On the wrong track

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 12:47am
26p04rail Acela.jpg

Nashville is a long way from landing Intercity high-speed rail service like the Acela that connects much of the East Coast.

Relative to the other spending programs rolled out after the massive $747 billion stimulus package, President Obama's mid-April rail system announcement made a small splash. But in the end, the project could prove to have a serious impact on the economic development of middle Tennessee.

The plan sets aside $8 billion now and another $1 billion a year for the next five years to tie together the country’s metropolitan areas with a high-speed rail network. Unveiled as a “Vision for High-Speed Rail in America,” the proposal is a bold step forward in rethinking a key part of America’s transportation infrastructure.

In the proposal, the administration has outlined 10 corridors to be included in the system. But should the administration's vision become a reality, the trains won't stop in Nashville or anywhere else in Tennessee. The state is completely left off the proposed grid, alongside Kansas, Wyoming, South Dakota and a few others.

But unlike the rest of that neglected crowd, Nashville is in the middle of a heavily trafficked transportation corridor, the bustling Chicago-Atlanta corridor. The gap indicates Tennessee has failed to identify itself as one of the nation's new infrastructure priorities — a shortcoming that could have development consequences down the line.

With an ever-struggling airline sector and gas prices putting a leash on road travel, long-range commuter rail could grow into a more feasible transportation option. And should an American high-speed rail system take off like the European concept it seeks to emulate, the economic viability of a region will be increasingly linked to its accessibility.

“I don't think we're totally left out of the picture yet, but the state does have to do more,” said former Congressman Bob Clement, a longtime supporter of rail investment. “The cities in Tennessee have to do more in terms of getting ready and prepared.”

Right now, as the grants begin to be awarded off the initial stimulus rail investment, the burden falls on Tennessee and Nashville to examine why we've yet to earn a place in the plan and what we can do to get in on the game.

Business community must step up

One possible reason Tennessee has not been identified as a national rail priority is that the state has scant recent history in the commuter rail business. Since the privatization of train travel nationwide, Amtrak has not serviced Nashville. In 2003, a plan was circulated to extend a rail corridor from Atlanta to Chattanooga and on to Nashville, but federal funding has yet come through on the project.

According to Michael Skipper, executive director of the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Nashville will only be included in a future national rail system if the region can establish itself as a priority. Doing so requires local stakeholders to show a need to get to other parts of the country quickly and efficiently as well as — perhaps more importantly — outsiders must continue to want to visit Nashville.

“It will take an effort made by the business community here and elected officials working with our congressional delegation to make that case for us,” Skipper said. The business community in particular, Skipper suggested, has a vested interest in seeing new efficient modes of intercity transportation come to Nashville.

“Because of the nature of our economy, which is largely visitor-based, anything that we can do to help people get to Nashville … quicker or cheaper or more frequently, it seems like that would help our overall economy,” he said.

But according to representatives from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, for the time being, high-speed national rail is taking a backseat to more homegrown concerns.

“Our priorities right now are more locally oriented in terms of having the funding in Middle Tennessee to enable us to do bus rapid transit and perhaps some local commuter rails,” said Lewis Lavine, chair of the government issues committee at the chamber.

Lawmakers last week voted to create a dedicated funding mechanism for mass transit development. By connecting Middle Tennessee’s hubs, supporters say the quality of life in the region will not only rise, but make it more attractive to employers.

Balancing local plans, reaching beyond roads

Asked if those local plans have limited planners’ vision for addressing Nashville’s role in larger national projects, one mass transit supporter says the two concepts go hand in hand.

“If you have a really strong commuter rail system within your city, it makes it easier for folks to use a national rail system,” said Greg Adkins, District 26 Councilman and executive director of the Tennessee Public Transportation Association. “Those local systems — including bus — that get people to the national rail system from their local communities are critical.”

Adkins added that a local transit system is a proving ground for a region eyeing future federal funding. When handing out funding for projects, federal agencies favor regions that have been previously capable in drumming up local support and raising money.

Another reason Tennessee may have been left off the proposed high-speed system is the state's reputation as a major interstate thoroughfare. With Interstates 65 and 75, Tennessee has existing infrastructure channels that service the North-South traffic a high-speed corridor would most likely address, according to Ed Cole, the environmental bureau chief at the Tennessee Department of Transportation. But if the state hopes to establish itself as a rail priority, infrastructure planners must think beyond the traditional roadways, he added.

