West Maple Road diet ‘working,’ report says

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published February 1, 2016


BIRMINGHAM — What’s the best part of any diet?  When you finally start to see some results.

Civil engineer Mike Labadie presented an interim report to the Birmingham City Commission during its regular meeting Jan. 25 to shed some light on how the lane reconfiguration is working on West Maple Road.

Last summer, the commission voted to temporarily trim the street from four lanes to three with a center turn lane between Southfield and Cranbrook roads.

Residents have protested the trial since long before the road was changed in October. Issues like bottleneck traffic jams and increased cut-through traffic into the neighborhoods topped the list of worries from those who live near the stretch.

However, Labadie told the commission that in six different categories, conditions on West Maple have either stayed the same or improved since the trial started.

“We have nothing but good news on this. So far, it’s working out great,” said Labadie.

Average speeds on West Maple have decreased by 4 mph since the trial started, along with average daily traffic volumes, which slid from 27,190 vehicles a day to 22,643.

But perhaps surprisingly, the cars that aren’t traveling West Maple anymore aren’t cutting through the neighborhoods either. Cut-through traffic decreased from 157 vehicles per hour to 136 overall. Travel time on eastbound West Maple dropped too, but only by 0.3 minutes. Westbound West Maple travel time remained unchanged.

The most notable change, according to Birmingham Deputy Police Chief Mark Clemence, was in the crash analysis.

“(West Maple) went from (an average of) 11.7 (accidents in three months) to four. That’s about two-thirds decrease. It’s significant,” Clemence said.

The deputy chief pointed out that the instance of sideswipe accidents has been nearly eliminated by going to one lane in either direction.

“Think about it. If you’re in the left lane and the car in front of you stops to turn left, what do you do? You look to your right to see if anyone’s coming and you get over to (go around),” he explained. “People make a judgment call, and that’s a major factor in this.”

The numbers seem to speak for themselves, but will Clemence or City Manager Joe Valentine share their thoughts on the report? Not likely, since both declined to comment because of Senate Bill 571, which prohibits municipal employees from communicating about ballot proposals in the media before an election.

Jim Mirro and more than 1,000 petition signatures put a city charter amendment proposal on the March 8 ballot. When voters head to the polls to vote in the presidential primary election, they’ll be asked to either approve or deny a city charter amendment that would prevent the city from changing the lane configuration of West Maple without a vote of the people.

Mirro was out of town when the report was presented to the commission, but he reviewed the data and responded via email to the Eagle with his thoughts.

“First, the data released by the city of Birmingham do not conclusively prove that three lanes are better than four. For example, while the overall crash rate for Maple Road may have decreased during the test, I have been informed that crashes in the merger locations have actually increased,” Mirro said in the email. “In addition, I have been informed that there have been some ‘near misses’ to pedestrians on the sidewalks next to the merger locations — especially in snowy conditions and, if not eliminated in the future, these situations could become fatalities.”

Mirro also claimed that the city selectively reported measurements on the road, and the information is incomplete, likening the engineer to “a fox guarding the chicken coop” to support the reconfiguration that he proposed. He pointed out that the “before” results measured traffic in that area from 1999 to 2002, and the engineer acknowledged that an oversight happened when new traffic measurements weren’t taken before the trial.

Though he doubts the report’s validity, he said that if the data is true, he doesn’t believe it provides a compelling reason to make the lane change permanent.

“For example, the city reports the number of criteria with positive changes adds to 12, whereas the number of criteria with negative or no changes adds to 13 — not an overwhelming reason to cut in half the carrying capacity of the road,” he said.

Former mayors and city commissioners Tom McDaniel, George Dilgard, Scott More and Gordon Rinschler — all of whom stepped away from the commission table when their terms expired this past November — aren’t bound from speaking out on the charter amendment proposal the way city officials are.

In a letter to the Eagle, they sounded off on changing the charter as a way to keep West Maple off the road diet.

“Since adoption in 1933, our charter has rarely been before the voters (only 30 times in 83 years!), most recently to reflect changes in state election law. Does this sound like a place to address how to paint lines on a road? We think not,” the letter reads.

“Regardless of your position on Maple Road, you should be concerned when special interest groups attempt to hijack our charter for purely political purposes. The proposed charter amendment on the March ballot does exactly that. It proposes to take away authority from the elected City Commission by mandating how the lines on Maple Road are to be painted in perpetuity.”

The mayors go on in the letter to suggest that the current seven-member City Commission — four of whom were recently elected for the first time to the body — should be trusted to represent the residents who voted them onto the commission, and residents should vote no on the proposal March 8.

If the amendment fails, the commissioners will vote at the end of the trial whether to permanently restripe West Maple when the road is resurfaced this summer.

To see a full copy of the interim report for the West Maple Road reconfiguration trial, visit www.bhamgov.org and click on the full agenda packet for the Jan. 25 City Commission meeting.

Do you think the new three-lane configuration is working on West Maple Road, or do you think the stretch should go back to four lanes? Share your thoughts on our Facecbook page, www.Facebook.com/BirminghamBloomfieldEagle.