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CITY TALK: Savannah Forward could align priorities of city government, residents

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I hope readers of this column have already filled out the online survey for the city of Savannah’s new Tourism Management Plan. If you haven’t gotten to it yet, you have until May 14 to complete the survey via www.savannahga.gov/tourismmanagementplan.

City officials have also undertaken Savannah Forward, an ambitious process to determine citizens’ priorities.

At http://www.savannahga.gov/savannahforward, you can find an online survey as well as details about an ongoing series of meetings in each of our six aldermanic districts. There have already been meetings for the 3rd, 4th and 5th districts, and meetings for the 1st, 2nd and 6th districts are slated for the week of May 15.

The meetings, the survey, the work of a consultant and other information will be used to formulate a strategic plan “to make Savannah the best community of our size in America,” according to the city’s website. This is one of the most important initiatives spearheaded so far by City Manager Rob Hernandez, who has been on the job since last fall.

Months ago, this column proposed a bottom-up process to identify needs of individual neighborhoods, which would obviously entail many more public meetings than the six that have been scheduled. But the chosen process work out fine if Hernandez and his team are able to identify common themes.

This column has traditionally concentrated on the neighborhoods that are now in the 2nd District, which was significantly redrawn after the 2010 Census and which is now represented on council by Bill Durrence.

There was a time when the problems north of Forsyth Park were largely different than the issues south of Forsyth, but the neighborhoods increasingly share concerns, including crime, traffic calming, poor connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists, tourism management and affordable housing.

Some of those issues were also raised at recent meetings by citizens of other districts, so perhaps we’ll see city government priorities in 2018 and beyond that align more closely with those of residents.

Where’s the gridlock?

During a recent workshop session to discuss traffic calming on Drayton and Whitaker streets, members of Savannah City Council were told by the traffic engineering department that there would be “gridlock” if the streets were reduced to one vehicular lane.

We have recently been given an unintended preview of that supposed “gridlock.”

If you drive Whitaker Street regularly, you already know that one lane has been closed between Huntingdon and Hall streets for repairs to pipes far underground. That means all traffic has had to merge into the left lane in the block immediately south of Gaston Street.

I stood at the corner of Whitaker and Huntingdon from 5 to 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday of last week to see what happens at rush hour. My observations match those of others.

No gridlock.

The merge point is well-marked, and the vast majority of drivers handle the stretch competently. Drivers turning from Gaston Street have no trouble at all because cars are already turning onto Whitaker one at a time, and the new configuration delayed traffic by mere seconds, if at all.

I was especially curious to see what would happen when there were cars in both lanes of Whitaker at the light at Gaston. Again and again, when the light would turn green, both lanes would start moving, and the drivers would do a relatively efficient zipper merge into one lane.

By the way, there was a flurry of news reporting in fall 2016 about the “zipper merge” – just google it.

Traffic slowed down slightly as the drivers merged into one lane, and drivers continued to go slightly more slowly than usual alongside the park. Interestingly, I did not see any drivers accelerate dramatically past the point when both lanes were open again. Beyond the construction zone, drivers tended to maintain a steady speed and a safe distance from the cars in front of them.

Obviously, we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from this one example, but it’s clear that even rush hour traffic could easily be accommodated if Whitaker were reduced to one lane next to Forsyth Park.

In response to this column, some readers will no doubt point to the annoying backups on Drayton Street because of a lane closure for construction of a new hotel just north of Liberty Street, but we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from that experiment either. As I detailed at the time, those delays were almost entirely caused by walk signals for pedestrians preventing drivers from executing left turns from Drayton Street onto Liberty Street. In other words, those delays could have been addressed easily.

While we should be cautious about drawing too many conclusions, it seems obvious that the fears of “gridlock” are overblown. Here’s hoping city officials drop the hyperbole and try to address rather than dismiss citizen concerns about the need for traffic calming on Drayton, Whitaker and other streets around town.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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