City Council work session, Nov. 12, 2013

Homewood City Council

Two engineering firms on Tuesday pitched new plans — and new vocabulary — for relieving Lakeshore traffic problems. Called a “Divergent Diamond,” the interchange  configuration would keep traffic moving in multiple directions and eliminate the number of stop and turn signals that allow traffic to stack up during rush hours. The idea isn’t a brand new one, as this 2009 NPR story illustrates, but if adopted here, it would be new in Alabama, engineers say. See a YouTube video, below.

Divergent Diamond is the name. Moving traffic is the game.

Divergent Diamond is the name. Moving traffic is the game.

Members present:  Michael Hallman, Britt Thames, Fred Hawkins, Jenifer Champ Wallis, Peter Wright and council president Bruce Limbaugh.

Members absent: Vance Moody, Patrick McClusky, Walter Jones, Heather Reid. Richard Laws arrived an hour into the meeting. The mayor was not present.

Staff present: City Building, Engineering and Zoning staff Vanessa McGrath, Greg Cobb and Jim Wyatt, city attorney Mike Kendrick, city clerk Linda Cook, and mayor’s chief of staff J. J. Bischoff.

The session:

The 1 1/2 hour work session was to be devoted to three topics, options for relieving traffic congestion at Wal-Mart, sidewalk projects, and an Alabama Power Co. tree-trimming plan. Instead, attending members barely made a quorum and dwelt on a presentation by Gonzalez-Strength engineering firm, then struggled to give equal time to competing firms Volkert, and MBA Engineers. As introduced, a traffic capacity study of the Lakeshore corridor — paid for by Walmart–had gone to Gonzalez-Strength in 2001 and an improvement project was even scheduled for federal funding when it lost priority status to other projects–namely, the current West Oxmoor Road improvement project and the Shades Creek Greenway extension.

A representative of the Regional Planning Commission showed that $4.1 million authorized in 2003 for Lakeshore improvements and an additional lane was still on the books, but now pushed forward to 2016 (an “out” year, since funding is planned only through 2015). Of those millions,  Homewood has already spent $50,000 and used $203,585 in federal matching dollars for preliminary engineering.

The council feels the plan should be put back in play now that traffic congestion west of I-65 threatens business at Sam’s Club, Walmart, and a North Wildwood shopping district in desperate need of redevelopment. Reclaiming that money will not be without extra costs, however, in the form of new traffic studies and additional engineering funds.

Ten years are the limit for projects to stay on the books and the RPC rep said the city runs a chance — although a small one — of having to pay the federal government back if it doesn’t move on the project.

The following is a very brief summary of three firms’ detailed multi-media presentations for alleviating traffic congestion west of I-65. With some differences, Gonzalez-Strength and Volkert firms both pitched plans eliminating the current looped ramps at the I-65 interchange and constructing a “Divergent Diamond” lane configuration on the I-65 bridge in which signaled traffic stops are eliminated and replaced with crossing through-lanes that take traffic directly to different destinations.  This screen shot from a 2009 YouTube video shows what such a pattern looks like. Click on the image to see the traffic in motion.

DIVERGENT

The “Divergent Diamond” is an interchange pattern that reduces or eliminates traffic stops and turns by using through lanes that carry traffic directly to its destination. Two firms have proposed this to reduce congestion on the Lakeshore/Interstate 65 interchange.

All three firms suggested adding a direct ramp to southbound I-65 from near the Sam’s parking lot, and council members asked about “flyovers” directly to Sam’s/Walmart, an idea quickly dismissed.

Alternatively, MBA’s presentation focused on Lakeshore U-turn lanes, a series of low-cost ways to re-route traffic at access points to Walmart and inside the Wildwood parking areas. The firm also suggested building an additional connector road from Lakeshore to Oxmoor Road via from a point near the Lowe’s parking lot, to reduce the traffic on Lakeshore.

The price tag on Gonzalez-Strength’s recommended Divergent Diamond project is $4.3 million. Volkert estimated the cost of its Divergent Diamond plan in the $2-$3 million range. MBA didn’t provide a cost estimate.

There being no time for other business, Mr. Limbaugh asked the council to take up the sidewalks discussion following the council meeting.

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