I’ve never been to Alabama. But two transportation-related news stories from that state’s two largest cities caught my eye last week on consecutive days. The first was about the proposed $4.7 billion Birmingham Northern Beltline, a six-lane, 52-mile highway around the city. The second showed the impoverishment of Montgomery’s public bus system, made famous 60 years ago by Rosa Parks and the ensuing boycott, now struggling on a budget of $3 million a year.
I had to let those numbers sink in for a minute: 4.7 billion, with a B, and 3 million, with an M. A billion is a thousand times a million. It’s three orders of magnitude larger. The cost of the highway could run Montgomery’s buses at double the present level of service for the next 783 years.
Birmingham is Alabama’s largest metropolitan area, with a population of just over a million. Some 370,000 people live in greater Montgomery. To do the math: the road will cost $4700 per person it serves, while the bus scrapes by on less than $10 per person per year.
But such have been our national transportation priorities for the past seven decades: build for the car and damn the costs. The highway will take travelers out and around the city, encouraging more suburban sprawl. A bus system carries people within a city, spurring commerce along centralized corridors that take up far less overall space. But most states and municipalities persistently prioritize road building over public transportation.
I’ve never been to Alabama, but I’ve been to Orono – how’s that for the first line of a country song? It springs to mind because of a third news item, this from the Maine Campus, the student newspaper at the University of Maine, where I work.
The Maine Department of Transportation is proposing a roundabout at the University entrance at Rangeley Road. The projected cost: $2.25 million*. The intersection has been the site of several crashes, and long lines of cars can accumulate in the afternoons. Hockey games and events at the Collins Center routinely back up traffic here as well.
I like roundabouts, so long as the design accommodates cyclists and pedestrians. I think they’re safer and more efficient than traffic lights. But I question the premise of this particular proposal.
The DOT estimates that 13,000 vehicles a day will pass through that intersection in 2016. But as I’ve pointed out, you can’t build your way out of traffic congestion. Money would be much more wisely spent on coaxing reluctant drivers out of their cars. For example, the recently canceled Saturday Hampton bus service cost $16,000 annually. Extrapolating from that number, an additional six-day bus run on the Bangor-Orono-Old Town route might be expected to cost $96,000 – oh, let’s round up to an even $100,000. The cost of the roundabout by itself could pay for 22 daily bus trips, or two additional trips for the next eleven years.
Much of the traffic at that intersection comes from students living at Orchard Trails, The Grove, and other nearby complexes, or in other housing within a mile radius of the University. There is no earthy reason for them to be driving to campus. It’s a short walk, a shorter bike ride, and there’s a free local shuttle bus. Most students do not need to drive home to their families every other weekend. Many don’t need to own cars at all, and would be better off if they didn’t. Some students keep cars in Orono to get to and from off-campus jobs, but better bus service, especially between the University and the Bangor Mall, can address that problem more effectively than a roundabout.
Bus service on the Bangor route for major events, such as men’s hockey games and Collins Center performances, could alleviate traffic at high-volume times, again at a fraction of the cost of building a roundabout. Well-lit and plowed pedestrian paths and bicycle trails and other lower-cost, less disruptive improvements can be done for much less than $2.25 million.
I’m of two minds about this roundabout. I go around and about it in my mind. If it calms traffic for bicyclists and is friendly to cross on foot, I’ll look upon it favorably. But I’m skeptical about the cost, and about the priority it reflects. Building for cars encourages more people to drive. Public policy should be pointed in the opposite direction.
*According to the Bangor Daily News, the figure is $1.65 million – which would still pay for a lot of buses.