Gathered before a crowd of transportation officials and business types at the packed Watermark restaurant on Monday, Mayor Karl Dean offered a maxim illustrating the urgency of bringing Nashville's mass-transit infrastructure up to speed.
"The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago," he said. "The second best time is today."
But if the mayor's arboreal metaphor holds, Dean's proposed east-west rapid transit corridor — a campaign pledge item dating back to his first term — is a sapling in desperate need of some Miracle-Gro. So far, the only fruit it has borne is a yearlong $1.18 million study commissioned by the city, which evaluates alternatives to existing public transportation systems. The crowd at Watermark got a sneak peek at the study Monday — and with it their first glimpse of Nashville's likely future in public transportation.
That future, according to the study, is a bus rapid transit (BRT) system. In the model suggested by the study, the system (whose funding source has yet to be appropriated) would run along Broadway/West End Avenue, extending from West Nashville's White Bridge Road across the river to East Nashville's Five Points. According to Parsons Brinckerhoff, the New York-based international engineering firm that conducted the study, it would be outfitted with "smart card" fare kiosks, real-time GPS and other high-tech bells and whistles in an effort to make it sexier than its more efficient kissing cousin, electric streetcars.
But BRT's biggest come-on is its price tag. The firm compared costs between bus rapid transit and electric streetcars — the study's other chief viable alternative, and one with some historic and sentimental appeal to Nashvillians. Parsons Brinckerhoff found that streetcars, with their dedicated tracks, would provide a greater sense of permanence — and thus more investment incentive. What's more, they would carry 90,000 more passengers during their first year of operation. At an estimated $136 million, however, BRT would be significantly cheaper than streetcars, whose cost runs $275 million. In terms of political expediency, that's a significant advantage for the mayor.
"Bus rapid transit is by far the most compelling case we've heard," Dean said, noting the stark $139 million cost difference between the two transportation modes.
How Nashville will raise even the lesser sum remains a mystery. After the presentation — which included members of the Chamber of Commerce-approved Middle Tennessee Transit Alliance, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Metropolitan Planning Organization — Dean couldn't be pinned down about whether and how the city would fund the effort.
"We're certainly going to need some local revenue source," Dean said, then reversed by adding, "It's not necessarily clear to me that [local revenue] necessarily will be required for this project."
For the record, in order to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation and its subsidiary, the Federal Transit Administration, municipalities must secure a dedicated source of revenue, whether a tax increase or tax-increment financing structure. Against this, the feds can provide matching money.
In recent years, the most popular federal program for funding transportation infrastructure improvements has been the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) initiative. It was created in the wake of the Obama administration's signature American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the Stimulus. In its first year, TIGER awarded $1.5 billion for projects across the country. The next year, though, the program shelled out only a third of that figure, to the tune of $557 million.
Now, with stimulus money dried up and TIGER funds at the mercy of congressional oversight, the competition for even fewer resources has never been greater. Compounding the funding issue on the local front is the looming prospect of a property tax hike — a maelstrom that may come to dominate Dean's second term. Additionally, the sales tax for Davidson County is virtually maxed out.
These realities would make it more politically difficult for Dean to ask the council to approve a special tax to fund a pet project, even when it's needed now more than ever. The study warns that the city's transit system poses a grave future problem, citing a 850,000-person population increase for the region by 2035. If the city takes no action by then, it will also have to deal with a projected 50 percent increase in traffic along the corridor, which cuts through some of Nashville's most popular tourist attractions and largest businesses. Its swath includes Vanderbilt University, LP Field and the downtown business district.
Dean is careful to distinguish this BRT initiative from an overarching multibillion-dollar regional transportation plan for Middle Tennessee. But the mayor has certainly walked back the bold vision for Nashville's transit future that he outlined during his first term. At a meeting with Nashville business leaders at the Renaissance Nashville Hotel in November, Dean essentially pre-empted the Parsons Brinckerhoff study by going all out in favor of BRT a month before details were released.
"There is a sense — you get it from talking to experts — that people just want streetcars," Dean told the Nashville Business Journal Nov. 10. "But when you look at it in a rational way and look at the costs and you get the same ridership, it's hard for me to justify. But I'm going to approach it with an open mind."
In his first term, Dean conducted fact-finding trips to Denver and Pittsburgh, heralded by the mayor as cities whose rail-based transit systems make them more competitive for jobs and population growth. But as the Parsons Brinckerhoff study shows, Nashville has adjusted its sights lower, adopting models such as Cleveland, Ohio; Eugene, Ore.; Las Vegas; and Orlando, Fla. — not exactly hotbeds of the creative class, and whose BRT systems report varying levels of success.
That BRT is the cheapest form of alternative transportation should come as no surprise. But some transportation advocates find its no-frills measures potentially problematic. To warn Davidson County drivers to steer clear, for example, the Parsons Brinckerhoff study envisions dedicated bus lanes designated only by an application of crimson paint. Cliff Lippard, board president of the transportation advocacy nonprofit Transit Now Nashville, doesn't think that's enough to preserve the BRT system's efficiency.
"The whole idea of just painting the street is just not going to be enough," Lippard tells the Scene. "Some places, like Eugene, Ore., they have a complete lane separated from the rest of traffic. Maybe something as feasible as a curb, some kind of physical separation, might work, but what they've presented doesn't seem feasible if motorists start driving in the lane."
Lippard says that even though he and members of his group are generally pleased that the long-gestating corridor plan is finally getting some traction, there is disappointment that the city isn't going big enough. By adding buses instead of streetcars, he says, the city is merely adding more rubber to the road.
"A lot of people have a kind of emotional or sentimental attachment to streetcars because of their history," he says. "And there is a lot of literature that shows streetcars generate a larger return on investment than BRT." Still, Lippard calls the BRT plan "a first step in the right direction."
Another concern is the chosen route, which heavily favors the city's more affluent and car-owning West Side at the expense of so-called "zero-car" households in East and North Nashville. As identified by MTA, these are lower-income families that depend heavily on public transport to get to work around the city. For them, transportation costs eat up a larger portion of their income.
District 5 Councilman Scott Davis thinks that the proposed route will leave out members of his district — which comprises a large segment of Gallatin Road that is already serviced by a low-grade form of BRT — as well as people living in Antioch and beyond.
"I would love to have it go up Gallatin Road," Davis says.
Meanwhile, Davis' colleague, District 6 Councilman Peter Westerholm, is happy to see the route's eastern terminus at Five Points. In the future, he believes, the BRT line could be extended.
"I really think that the combination of where people, jobs and destinations are at this point, I think it's great to extend it to Five Points and across the river and connect people who live over here and maybe work on the West Side," Westerholm says. "I think that once we get into it and see if this is accessible, the more logical expansion would be to go further down Gallatin Road."
The hope, he explains, is that the existing light BRT "that operates more like an express bus" could shuttle people from farther down Gallatin Road to Five Points, where they could "utilize the true BRT" for the rest of the way.
"It's not a perfect version," the councilman says, "but I think that's something we'll be willing to work with for now."
Whatever next iteration the new transit corridor makes in the future, however, Westerholm says it must address the needs of the lower-income riders for whom public transportation isn't a novelty but a necessity.
"Ultimately, it does need to facilitate zero-car households," Westerholm adds. "I think we have more of those [households] in East Nashville both by choice and by necessity. I think that to the extent that it can serve those and make that more conducive to more people, I think that it's going to be a great benefit."
Email firstname.lastname@example.org.Correction: The population-increase number by 2035 cited in this story was wrong at publication. It has been changed to the correct figure: 850,000.
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