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.