dividing 280 at I-459. Traffic flows relatively well through the communities of Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook, and Homewood — short of a few remediable choke-points mentioned below. The real issue is with the residents and businesses in the City of Birmingham section (Summit to Brook Highlands) and Shelby County section (Brook Highlands to Hugh Daniel Drive). With right-of-way too expensive or logistically difficult, widening of the highway is seen as an undesirable choices. Therefore, Progress 280 is looking to the sky and an elevated highway. They’ve recently held public meetings to discuss the proposals and issued photographs (which are available on the website).

As I’ve said before, I grew up in California. That said, I thank God every day that I ended up here in the South. In fact, I’ve now lived in the south longer than I did in California. As they say “southern by the grace of God” and all that. But, back to the subject at hand… I’m familiar with elevated highway projects and the public backlash that ensues. Back in the day, San Francisco wanted to bypass downtown with a freeway that connected the Bay Bridge with the Golden Gate Bridge. They started building a double-decker eleveated freeway near the Bay Bridge along the waterline. Then, someone realized that it was going to obliterate views AND ruin much of the Fisherman’s Warf area. Thankfully the City Council terminated the project in time. Exit ramps were built to deposit cars on surface streets many blocks from the historic district. This, of course, meant that traffic was dispersed onto different thoroughfares linking the area with the Golden Gate Bridge. Nature prevailed in the end. After the Loma Prietta Earthquake, this section of the road was demolished. I remember visiting years later (unaware af the time of the demolition) and marveling how “bright” and spacious the area outside the Embarcadaro appeared. Only after contemplation for a few minutes did I realize that the elevated Embarcadero Freeway was gone and what made it “bright” was the lack of shade!

Proposed Elevated Highway 280 @ Pump House RoadNow, back to Birmingham. The photos I mentioned above are mostly accurate, done with precision work in a 3D modeling software and skillful use of photoshop. As mentioned in the previous paragraph the one thing missing in these photos are the immense shadow that a structure sitting 30-40′ in the air casts. I find this photo the most repulsive, not because of the missing shadows (note the shadow cast by the car at left of the frame) but because of the elevated freeway that goes OVER the overpass of Pump House Road! Years and years ago I would come to Birmingham and marvel at the flyover that is Pump House Road and how high above grade the road had been built to smooth out the Highway 280 through that ridge. This means that the elevated highway will have to rise even further than anywhere else. Yikes!

Of course we can rule out “going under it” since our region’s geology simply doesn’t allow tunnels. Witness the huge cost of sewer tunnels and the fact that Birmingham took 7 years to “cut” through Red Mountain with dynamite rather than tunnel under/through it.

So now you know the background for what I’m going to propose. This is my hybrid “straw man” proposal for consideration by all you fair folks in the Birmingham blogosphere:

  1. First and foremost, do NOT build an elevated highway north of Interstate 459… instead, consider grade-level improvements recommended by the RPC alternatives analysis
  2. Widen the ramp and fix the transition from northbound Highway 280 to Highway 31 through the Red Mountain cut
  3. Build an elevated highway from Double Oak Mountain that terminates uphill from the I-459 interchange at the Summit intersection
  4. 3D Proposed 280 Intersection at 119Build interchanges to the elevated highway at major intersections much as a separated highway would have and only at the larger intersections (see image shown at the right lifted from the RPC report)
  5. Manage the flow with ramp meters wherever possible
  6. Build the toll complex in the middle of the road such as Atlanta’s Georgia 400 to relieve congestion at the ends

As I’ve said before, I’m no traffic expert. However, everything I read talks about traffic congestion as “waves” with ripple effects. If everything is streamlined from deep within Shelby County all the way to Highway 31 in Homewood, all that will happen is an immense merging nightmare in the shadow of Red Mountain. Let the waves happen, but in manageable sizes. The cheapest fix and a required component of any design should be the ramp meters… one of the cheapest solutions to managing flow on limited access highways. Let’s start by putting ramp meters in at Lakeshore (for onramps in both directions).

While I don’t like petitions, you might want to consider this one. If there’s one “for” the elevated highway, I’d be happy to know about it. I, for one, am not in favor of the full elevated length but think it could bring a much needed solution to the south and let Shelby County lift itself above the quagmire. As the song says… “can’t go around it… can’t go under it” I think it’s time to let Shelby County go over it and allow the Over the Mountain community to help everyone go through it.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 February 2007 4:47 pm

    Thanks for the mention of the petition! I’ve linked your very thoughtful comments to the webblog as well.

  2. 5 July 2007 10:15 pm

    All very thoughtful comments, however, the path to community vibrancy is through controlled development. I’m of the opinion that 280 should remain as is and that sububan sprawl should be controlled though an area master plan ala Portaland OR.

    However, I recognize that cheap housing and free, quality education drives development which causes undue pressure on exisiting, poorly planned infrastructure, we should let ecomonics dictate the situation (laissez-faire) and invest in a city proper infrastructure that ignores the needs of the suburbs.

    Though I feel that the MSA will never be unified, the city can cirumvent the needs of the ‘burbs by creating an enviroment that the hoi polloi cannot ignore.

    I would challenge you and the rest of your irk to reject the perfectly coifed lawn and massive McMansions mentality to embrace sidewalks , smaller neighborhoods and community activism that embraces diveristy, interaction and inclusion.

    Instead of investing in 1/2 acre lots and status automobiles, why not consider smaller homes and massive education (private school)?

    I don’t portend to have the answers but I offer comments to disuss.

  3. David permalink
    28 April 2011 9:56 am

    As a resident of Brook Highland (singular btw), you come off like a typical pretentious blow-hard here Curtis. Why would you favor the elevated road below 459? Are the cars going to vaporize at 459? Are people going to be irrational and take 459 to get downtown?

    And by the way, what guy from California calls the El Camino Real the “Camino Real”….
    And secondly, the 101 has been around “forever” in the Bay Area and their solution to the problem was to build a huge (and still underutilized) parallel road Interstate 280.

    Without a time machine to go back 30 years to allow a straight-shot NEW road from South of Chelsea to downtown , the solution is simple…..

    BLOCK ALL EFFORTS for further development out the 280 corridor. The infrastructure is much better for managed growth in places like Gardendale and Trussville.

    That might sound fairly Nimby-istic, but the idea is that there is still the open space necessary for responsible growth up there, whereas here the die has largely been cast.

    I love the comment from Kevin who draws some parallels to Portland, Oregon but then espouses a very un-Portlandlike opinion that we should spend more on the ultimate community destroying good, “private education”. Last time I checked, the Oak Mountain School District is a heck of a lot more like the PDX than that of you segregationists..

    You guys all fail to articulate the main problem of the toll road which is that it completely enables further growth and development. Other than people owning land in Chelsea and its surroundings benefit from this….the rest of us lose.

    The right solution for 280 is to eliminate some lights, put a westbound flyover to 459, and put underpasses and frontage roads in the commercial area from valleydale to Arby’s. 90% of the problem is related to traffic-control management.

    Governor Bentley is borderline retarded, so I’m guessing that “drilling team” out there is getting ready to make this disaster a reality….

    So in summary, thanks for sticking the knife in the back of the below-459 crowd. You close in people really drive me insane. You allow a zillion trees to be cut down to build a Whole Foods that makes traffic worse, and then whine about the elevated highway…but only when it affects you. Let me guess, you are also a libertarian except when it comes to Thrift Stores that want to open in your town.

    Gotta be consistent dude…..


  1. Reason Enough not to have an Elevated 280 « Musings on Birmingham
  2. The Ramble: There's not one solution to this traffic issue

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