An overwhelming outcry by residents on Birmingham's east side was largely responsible for the defeat of a plan to reinvent East Maple into a three-lane road between Adams and Eton.
The Birmingham City Commission passed a resolution Monday to retain the current configuration of East Maple Road — two lanes going in each direction — instead of a plan that would have reduced the total number of lanes to three, one lane going in either direction with a center left-turning lane and bike lanes on both sides of the road.
The three-lane plan was recommended to the City Commission by the engineering firm Parsons Brinkerhoff/LSL Planning, which studied the corridor last fall. The study determined that a narrowed and slower East Maple Road would deter many cars driving through the city. The diversion to nearby mile roads is predicted to, overall, decrease congestion along the corridor and make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
However, despite the city staff's trust in the study, residents from the city's east side weren't buying it.
"We are totally against it,"read a letter from Donald Brown, a Worth Street resident. "It is hard to understand how this would be an improvement in the use of Maple Road. (I) can't believe good money was spent on this study and its recommendations."
Residents concerned with increased traffic, congestion, 'treacherous' conditions
More than 50 residents from East Maple Road and the adjoining neighborhoods packed City Hall Monday night, with many people forced to stand due to lack of seating. In total, the public comment time period stretched to nearly two hours, sending the meeting to end sometime after midnight.
Top concerns cited by residents were safety and traffic diverting through the neighborhoods; there also was a disinclination to be the guinea pig for the city's experiment with Complete Streets, a now-statewide approach to city planning that takes cars, pedestrians and cyclists into consideration.
Concerns expressed both in person and in letters to the commission include:
- Diane Gasper: "Guys, you have to ask the folks who support you ... If you would ask your residents or businesses, they would tell you they're not for it."
- Pat Olsen: "The plan to modify Maple between Eton and Adams is the most ill-conceived idea since the railroad station tunnel ... I read of this plan and I wonder how an idea like this one ever got into the position of being considered sensible. What's the payoff?"
- Rosemary Ging: "Maple Road carries a great deal of rush-hour traffic as it is now. Any time there have been road crews working on Maple between Adams and Eton that have necessitated the closing of one or two lanes, traffic has been backed up for miles."
- Pat Haupt: "That road can be treacherous enough without the narrowing, but I feel there will be so many more problems if the plan is accepted. I love seeing this side of town being used, but I still feel once in a while we are being used as a guinea pig."
- Michael Kopmeyer: "I fear that increased congestion would lead to even more idling cars, with the resulting air and noise pollution."
Not everybody at the meeting, however, was opposed to shrinking East Maple Road, including the three members of the Birmingham Planning Board who stood to speak.
"Listen to your experts, that's what you pay them for," said Planning Board member and east side resident Scott Clein, referring to the study conducted by Parsons Brinkerhoff/LSL Planning. "I think this is the right thing for this town."
Clein said Birmingham oftentimes prides itself on its walkability, and reconfiguring East Maple is a prime opportunity to improve conditions for pedestrians in a car-heavy area of town.
"But it seems we're having trouble walking the walk," Clein said.
City manager attempts to address concerns
City Manager Bob Bruner noted that even if the proposed plan to make East Maple Road three lanes didn't work as projected, the street could easily be converted back to four lanes simply by repaving the lines.
"We would not even be considering this proposal if we believed it would create a nightmare on East Maple Road or your street," Bruner said.
Bruner addressed several what he called misperceptions about the plan at the beginning of the meeting, including:
- This is a done deal — Bruner said there had been little public interest in the matter before Monday. The city still wanted to hold a public hearing, although it was not legally required.
- Adopting this plan will increase traffic by decreasing capacity — According to Bruner, the Parsons Brinkerhoff study indicated that if only 15 percent of traffic diverts to nearby side streets, a three-lane road would have the same capacity as the current four-laned road. The study predicts 30 percent of traffic will avoid Maple Road if it were reduced to three lanes.
- The plan would increase residential cut-through traffic — Most through traffic will divert to major roads, Bruner said, and most drivers who cut through Birmingham neighborhoods are Birmingham residents.
- A three-lane road would impair emergency vehicle access — Bruner said a three-lane road is actually better for emergency vehicles because they have the center left-turn lane to get around traffic and the bike lanes allow traffic to get over.
- A three-lane road makes it harder for residents to exit their driveways — This is only half true, Bruner said. With a three-lane road, however, cars can escape to the center lane when residents are pulling out and fewer vehicles on the road improves sightlines.
- A three-lane road is more dangerous — Bruner said converting roads from four to three lanes is one of the Federal Highway Administration's nine proven safety countermeasures. According to a FHA study, three-lane roads have fewer crashes because cars are forced to travel more slowly.
'I'm now a skeptic,' says one commissioner
Mayor Mark Nickita was one of the few major proponents of the three-lane plan on the City Commission, and urged those in attendance to consider what reinventing East Maple Road could mean for the city.
"It's not a great street ... In fact, it's one of the worst, if not the worst street in the whole city," Nickita said. "We are in a position to redesign this street for the next 40 years."
Still, commissioners were swayed by the overwhelming opinion of the Monday night crowd, echoing the crowd's sentiment when commenting on the two plans.
"I've heard enough," Commissioner Rackeline Hoff said. "I am ready to make a decision on this and my decision would be to (keep it four lanes)."
Commissioner Gordon Rinschler agreed, noting that he thought the entire process of redesigning East Maple — particularly incorporating the Complete Streets study — "went off the rails."
"We're jumping the gun," he said, saying not every street should be a complete street.
Commissioner Scott Moore said he was in favor of improving East Maple Road but didn't think he had enough information — particularly, feedback from SMART and the Birmingham Public School district, both of which use the roads for their buses — to make a decision Monday night.
Still, Moore pointed that residents shouldn't be surprised when Complete Streets is mentioned in the future.
"Complete Streets is how we're going to be doing transportation planning in this century," Moore said "Who would have thought in the 1960s that (Birmingham) would need five to six parking structures. People thought we were nuts, but thank goodness we have them."
Commissioner Tom McDaniel began as a proponent of the three-lane plan but became a skeptic by the end of the night.
"Because of the uproar this has caused ... I'm a skeptic too," he said. McDaniel said he wanted city staff to return with more answers, but was doubtful it would do much good in the court of public opinion.
"The thing is, are we going to learn enough to convince you people one way or another?" he asked.