Shared from the 2/11/2018 Ledger-Enquire eEdition

EDITORIALS

13th Street traffic corridor about more than passing through

A paradigm shift for government accountability in the 21st century.

Those weren’t the exact words transportation engineer Rick Hall used in his presentation before the Columbus City Council on January 23. But the implication is clear.

Hall was responding to a worry that we’d be slowing commuter traffic if we reconfigure the section of 13th Street between Fifth and 13th Avenues. Hall said he understood the concern. Prioritizing fast-moving car travel everywhere was the transportation planning paradigm of the last century. It was wired into our assumptions. The new paradigm, said Hall, is less about moving traffic and more about economics. It’s about taking into consideration ways street design might work with other design elements — ample sidewalks, street trees and appealing store frontages — to advance economic development.

Not surprisingly, places designed to move people through are not seen as great places for people to go to — or to invest in. Which helps explain why most of the 13th street businesses between 10th and 13th Avenues are vacant or underutilized. That’s more than 44,000 square feet of underperforming commercial space and a lot of lost jobs and tax revenue.

That point about tax revenue gets us to the part about government accountability.

Thoroughfares, whether we’re talking the streets and roads within highly populated areas or the highways that connect them, are public property. Design, construction and maintenance are funded by taxes. And like everything else that requires investment, street improvement projects should be evaluated based on bang for the buck, on what taxpayers get for what they pay.

So far, the benefit to taxpayers for rushing commuters along 13th street goes mostly to those passing through. For those who’ve invested in languishing real estate along the street — or who might consider an investment — there are diminishing returns. Which means lower property values, resulting in lower taxes and lower returns for taxpayers’ investment in the road.

You don’t have to be an engineer or an economist to get the connection between a lively place and a healthy economy. Just think about places that draw a crowd. You know, those park-once places where it’s pleasant to stroll shop to shop, grab a meal, meet for drinks with friends after work or maybe take in some music. Now think of how people get around in such environments. There are cars, of course. But there’s a broader range of choices, from walking and biking to taking transit.

In some places around the country, communities hoping to shift transportation investment away from car-only priorities toward supporting more mobility choices and enabling more opportunity-filled neighborhoods have to fight with state Departments of Transportation stuck in the old paradigm. We’re lucky in Columbus to have the Georgia DOT as a partner.

We were nearing the time in the maintenance cycle when 13th Street was due for resurfacing, and GDOT agreed at no cost to the City to test a reallocation of street space to create the sort of safe, appealing environment we know makes a successful corridor. In May of last year, using traffic cones, we reduced the four automobile travel lanes on 13th to two lanes to approximate a design for on-street parking and bike travel.

While the reduction did slow traffic, the drop was modest. And the decrease put the average speed more in line with posted speed limits than what had been customary in lanes with excess capacity during most times during the day. So the tradeoff for commuters giving 13th Street a chance to become a safer and a more inviting place for everybody else was the inconvenience of obeying the law.

Let’s be honest: To complete the tasks required to make the most of the paradigm shift, we’ll have to go beyond the GDOT’s contribution to street redesign. We’ll want to invest in sidewalk and street tree improvements and encourage property owners to make their own improvements. The experience of other communities that have undertaken similar projects provides convincing evidence that the returns on investment are higher and broader than even they expected.

Conversations about this project should be about accountability and opportunity. Return on taxpayers’ investments. Not just moving traffic as efficiently as we can past community assets we devalue in the process.

So let’s get to that conversation.

Your neighbors and business owners in the community have been working hard over the last few years to create this opportunity for one of our most important, underperforming corridors. We need your support to get the project to the starting line. Let your elected officials know you welcome the chance to see your tax dollars invested in community improvements that promise the best possible return on your money.

Will Burgin is president of Jackson-Burgin Inc. He can be reached at will@jackson-burgin.com

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