“We need to do all we can do to document the Tennessee benefit and contribution to this, but it's really not just a congressional lobbying effort. It's more a part of a planning process to document the need for these corridors,” he said.

The federal government is currently taking grant applications from regions interested in moving ahead with high-speed rail. No experts or transportation officials believe the 10 corridors outlined in the President's plan are the only possibilities for inclusion in the system. But regions looking to join the table while the plan is in its early stages must begin to rethink what their future transportation network looks like and how their states will link to the rest of the country.

Rather than traffic studies of interstate densities and destinations, high-speed commuter rail studies must consider detailed airline traffic statistics, numbers airlines aren’t always willing to part with. Tennessee planners would have to look at the flights between Chicago and Atlanta, the frequency and cost of those trips and whether a high-speed rail option would offer a cost- and time-effective alternative.

On that front, things may be out of our reach for a while. Cole said such a planning process would be far more extensive than anything the state has documented to date.

“We'll obviously do more to raise the understanding and importance of [rail] in our planning, but we don't have a methodology for it yet,” Cole said.

8 Comments on this post:

By: nashbeck on 5/26/09 at 12:47

I really want High Speed Rail through Nashville and connecting to Chattanooga and on to Atlanta. Europe has embrace HSR and it is a great alternative. America canNOT depend on our cars forever, and it looks like much of the country is getting on the HSR concept, so we definitely cannot be left out. We need to do everything we can to get High Speed Rail through Nashville, Tennessee.

By: shinestx on 5/26/09 at 6:56

Nowhere in this article is the name of Nashville's Congressman, Jim "Stupor" Cooper. Why wasn't his lack of action on this matter, or overall lack of influence in DC analyzed? As a typical American who relies on the media to be informed of our elected officials, I am at the end of my rope... disgusted... at the partisan "blocking and tackling" that the news media give to the Democrats in this country. It's an outrageous double-standard.

By: global_citizen on 5/26/09 at 12:22

I would love to have rail linking our major cities. Think about all the people who would come to Nashville for events here, or go from Nashville to Knoxville, Tri-cities, Memphis, or Chattanooga. I'd love to be able to hop on a train and read a book while traveling to Johnson City rather than drive it.

By: tunicatony on 5/26/09 at 12:26

We need city rail and reginal rail. Nashville is in the middle of Atlanta, Memphis Chicago and Indianapolis. It makes sense and we as residents of Nashville, need to do our part to push for this. Not to mention with our suburban sprall how useful a light rail system would be. As a frequnt traveler to Chicago and other major cities, we are lacking, and I find it more and more disappointing everyday that we do not do more to push for this type of transportation. We are going to be left behind and when cities do connect it will only hurt us economically. Its our loss.

By: JeffF on 5/26/09 at 12:33

Nashville if told they were getting a intercity rail line would immediately make plans to put the station on the most expensive, most inconvenient land in downtown and wonder why the feds would not be willing to run lines through all that mess and congestion.

I would support a high-speed rail line if it were done intelligently instead of the Nashville way. A city that thinks putting a minor-league stadium downtown is a good idea would definitely blow it on this one.

By: JeffF on 5/26/09 at 12:37

Same goes for the other train types. They are good ideas but we would blow it by making everything head downtown instead of somewhere useful like work, home or school. That is why bus transit systems are the real heroes of public transportation. They can be rerouted when necessary and can connect the neighborhoods to each other. Trains are for hobbyist.

By: airvols on 5/26/09 at 3:57

So typical of what is going on with our old time politics in this state and the leadership we have in Washington. Two Senators that that are on the wrong side of everything. One will lose us a GM plant, and the other is playing a piano . We will loose out on our future if we continue down this path. The Democratic party better get their act together and develop leadership that can challenge for policial power.

By: shinestx on 5/26/09 at 6:42

I noticed you conveniently failed to mention anything about the actual rep from Nashville... Jim Stupor. Dem-wit supporters don't really see a need to complain about the real source of problems... just those they can demagogue... or is that Demo-gogue? You're a good, loyal follower... you've said everything they've told you to think.