Still paving after all these years. That’s the thrust of the recently unveiled Nashville Area Long Range Transportation Plan. Via more acronyms than a Tom Clancy novel, the plan takes Nashvillians-in-motion and their counterparts in the surrounding counties to the year 2025. The specifics in the plan indicate that we’ll be driving more and enjoying it less.
The plan was produced by consultants with the Virginia firm of Hagler Bailly on behalf of a little-known entity called the Metropolitan Planning Organization. The MPO represents Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson, and Wilson counties. Members include county executives and mayors of cities with populations of 5,000 or more, as well as representatives of the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
The feds mandate that each metropolitan region with a population of at least 50,000 have an MPO. The point is to encourage regional planning, in particular a system-wide approach to transportation. To be eligible for federal funds for transportation projects, such as new roads and buses and rails, each MPO must regularly file and update a transportation plan that meets federal air quality standards.
In developing the plan, the consultants used population and employment growth forecasts to predict transportation demands. They then evaluated the MPO’s various transportation projects against the plan’s stated intent, “to help alleviate congestion, improve transportation system operations, and meet the region’s air quality goals.” The Nashville area plan meets these goals, but barely, and maybe not for long.
Consultant Gary Erenrich presented the long-range plan to the MPO on Oct. 6. He acknowledged that if the Environmental Protection Agency tightens the Midstate’s allowable auto emissions, as the agency will probably do, the Nashville plan may exceed them. And he pointed out that the reason this plan complies with the current emissions standards is because of improvements in cars, rather than in our transportation system. “This plan passes,” Erenrich said, “because of the emissions technology in new cars, not because of less congestion or because it diverts people into less polluting modes [of transportation]. Without new low-emission vehicles, the plan would not have passed as of 2025.”
That’s because too much of the plan is a paving shopping list. The political muscle of Tennessee’s road-building and trucking lobbies have once again cast their spell over our civic officials. Out of a $3.8 billion budget, $3.3 billion is for roads. Only $298 million is for mass transit and $50 million is for pedestrian and bikeway projects.
The projected result, in spite of all the moolah for widening and building news roads, is slower speeds due to congestion on freeways and major arterials.
The traditional performance standard traffic engineers have used to calculate the efficacy of a transportation system is the degree of congestion. Roads, and especially intersections, are given a grade from A to F, just like school kids. The road’s grade is based on how smoothly traffic flows, or doesn’t.
Congestion becomes an air quality issue because cars stalled or moving very slowly produce more air pollutants. Therefore, the traffic engineers reason, adding capacity for more cars will ease the congestion and reduce the pollution.
By this old-fashioned method of measuring performance, the expenditures in the long-range plan merely maintain an even strain. “Even with the implementation of the entire 2025 plan,” Elliott says, “three of the six major corridors into Nashville will still operate [at a grade of] E or F.” That translates to a volume of cars that is 91 percent to more than 100 percent of these roadways’ capacities. Expect delays.
To achieve these mediocre results, the plan adds significantly to the car-capacity of our transportation system. Nationwide experience has shown that we will use it, and then some.
Case in point: two reports from the land that invented the freeway and the endless subdivision. In both studies, University of California-Berkeley professor Mark Hansen analyzed, in mind-numbing detail, the effect of government-funded road construction in California’s metropolitan regions from 1973 to 1990. Hansen found that new traffictraffic that previously did not exist but had been induced by new road capacityconsumed 91 percent of the entire capacity of the new lanes within five years after construction was completed.
Hansen’s studies show that new road capacity simply generates new traffic.
Elliott admits that the phenomenon of induced traffic is not included in the long-range planning equation. “It’s not within our current modeling abilities,” he says.
If Middle Tennessee’s experience is anything like California’s, the billions spent on new lanes will produce, in short order, roads congested with even more cars.
Some transportation planners have also come to realize that congestion itself is only one issue. The other crucial factor that characterizes a transportation system is the number of miles people drive to get where they need to go and the hours it takes them to get there. Adding capacity to roads fosters sprawl because it encourages people to commute longer distances.
And the more miles and hours they drive, the more they pollute the air.
According to 1997 statistics from the Federal Highway Administration, Atlanta drivers average 37.3 miles a day, the third highest daily average in the country. It’s no coincidence that the poster child of sprawl has failed miserably to attain federal air quality standards, and that the feds shut off the region’s dollars for road construction because of the pollution.
Nashville currently ranks right behind Atlanta. Our drivers are averaging 35.7 miles a day, an increase of three miles a day since 1995. Nashvillians may say that they don’t want their city to be another Atlanta, but our transportation plan threatens to take us there by the year 2025.
That this plan includes commuter rail and more HOV lanes is a big step in the right direction. But the amount of road-widening threatens to undercut these initiatives.
“People who have cars need a reason to take transit, usually saving money or time,” explains Marian Ott, former director of our Regional Transit Authority. “That’s why it’s important to look at strategies which give buses priority, such as HOV lanes, and why commuter rail works in corridors where the interstate is very clogged.”
Ott points out that ridership rose on the Virginia Railway Express when I-95 was under reconstruction. But as soon as the additional lanes were open for business, ridership fell.
If, as Ott says, “congestion is the friend of transit,” adding lanes for all vehicles at the same time you’re adding HOV lanes and commuter rail is schizophrenic. Yet out of the 11 HOV lane projects in the Nashville area plan, seven of them also include a new lane right alongside for all vehicles.
“TDOT does this because they get a better match in federal dollars when they include HOV lanes in a project,” explains a local transportation planner. Never mind that more capacity for all vehicles will discourage people from carpooling or taking buses. Just go for the bucks.
On Oct. 6, the MPO endorsed its long-range transportation plan, subject to public comment. The best thing this citizen can say about the plan is that it can be, and probably will be, modified later. Elliott says the first step after this plan is official is to hire yet another consultant to focus solely on mass transit. The Chamber of Commerce and Mayor Purcell are leading an effort to bring commuter rail, and then light rail, to Middle Tennessee.
Well, we may have to change our land-use policies and transportation philosophiesmore density of development along transit corridors and a moratorium on road wideningto make it work.
In the meantime, gentlemen, start your engines.
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