by Morris J. Newman
U.S. Highway 280 is a rush-hour mess. The latest proposal to solve the problem is an elevated toll road, a disaster waiting to happen. The toll road is modeled after Huntsville Memorial Parkway, an extraordinarily unattractive road.
Fortunately, there is a solution that is dramatically less expensive, preserves the beauty of 280 and does no harm to the businesses along the highway. Not only that, it will actually work.
But first, some background. U.S. 280 is a beautiful roadway. As it leaves Birmingham, 280 travels the verdant hills of south Jefferson County and soon crosses Double Oak Mountain, with its vistas of the Appalachians stretching to the horizon. However, those who would toll, and those of us who would not, do agree on at least one thing—when you’re stuck in rush-hour traffic, it ain’t such a beautiful thing.
But is the toll road the best or most cost-effective idea? Is it aesthetically appropriate? The answer to these questions is no.
While the toll road would be an aesthetic disaster, its economic impact would be even worse. The loss of business for retailers during construction and the long-term effect of pushing retail to the road’s end would be devastating. Beyond the direct harm to business and employees, the cities that share 280 would lose significant tax revenues.
The state claims that the good thing about the plan is that it will be totally self-financing. No tax dollars will be needed, they tell us; toll revenues will cover the costs. The math, however, belies this claim.
Please bear with me as I take you through the numbers. The price tag for the proposed elevated road is $710,000,000, assuming no cost overruns. If financed for 30 years at 5 percent interest, the annual debt-service cost will be $45,737,160.
Let’s be generous and say there are 260 commuting days per year (each week Monday through Friday, excluding holidays) and a $2 toll rate at 10 cents per mile. For comparison, the New Jersey Turnpike’s cost per mile is 7.5 cents. Let’s also assume that $1.50 of the toll will go for debt service and the remaining 50 cents for other costs. These numbers generate a break-even point of 117,275 roundtrips per day.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Shelby County has 116,802 people in the age range of 18-65. So if each and every working-age adult in the county drove from one end of the road to the other each day Monday through Friday with no days off, revenues would still come up short in the amount of $946 per day. Even if the tolls are only expected to pay half the cost, the number of users will come up short—and then there’s the other $355,000,000 to cover.
We can fix 280 more quickly, more cheaply and without the disruption of a toll road. Bear in mind that the problem occurs at rush hour and results from too many cars being stopped by too many red lights. Because we can’t reduce the rush-hour volume of cars, the solution—as simple as it sounds—is to eliminate red lights in the western section of 280 from the Red Mountain Expressway to I-459 and dramatically reduce them in the eastern section from the Cahaba River to Oak Mountain.
The traffic lights in the western section of 280 can be set to green at rush hour. But, you may ask, don’t commuters from the side roads need those lights to turn left or cross over the busy highway? Because of luck, or the foresight of long-ago traffic engineers, the answer already exists.
If drivers coming out of Cherokee Road, Office Park Drive and the other feeder roads were required to turn right, they would enter the traffic flow directly, similar to the Overton Road merge. Those who need to cross or turn left would, after turning right, use the cloverleaf exits at Hollywood Boulevard, Mountain Brook Parkway or Pumphouse Road, or make a U-turn at Summit Blvd. The farthest rush-hour detour would be a commuter heading eastbound on Cherokee Road toward Birmingham and turning around at Pumphouse Road. Even this driver would benefit as he would not be stopped at the Cherokee light and, once on 280, would drive unimpeded.
It’s really that simple. The total cost? It would be, at most, a few thousand dollars for traffic light reprogramming and signs advising drivers of the new restrictions. The toll road plan would cost $251,000,000 for this section and be irreversible.
The eastern section’s problem is the same as the western—too many red lights when traffic is heavy. Due to the absence of existing high-speed exits and entrances, this section needs a frontage road system that limits left turns and crossings to only a few significant points, perhaps at Valleydale Road and Alabama Highway 119. Much of the frontage road already exists.
As to the remaining major section of 280, the 280/459 interchange, significant money should be spent to rebuild it properly. The Alabama Department of Transportation plan for this area may be viable.
These solutions will work and will not cause the dire aesthetic, business-crushing and sales tax-draining ramifications of the toll road. The western section solution can and should be implemented immediately. The fixes I suggest for the eastern section and the I-459 junction will require an infusion of cash, but the amount needed pales in comparison to the astronomical cost of the toll road.
Believing the toll road will be self-supporting—or even half self-supporting— requires a Langfordian denial of fiscal reality. To borrow and flip a slogan, Let’s do something—just not the toll road.
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