If all goes according to plan, an up-and-running bus rapid transit system could serve as a notable send-off for Mayor Karl Dean.
With the best-case-scenario goal of a late-2015 opening, Dean’s proposed $136 million BRT project would travel 7.5 miles from White Bridge road, down West End Avenue and onto Broadway, before jogging north at Fifth Avenue and making its way to the Woodland Street Bridge, across the Cumberland River and into East Nashville.
Metro officials characterized that route as final, decided upon by the Metro Transit Authority Board, after the agency completed an Alternatives Analysis a year ago.
But the project still lacks a designated local funding source, and in order to make it a reality the MTA will need to secure up to $75 million from the federal government. Jim McAteer, MTA’s director of planning and grants, told The City Paper that officials are working toward getting the project submitted to the Federal Transit Authority sometime this year, but that he couldn’t give a hard and fast timeline.
According to the MTA, the project is currently in the second of three phases that “will finalize where the route will run and where the stops will be located, among other things.”
For those reasons perhaps, and primarily because the project’s funding source is yet to be defined, there is a seeming disconnect between how the mayor’s office has cast the status of the project and how some in the community and on the Metro Council perceive it.
Just several months ago, in a series of public meetings, some residents in the Richland-West End area made plain their dissatisfaction with the project and expressed concern about the commuter parking areas that would come with it.
Councilman Jason Holleman represents the area that would make up the western end of the proposed route. He told The City Paper he has heard from constituents who live along West End expressing concern about the West End corridor. At the same time though, he said he was hearing from constituents in the northern sections of his district, in Sylvan Park and Sylvan Heights, with a lot of interest in a BRT route for
“I hear regularly from the people that live around the Charlotte corridor that they have an interest in improving that corridor and exploring mass transit along that corridor,” he said. “And I think we should explore that option in great detail.”
Toward that end, Holleman said he hopes to organize a public meeting with residents, and representatives from the MTA and the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee. The goal of the meeting, he said, would be simply to address the interests of those residents and initiate a conversation about BRT for the Charlotte corridor.
Holleman has championed improvements to mass transit in the city, and he was careful to say he is not out to derail the project, nor to necessarily reroute it. He supports BRT, he said, and wants to see the city fund it. But he did say those expressing an interest in the Charlotte corridor as a route for BRT make a pretty good case.
According to bus ridership totals from the MTA, while more buses ride down West End, more than 100,000 more people rode down Charlotte in a three-year span. And if the project uses tax-increment financing — which would utilize projected increases in tax revenue, brought about by development spurred by BRT, as the local funding source for the project — Holleman argued there could be more gains to be had on Charlotte than on West End, where property values are generally high already.
The MTA board chose the West End corridor a year ago after the Alternatives Analysis study, calling it the “region’s Main Street.” According to an MTA release announcing the decision, the corridor is “home to 170,000 employees, 25,000 residents, and 11 million visitors.” The agency also noted that 17 percent of households in the corridor do not have a car.
But without a designated source of local funding, Holleman said, what could be a significant factor when it comes to determining which corridor would be best is missing. Until that is determined, who’s to know whether Charlotte should be used as the initial route, as part of a BRT expansion at a later date, or as part of the initial plan along with the West End corridor? Holleman insisted he just wants residents to have a chance to meet with the relevant officials to discuss what BRT on Charlotte, whatever the circumstances may be. It’s a discussion he said he believes can still be had.
“My understanding is that where we left it is, that there was going to be further discussion about funding, as well as logistics for the route, and that we were going to resume community meetings sometime this spring,” he said. “It was not my understanding that a final decision had been made.”
Of course, the route has been altered since the MTA board adopted its plan. Late last year, following discussions between business owners and transit officials, the downtown portion of the route was modified in order to avoid the ever-busy honky-tonk district on Lower Broadway. If that suggests the route in general is up for discussion, that’s not how officials involved with the project see it.
Ed Cole, executive director of the Transit Alliance, is one of the people Holleman has reached out to about organizing a public meeting on the matter. Cole told The City Paper that such a meeting should not revisit the earlier decision about the BRT route.
“In my judgment, and this is me — in that discussion, surely we could talk about why the decision to use West End and Broadway was made,” he said. “But the real goal I would hope of a meeting like that is to say, OK let’s see what we can do to put Charlotte on the priority sheet for a next phase of the project.”
McAteer concurred, saying that alternative routes such as Charlotte or Demonbreun Street were considered during the course of the study that led to the Alternatives Analysis.
“It’s not at a point where it could go down an entirely different road,” he said, when asked about the status of the route. “If you’re hearing that Charlotte could be an option, we’re past that. We got past that probably back in 2008 or something for the first BRT.”
Moreover, McAteer said, the West End corridor was always the way to go.
“It’s obvious,” he said. “It’s the front door, it’s the Main Street, it’s everything Nashville.”
Implementing routes on multiple corridors at the same time has been done elsewhere, he said, but is “extremely expensive and probably not practical.”
The mayor’s office refused to comment on the record, referring questions to the MTA. They were eager, however, to produce residents from the Richland-West End area residents who would speak in favor of the proposed route.
However benign Holleman’s intentions may be, his entrance into the fray inevitably introduces a political element to the proceedings. Despite a record including support for much of Dean’s agenda, the councilman’s relationship with the mayor’s office has been strained ever since he opposed financing for the Music City Center and the plan to redevelop the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. That tension was most clearly evidenced by the mayor’s support of Holleman’s opponent, Sarah Lodge Tally, during the 2011 Metro Council elections.
Going forward, what looks to be a centerpiece of Dean’s second term is on an indeterminate timeline. Cole said the city’s contract with a consulting firm working on the second phase of the project expires in April. Like McAteer, though, he said there’s no deadline right now on when the city will apply for federal funding. At some point, a local funding source will need to be identified, and then Dean will need a green light from the council.
With details like funding still to be determined, Holleman said he wants to have more discussions about the project — for which he reiterated his support — not less. Signals coming from the mayor’s office, however, at least when it comes to the proposed route, would not seem to invite such a conversation.