Cities’ plans for traf­fic dif­fer

Na­tional con­sul­tants help NWA of­fi­cials see into fu­ture

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - STACY RYBURN

Cities can solve 5 o’clock traf­fic jams on their own or with lo­cal help, but fig­ur­ing out where those cars will idle decades from now is best left to the big con­sul­tants, ex­perts say.

The ex­pe­ri­ence and math­e­mat­i­cal know-how of na­tional con­sul­tants help cities see where trans­porta­tion prob­lems are likely to oc­cur in

the fu­ture, so they can plan for rather than re­act to them.

Plan­ning staff gen­er­ally have a fin­ger on the pulse of what ails a city trans­porta­tion-wise, and it wouldn’t make sense to hire an out­side con­sul­tant to re­in­force what they al­ready know, said Eric Damian Kelly, pro­fes­sor of ur­ban plan­ning at Ball State Univer­sity.

How­ever, the tools na­tional con­sul­tants usu­ally have, in­clud­ing ad­vanced soft­ware and ex­per­tise in anal­y­sis of vol­umes of data, sim­ply aren’t avail­able to most cities, Kelly said. Some large cities have spe­cial staff mem­bers on­hand, but that gets ex­pen­sive, and for a one-time job like a traf­fic study, it makes more sense to hire a con­sul­tant, he said.

“There can be def­i­nite ad­van­tages, but that’s not to say that ev­ery na­tional con­sult­ing firm that comes in earns its fee,” Kelly said. “You all have

to eval­u­ate that. But, if they get the ba­sic plan done and adopted and the City Coun­cil’s willing to go with it, they’ve ac­com­plished a lot.”

Cities in North­west Arkansas have taken dif­fer­ent ap­proaches based on their needs and growth.

Fayet­teville just un­veiled a draft of an over­haul to its trans­porta­tion master plan. It will lay out cap­i­tal projects for the next decade cov­er­ing driv­ing, walk­ing, bi­cy­cling and tran­sit and also put down a foun­da­tion to ac­com­mo­date growth far be­yond that time frame, city of­fi­cials have said.

The city hired San Francisco-based con­sul­tants Nel­son/ Ny­gaard for $490,000 to an­a­lyze the state of all things Fayet­teville trans­porta­tion. The con­sul­tants also have tack­led a down­town park­ing plan at a $95,000 price tag.

A half a mil­lion dol­lars to hire pro­fes­sion­als who live nowhere near the state to come up with a trans­porta­tion plan might sound steep, but in the city’s view, it’s worth it, said Chris Brown, city en­gi­neer for Fayet­teville.

“There’s a bal­ance there. We’ve got to serve the needs of peo­ple as they live to­day, but we also have to plan for the fu­ture. How you do that and how well you do that is the trick,” Brown said. “At some point, you’re go­ing to have the com­plete net­work, and you’re go­ing to be glad that you did plan for it in that way.”

DIF­FER­ENT STROKES

Ben­tonville, the fastest-grow­ing of the four ma­jor cities, hired a lo­cal con­sul­tant to look specif­i­cally at in­ter­sec­tions and get traf­fic mov­ing smoother. How­ever, a Chicago-based firm has headed the ef­fort to come up with a com­pre­hen­sive city plan to guide growth for the next two decades.

A fi­nal ver­sion of the Ben­tonville Com­mu­nity Plan should be re­vealed by Au­gust or Septem­ber, said Troy Galloway, the city’s com­mu­nity and eco­nomic devel­op­ment di­rec­tor. The plan cov­ers pedes­tri­ans, bi­cy­cles, cars and how to bet­ter ac­com­mo­date a pub­lic tran­sit sys­tem.

The City Coun­cil hired plan­ning con­sult­ing firm Houseal Lav­i­gne in 2015 to spear­head the ef­fort to cre­ate the com­pre­hen­sive plan. The coun­cil ap­proved a $448,223 con­tract, with the Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion award­ing the city a $200,000 grant for the project.

Since 2015, the city has used the data gained in a traf­fic study by Fayet­teville en­gi­neer­ing firm Garver to seek mil­lions in grants to pay for street projects.

An out­side pair of eyes helps make sure city of­fi­cials are try­ing to solve the right prob­lems and ded­i­cate re­sources to ad­dress more press­ing chal­lenges, Galloway said.

“Ben­tonville’s day­time pop­u­la­tion swells by al­most 20,000 folks,” he said. “We’ve got the re­sources of a city of about 45,000 peo­ple, but dur­ing the day­time we’re try­ing to pro­vide a trans­porta­tion net­work that’s serv­ing a pop­u­la­tion of 60,000 to 65,000 peo­ple.”

Rogers is in the mid­dle of a traf­fic study to as­sess con­ges­tion and safety, which city of­fi­cials can use when plan­ning for growth. Crafton-Tull, a lo­cal con­sul­tant, has helped in that ef­fort.

