Transit thinkers

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 12:41am
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The people behind Transit Now Nashville say parts of Dallas' DART system picture here can be a model for Nashville.

Governments drove mass transit initiatives in the United States during the 20th century. A grassroots Nashville-based group wants the city’s advocates of urban living to consider redefining that dynamic in the 21st.

Transit Now Nashville will celebrate one year of low-profile existence this June. Although still no more recognized in Nashville than housing density is in Brentwood, the urban planners, architects and public policy wonks who make up the nonprofit offer some key characteristics sometimes lacking in other progressive-leaning mass transit advocacy groups: 1) a focus on luring the private sector to their cause; and 2) a membership comprising true professionals rather than, as is often the case with such groups, various hobbyists and lay people.

“As transit advocates, having civic and business alliances is extremely important in terms of getting an agenda advanced,” Lynn Otte, associate vice president of Chicago-based TranSystems said of TNN. TranSystems currently is working with the Metro Transit Authority to develop a strategic master plan.

Because Transit Now Nashville is leaning toward promoting a circulator transit system focused on downtown and Midtown — one that could be established without the huge capital outlays that inevitable make government the big dog in the kennel — its hybrid approach makes sense, the group said.

“This can’t be seen as just a grassroots effort or just a government effort but, rather, as a public-private effort,” said Cliff Lippard, a TNN founding member and downtown resident who is known for his practical sociopolitical stances. “We see our growth being through relationships.”

Those relationships will involve private transit advocates as much as they do Metro Planning Department and MTA. Lippard and the TNN team realize mass transit is increasingly shifting from a traditional government-operated model to one of public-private cooperation and, in some cases, a pure private-sector model.

For instance, the New York Waterway ferries that helped during the rescue of US Airways 1549 passengers this spring were privately operated. And Hong Kong's rail system in 2005 became a public-private enterprise that now has about as many private shareholders as any other company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

The Nashville Downtown Partnership, a private-sector nonprofit corporation, operates both a shuttle bus system, Park It! Downtown, and a lunch-time shuttle route. Lippard said that “demonstrates the successes and potential for a circulator.”

But private-sector operation of mass transit systems remains uncommon. For example, in the 1990s, Indianapolis enlisted a private entity, the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp., to operate some of the city’s public bus fleet. The move was unpopular and short-lived.

Exploring U.S. success stories

Learning from the past and taking notes from contemporary systems, Transit Now Nashville members said they are very open to advocating not just bus rapid transit (which MTA would oversee) but also an urban circulator or a light-rail system that blends public and private-sector ideas, management and funding.

There are some U.S. models for that: The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line in New Jersey is run by privately held 21st Century Rail Corp., which snagged some federal funding to help with the construction. And in Charlotte, lawmakers have explored the idea of diverting a portion of property taxes from homes and businesses along a planned streetcar line to help fund that project. Doing so would cover between 20 percent and 30 percent of the project’s cost.

Liza Joffrion, a TNN member and principal of Nashville-based transit consultant MultiModal Research LLC, said the city also might want to look at Detroit’s Woodward Streetcar Project.

“It was initiated by the private sector, the private sector is providing a significant portion of the capital costs, and ongoing operating costs will be provided partially through tax increment financing and partially by the state,” Joffrion said. “The arrangement has required several pieces of state legislation to enable the project to go forward.”

On the state legislation theme, the Tennessee General Assembly is considering two bills (one each in the House and the Senate, that would allow regions of the state with populations of more than 200,000 to have the freedom to form a regional transportation authority and establish a dedicated funding source for transit.

Federal dollars are available for the construction and equipment needed for new transit service, but the money is contingent on having a dedicated source of funding to cover the gap between fare revenue and operating costs.

“Basically, [the state] won’t pay to build it unless we have a realistic plan for how we are going to pay to operate it,” Joffrion said.

So the question simply becomes: What type transit system — in addition to Metro Transit Authority buses focused primarily on funneling commuters into the city’s cure — is best for Nashville’s urban core at this point in the city’s evolution?

