Is Motown's urban blight and stagnant sprawl Nashville's future if we don't fix our transportation issues? 

America's transportation system was once the envy of the world. But the world has moved on in the last 30 years, leaving us behind. Today we're stuck in traffic, gazing enviously at passengers hurtling across Europe on high-speed rail — while wincing at the oil oozing onto our shores.

What happened? The answers — and perhaps even some solutions — are to be found in a documentary called Beyond the Motor City, part of PBS' "Blueprint America" studies of public infrastructure. Filmmaker Aaron Woolf was in Nashville last week to screen the film for a group of mayors from the 10-county Middle Tennessee region — and to help Nashville apply the brakes before hitting the same economic and developmental wall as Detroit, the poster city for America's transportation decline.

The theme of the documentary, Woolf tells the Scene, is that "infrastructure choices have consequences." In contrast to the U.S.'s car-dependent transportation logjam, Beyond the Motor City holds up Spain's high-speed rail system as the shining example of contemporary mobility. Begun in 1992, the 200-mph Alta Velocidad Espanola (or AVE) has reduced travel times between cities by as much as 90 percent, induced significant private development in cities served, and spurred an industry exporting the technology to other countries. When the system is completed, an AVE station will lie within 30 miles of every citizen.

Detroit, on the other hand — and by extension the U.S. at large — bet its future on the car and has failed to progress beyond it. The city pioneered not only modern automobile production but also the whole automotive infrastructure, from concrete paving to the freeway. But today, with the American auto industry on billion-dollar life support, the Motor City's main drag Woodward Avenue is a wasteland corridor — an eight-lane escape route from a municipality where one-third of the land lies vacant. Volunteer "Blight Busters" demolish abandoned houses. The resulting landscape of widely scattered housing and industrial ruins cannot be served efficiently by utilities or mass transit.

The fact that Detroit has fallen so far down, however, has created a rough consensus about the way up. Citizens acknowledge that the city must shrink to a denser, more sustainable footprint. Entrepreneurs are laying plans for commercial-scale urban agriculture. A former GM executive now heads the local transit authority, which will soon begin construction of a light-rail line down Woodward.

So what does all of this have to do with Nashville? After all, no disrespect to Motown, our city's diversified economy has proved resilient even during downturns. But our transportation infrastructure is far less diverse. The network that has delivered prosperity to Nashville is anchored by three increasingly gridlocked, pollution-belching interstate highways. And the city has been painfully slow to explore high-speed alternatives — e.g., one measly bus rapid transit (BRT) line that doesn't even have its own designated lane on Gallatin Road.

In the three decades since the interstate system was complete, we as a city, as a region and as a nation have failed to evolve beyond the Roads-R-Us mode. Eighty percent of federal transportation dollars are still devoted to road construction and maintenance. In Tennessee, the figure is 81 percent, although that includes sidewalks and bike lanes added when roads are resurfaced or widened. It is hard to dispute that Nashville has a transportation monoculture that makes walking, biking or riding the bus all but impossible in many neighborhoods.

Mayor Karl Dean understands the transportation challenges facing cash-strapped Metro Nashville, as well as how far the city lags behind other municipalities in facing those issues. None have quick fixes. The transportation initiatives that transformed America — the transcontinental railroad, the interstate system — demanded national intervention. (Imagine if every state or county had been responsible for planning and funding its own chunk of the interstate.) By the same token, long-range solutions such as light rail will require active collaboration among Middle Tennessee counties — the kind fostered by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which co-sponsored last week's screening and served as a host to the mayors from the 10-county "Power of 10" conference.

Both alone and in concert, Nashville will be playing catch-up for years on these issues, as will the nation as a whole. But filmmaker Woolf thinks that a more diverse menu of transportation options can get the country moving again — and that there's no time like the present to develop one.

"If you look at the times when America has transformed its infrastructure," Woolf says, "it's always been during times of crisis. We began to build the transcontinental railroad in 1862, during the Civil War." During the Great Depression, he observes, we built the Golden Gate Bridge and the Grand Coulee Dam and laid the groundwork for the interstate highway system.

"This is one of those moments in American history," he says, "when we make decisions that will have a profound effect for decades" — whether positive or negative.


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