The Metro Traffic and Parking Commission appears poised to make Second Avenue a one-way thoroughfare again, even though Mayor Phil Bredesen wants to keep the street open to two-way traffic.
Bredesen led the charge in 1996 to make downtown’s most popular street accessible to both northbound and southbound vehicles. Before that, only northbound traffic was permitted on Second Avenue.
Despite staunch opposition from merchants, Bredesen managed to get his way after convincing some members of the Traffic and Parking Commission. But now some commission members and many Second Avenue merchants say the mayor was simply wrong. Two-way traffic, they say, has only worsened the problem of traffic jams on an already congested street.
“All that we want is for the street to work well,” Ron Williams, who owns Decades, a memorabilia store on Second Avenue, told the commission Monday. “Right now, what we have is a situation that is not working.”
Speaking on behalf of a group of merchants, Williams recommended that the street once again be restricted to one-way, northbound traffic. He also argued for more parking and loading zones to prevent “bottlenecks.”
At its Monday meeting, the commission made it clear that it didn’t want to take immediate action on the issue. Nevertheless, it heard from Williams and other Second Avenue business owners who have been unhappy with the two-way traffic flow and with other, more mundane issues relating to Second Avenue. Commission members also asked the merchants to submit a formal plan outlining the benefits of one-way traffic and other changes they want to make to Second Avenue.
“The mayor expressed his desire for a two-way street...with the caveat that, if it did not work, he would be open to relook at it,” commission chairman Paul Durham, a local businessman and the pastor of Radnor Baptist Church, told the merchants. “That’s where we are today.”
Vicki Saito, a commercial real estate broker and a member of the commission, recalls that, in 1996, “there was a lot of controversy about one-way versus two-way, and we said we would revisit it. If we found that it absolutely wasn’t working, we’d look at it again. This is the first time it has come up on a review.” At Monday’s meeting, she says, commission members heard “a pretty strong voice, I think, from the merchants who have been down there for a while.”
Durham says many commission members seem to be in agreement that the merchants are the experts on life on Second Avenue and that they should have significant input into how traffic flows on their street. “The commission is only wanting [one-way traffic] because that’s what the merchants want,” Durham says.
Meanwhile, Bredesen’s office continues to favor two-way access and cautions against short-sighted reactions to Second Avenue’s chronic traffic problems.
“The mayor remains committed to seeing that all of the downtown area is accessible,” says Phil Ashford, a Bredesen policy aide. “And I think he has a pretty good record in terms of what’s been accomplished downtown over the last seven years.”
Ashford cites an ongoing transportation survey of the downtown area, which will look more broadly at traffic-related issues in the central business district. “[Traffic] is something that needs to be approached in a comprehensive fashion and not in a piecemeal way,” Ashford says. He predicts that the transportation survey will “look at all these things that are being planned for the downtown area and try to pull all that together.”
On borrowed time
The ongoing debate about traffic flow on Second Avenue is complicated by the question of whether the mayor will allow Durham, who is a potential mayoral candidate, to remain on the Traffic and Parking Commission. While Bredesen has been the most vocal and powerful advocate for a two-way traffic plan, Durham has strongly championed a one-way plan.
Now Durham’s fate on the commission is in Bredesen’s hands. His term on the commission expired April 3, and the 60-day time period during which mayors may reappoint commission members has also passed.
In fact, the mayor is so tardy in sending an appointee’s name for Metro Council’s approval that, under the terms of the Metro charter, Vice Mayor Jay West could now step in to make the appointment.
Durham says he is friendly with the mayor, but he and Bredesen have had an on-again, off-again relationship. They have opposed one another in some of Metro’s most important recent debates, but they have emerged as allies in other battles. For example, Durham was a thorn in Bredesen’s side when the pastor campaigned unsuccessfully to keep beer out of the Nashville Arena. Later, however, Durham was a visible supporter of funding for the Tennessee Oilers stadium, another of Bredesen’s pet projects.
Durham has a reputation as one of the Traffic and Parking Commission’s most conscientious members. He’s spent countless hours on weekend nights surveying the problems on Second Avenue and has managed to marshal enough support for experimenting with closing the street to all vehicles on weekend evenings. Last Friday night, for example, he drove downtown for a “ribbon-tying” ceremony that closed a portion of the street to traffic so that downtown visitors could more freely stroll the street.
Durham says he doesn’t know why his reappointment is being stalled by Bredesen. He says he’s told the mayor he “would like to continue to serve.” Others close to the situation have said the mayor simply “doesn’t know what to do with” Durham.
Any which way
If he is reappointed, Durham says, it’s likely the commission will vote on Second Avenue’s traffic flow sometime before or during the fall. Meanwhile, Saito says, the commission needs input from office workers and others who use the street during the daytime to get their opinon of how the two-way arrangement is working. She also notes that the commission’s staff must develop cost estimates for reverting to a one-way pattern.
Commission members such as Metro Council member Phil Ponder say they also want to consider other factors, such as the traffic flow on nearby streets. The two-way plan for Second Avenue was accompanied, for example, by reversing the direction of Third Avenue.
According to Ponder, even his son-in-law, who formerly worked for the firm that developed Second Avenue’s two-way traffic plan, said at the time that it would have been better if Second Avenue traffic had remained one-way. On the other hand, Ponder says his son-in-law is also convinced that Second Avenue should remain two-way for a “respectable length of time” before being converted back to one-way traffic.
Ponder predicts that, if the commission recommends a change in the traffic pattern, the mayor’s office might balk. “The mayor’s office is a big supporter of two-way traffic [on Second Avenue], and that’s hanging out there,” Ponder says.
Meanwhile, others with a stake in the issue are simply interested in finding some relief to the persistent problem of congestion on Second Avenue. “We need to settle on which way the street’s going to go, and if it helps to go back to one-way, fine,” says Butch Spyridon, executive vice president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Anything that moves traffic more expediently would help.”
Julius Sloss, who represents the downtown area in Metro Council, says he favors bending to the will of the merchants. “If they think that it’s in their best interest,” Sloss says, “that’s what we ought to do.”
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