Various Southeastern peer cities have enjoyed some success with basic downtown circulators. For example, Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority’s three-line DART Circulator (gas-powered rubber-wheel trolleys that traverse the city’s existing central core streets) started in 2000 and expanded (with a new route and additional trolleys) in 2002. Revenue generated is limited by a modest 25-cent fare, but the trolleys have solid ridership, according to members of Birmingham’s Five Points Merchants Association.

Similarly, the public transit authorities in Jacksonville and Louisville operate replica trolleys that run on rubber wheels. However, the central cores of Birmingham and Louisville have greater building and people density — key factors in public transit success — than that of Nashville.

Brian Phelps, a TNN member and an architect with downtown Nashville-based landscape architecture and planning firm Hawkins Partners Inc., said Transit Now Nashville is looking at the downtown circulator that was a part of the recommendations of MTA’s recent planning efforts as “our first focus.”

“But a regional transportation plan will be required to determine a comprehensive course of action and the appropriate transportation choices to include over time,” Phelps added.

Expanding the concept of private involvement

On Transit Now Nashville’s blog, Phelps writes that interest in public-private partnerships is increasing. He cites two articles — “Leasing of Landmark Turnpike Puts State at Policy Crossroads” from The Wall Street Journal and “Cities Debate Privatizing Public Infrastructure” in The New York Times — reporting on the trend.

Phelps writes the Federal Transit Administration’s Public-Private Partnership Pilot Program (known as Penta-P) is currently studying the application and benefits of PPPs for transit projects. The program intends to demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of PPPs. Cities and regions taking part in the program include Denver, South Florida, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Portland.

Mary Vavra, TNN member and spokeswoman, said the group researches innovative solutions found in Europe, Asia and South America as well as successful transit-related PPPs throughout the United States.

Vavra, who works for MACTEC, an engineering and consulting firm that does some work in the planning and transit industries, stressed that private-sector involvement in mass transit is not limited to a company actually investing in or operating a system but, rather, can also include development along certain transit stops and districts.

“In the United States, we have looked at successful public-private partnerships such as the transit-oriented design of Mockingbird Station in Dallas,” she said, which incorporates office space, lofts and retail outlets with a train station.

Along those lines, Vavra said Transit Nashville Now sees a “great opportunity” for private developers to capitalize on the public investment of the Music City Star commuter rail line.

“Each stop along our Music City Star is a great opportunity for private investors, working with their public agencies, to build walkable mixed-use neighborhoods that have access, via transit, to the major employers and amenities along the corridor,” she said.

Vavra said TNN’s long-term goals include hiring an executive director to help manage the group’s events and initiatives. Recently, the organization, at the recommendation of the Tennessee Public Transportation Association, discussed the need to build a statewide presence.

“In the short term, we are pursuing grants to help achieve more in the next 12 months,” Vavra said. “And we are reaching out to well-established advocacy groups such as Transportation Riders United and local nonprofits like Walk/Bike Nashville to learn from their organizations’ growth and successes.”

TranSystems’ Otte said TNN is poised to make an impact.

“Their focus on development and design,” she said, “as well as availability of service for everyone, is a combination that works well.”

9 Comments on this post:

By: nashbeck on 5/26/09 at 1:04

Thank you so much for all the work you have done in TransitNowNashville.com. Mass transit really needs to take its course in Nashviile, with lightrail, streetcar, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, and high speed rail. We have to get off our dependence on cars, and become a more dense, centralized city. Thanks again, let's make this a success.

By: Kosh III on 5/26/09 at 6:06

Why the obsession with rail? It is far far more expensive than a bus system, takes many years to build and has marginal impact on traffic. Have the MARTA trains eliminated traffic in Atlanta? Did the Trolley relieve traffic congestion in San Diego? No and No.

The best solution is a system of buses, in various sizes, which run on more routes including express to the suburbs and exurbs as well as local routes.

By: JeffF on 5/26/09 at 7:05

Kosh you rock.

I note that the group obsesses about the core again while forgetting about the transportation needs and opportunities of the vast majority of Nashvillians who both work and live in the areas outside of the core. As history will show, all plans made in Nashville that focus on downtown to help all Nashvillians fail to live up to promises and wither away.