The city hopes to col­lect the data this fall, crunch the num­bers in winter and have a fi­nal re­port by spring, said Nathan Beck­nell, Rogers city en­gi­neer. The last such study the city had was in 2005, which fo­cused mainly on con­ges­tion, he said.

A Rogers-based con­sul­tant knows the ins and outs of the city, Beck­nell said. It’s a philo­soph­i­cal dif­fer­ence from hir­ing a more na­tion­ally ori­ented firm, he said.

“I’ve seen it done both ways, and both ways have their ben­e­fits. Both ways have their draw­backs,” he said. “On this one, we thought it’d be good to go lo­cal.”

Spring­dale has made get­ting cars from one end of town to the other a pri­or­ity. Mayor Doug Sprouse said the ap­petite in his city from staffers, the coun­cil and the pub­lic gen­er­ally is to keep plan­ning in-house for that sort of work.

Sprouse said he hopes to bring a bond is­sue to vot­ers by next year that would likely gen­er­ate $130 mil­lion to $150 mil­lion for var­i­ous projects.

The city sets aside money ev­ery year for trails and side­walks based on what it can af­ford, has re­quire­ments for side­walks and trail con­nec­tions on new roads and a trail com­mit­tee that works to con­nect parts of the city to the Ra­zor­back Re­gional Green­way.

“I don’t think we’re to the point right now where we’re ready to go out there and spend a sig­nif­i­cant amount of money for a study,” Sprouse said.

OUT­SIDE IN­FLU­ENCE

The North­west Arkansas Re­gional Plan­ning Com­mis­sion does not heav­ily in­volve it­self in each city’s trans­porta­tion plan, but does sit in on meet­ings to make sure ma­jor roads and trail con­nec­tions flow smoothly through the re­gion, said Tim Con­klin, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor.

“Each city has their pri­or­i­ties that they want to see com­pleted, but, at the same time, many of the cities in the re­gion are de­pen­dent on each other to work to­gether to cre­ate this ar­te­rial road­way net­work that serves 485,000 peo­ple in the two-county re­gion,” he said.

Con­sul­tants can help cities in­cor­po­rate a re­gional tran­sit sys­tem into their plans. Con­nect­ing ma­jor road­ways be­comes more im­por­tant when talk­ing about some­thing like a bus rapid tran­sit net­work. Such a net­work usu­ally in­volves ded­i­cated lanes for buses and bus stops de­signed to re­duce traf­fic de­lays from pas­sen­gers get­ting on and off. Stops are spaced out and the buses get pri­or­ity through in­ter­sec­tions. The Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion has spear­headed an ef­fort to bring such a sys­tem to the 71B cor­ri­dor in North­west Arkansas.

Con­sul­tants also can help pro­vide the data nec­es­sary to con­vince Arkansas High­way and Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment of­fi­cials that ma­jor changes are needed on a road­way. How much a city can change roads within its bound­aries is an­other con­sid­er­a­tion. Many of the main road­ways in the re­gion, through cities, towns and ru­ral ar­eas dou­ble as state high­ways.

The needs of the high­way sys­tem have out­weighed the money to ad­dress them, so trans­fer­ring main­te­nance to lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions has be­come a more fre­quently con­sid­ered op­tion, said Andy Brewer, as­sis­tant head of the depart­ment’s plan­ning di­vi­sion.

Trans­fer­ring a road­way from the state gives cities lee­way to make changes the state might not al­low like re­duce the num­ber of lanes on streets, add cross­walks and traf­fic sig­nals, in­stall wide side­walks and plant trees.

For Fayet­teville, hav­ing con­sul­tants iden­tify prob­lem ar­eas with data to back it up helps pri­or­i­tize what to do where, in­stead of re­spond­ing solely to ar­eas that garner lots of phone calls, Brown said. Con­sul­tants also speak a traf­fic-mod­el­ing lan­guage High­way Depart­ment of­fi­cials use, which helps com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween city and state of­fi­cials, he said.

Ev­ery­thing the con­sul­tants have rec­om­mended so far in Fayet­teville came from a com­bi­na­tion of res­i­dent feed­back and hard data, Brown said. City staff have com­piled a work­ing list of about $70 mil­lion in trans­porta­tion im­prove­ments that could go be­fore vot­ers on a new bond is­sue. The fig­ure could vary widely based on the fi­nal rec­om­men­da­tions from the study, he said.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE

Traf­fic flows north on Rup­ple Road Tues­day south of Wed­ing­ton Drive in Fayet­teville. Con­sul­tants with Nel­son/Ny­gaard project once the “Mayor’s Box” around the city is com­plete, the av­er­age com­mute time for most trav­el­ers will re­duce by 40 per­cent. The city still has por­tions of Rup­ple Road and the north­west cor­ner near Van Asche Drive to go on the project.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/BEN GOFF • @NWABENGOFF

Traf­fic flows Thurs­day through the in­ter­sec­tion of South­west I Street and South­west 14th Street in Ben­tonville.

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