You would figure someone would figure that out but instead we get yet more plans that do the same thing. And we get another expensive MTA transit center in downtown and little to no transit connections between Nashville neighborhoods that do not lie in a straight line toward downtown.

Fund bus transit and let all the rail obsessive types go play with their HO scale trains in their mother's basement. The rest of us have to go to work and it would be nice to do so by bus without taking a long bus drive to downtown then another one all the way back out to the office. Nashville has a good road network, use that investment. Do not ignore all that capital by building train lines to the same places roads already go. No city has "trained" itself out of gridlock.

By: dnewton on 5/26/09 at 10:47

We already have mass transit: the car

By: shinestx on 5/26/09 at 12:14

Actually, the analogy to Atlanta is erroneous. The citizens of Atlanta and Fulton Co. and Dekalb Co. voted in 1968 to fund Marta rail. At the time, the combined population of the counties was 700K (half of the counties now) and the metro area had one-fourth the people. Marta rail now runs all the way to the northern reaches of the county and to Gwinnett and Fayette. Marta rail has been a resounding success too, and a strong argument can be made in favor of keeping commuter traffic down. In the past ten years, the midtown area and other locations near Marta stations have seen $6 billion in transit-oriented development, including tens of thousands of housing units.

By: shinestx on 5/26/09 at 12:19

One error many cities make wrt rail transit is that they attempt to utilize existing streets to put tracks on the surface. Also, some cities have even failed to serve the inner-ring suburbs. With all the cut-off streets in all the inner-ring neighborhoods in Nashville, it wouldn't take long to see if a route could be devised... nor would it take long to see if the residents of those areas would be willing to pay a surcharge on their property taxes to fund rail transit.

By: Kosh III on 5/26/09 at 1:28

MARTA is a success? When's the last time you visited Atlanta during rush hour? Buses can do the job much better for much less money and time.

It's taken 40 years to build a few rail lines at fabulous cost. Wow!

By: dnewton on 5/26/09 at 2:26

At any speed ,a vehicle on an asphalt lane can outperform in any performance characteristic like vehicles per hour or average throughput any transit solution unless the transit option handicaps the lane through some artificial limitation. A four-lane Interstate can carry 45,000 vehicles per day at mid level capacity.

The only thing that comes remotely close to that is the entire BART system in California. In spite of having a density of nearly 7 times the maximum density of any urban area in the US, Japan has a problem with falling ridership on its trains. Excessive coersion by taxation, parking fees and other outrages have not stopped the loss of ridership for the past few decades. The mode that is gaining is the personal vehicle.

The last time I was in Pheonix, I noticed that they had laid tracks down a perfectly good street. What a waste. Good transit systems require multiple transit alternatives. There must be a healty diversity of modes supporting a central artery of flow. The long thin shape of the islands of Japan demonstrate how a centrally located rail system with adequate subsystems of rail and bus transit can be put together to make a workable system as long as the people are too poor to buy their own vehicle.

By: Myth_of_the_Nob... on 2/20/10 at 2:03

dnewton,
You are neglecting the external costs and spacial inefficiencies of relying on automobiles. Most cars are parked most of the time, and you have to have places to put them when they are not transporting people. Talk about burdens on working people, who pays for parking for all of those cars? Since you're so knowledgeable about the "efficiencies" of a transportation system built around the automobile you know that parking costs between 2-3 thousand dollars a space for a surface lot and about 15 thousand dollars a space in a parking garage to construct, and thats just first costs, not including the long term maintenance. The cost of that "free" parking gets passed on, which inflates our costs of living and even inflates the cost of food and other products. Land use has been a disaster as a result. Destinations have to spread further apart so that we can supply enough free parking for all the cars that aren't moving...which means we have to drive further. And so it keeps building on itself and traffic congestion gets worse and worse. You're prescribed "solution" actually only makes things worse.

Phoenix? yeah now thats what a car town looks like. You know why they are building rail? Because even Phoenix doesn't want to be like Phoenix.