With the doors of the Music City Center officially open, and Metro’s $1.8 billion operating budget signed, sealed and delivered, Mayor Karl Dean and his administration have turned their focus toward the next task in his agenda for the city.
That would be The Amp, a proposed $175 million bus rapid transit project that the mayor called “absolutely vital” to the city’s progress.
Dean will be out of office by the time The Amp starts running along a 7.1-mile route between the White Bridge Road area of West Nashville and East Nashville’s Five Points. But one of the Dean administration’s primary objectives over the next two years will be to get it moving. Toward that end, the mayor, the Metro Transit Authority and other transit advocates have begun the push in earnest, blanketing local media, sending out pro-Amp mail-pieces and turning out large numbers of project supporters at Metro Council meetings, outfitted in green T-shirts bearing the slogan “I’m amped.”
The project scored an important initial victory on Tuesday, when the council approved $7.5 million designated for its final design and engineering, as part of the mayor’s $300 million capital spending plan. Those funds will be spent only if and when the Federal Transit Administration accepts the project into its Small Starts program. Securing $75 million in federal funds will be the next hurdle for The Amp, and the most crucial.
Ahead of the council’s budget vote, Dean — along with Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote, MTA CEO Paul Ballard, project consultant Jeff Hammond and Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Ralph Schulz — sat down with reporters and editors from The City Paper and the Nashville Scene, and made his case.
“We’ve got a lot of momentum into the city right now, we’ve got a lot of attention,” he said, “and this would rank I’d say, after education, as the No. 1 issue that I think we need to get right.”
The city’s administrative arrangement with regards to schools makes it more difficult for Dean to get directly involved in education. But he can get his hands on transit.
He cast the project as the backbone of an expanded transit system in the city, and the Middle Tennessee region. He and transit officials rebutted skeptics’ claims that the project would actually worsen traffic congestion, and defended the West End route as the sensible starting point for a citywide transit upgrade.
With the region projected to grow by 1 million people over the next 25 years, and the city already frequently choked with automobile traffic, Dean pitched The Amp as a necessary step forward to keep the city from falling behind.
How reliant would you say the project’s success is on capturing new riders, if that makes sense, as opposed to people who are riding the bus in the corridor already, and now they’re going to start riding The Amp?
Mayor Karl Dean: Well, right now we’ve demonstrated to the Federal Transit Administration based on stuff like, you know, outside the window here, that 21-story apartment building [a luxury tower under construction at 12th Avenue and Laurel Street, across from City Paper offices in the Gulch] and all of the growth in this corridor, I think they’re already convinced that this is the ideal corridor from that perspective. When we add in the number of jobs in this corridor, the number of visitors and tourists, particularly with the convention center coming online, quite frankly I think we’ve made that sale to them already. So, I mean, it’s no secret that public transportation service tends to do better. I mean, that’s just common sense. And they see that density coming together in this corridor. They’re also seeing how we’ve done with BRT and how Nashville has responded to that. So they feel — and I don’t mean to speak for them, but I’ve been in a lot of meetings with them, and they feel like we have the right corridor.
Paul Ballard (MTA): The top three corridors are Gallatin is No. 1, then Murfreesboro, then West End. So if [we] did it, I mean, we have BRT lite on those other two, but West End is the third.
What’s the percentage of drivers in this corridor which are commuter-only from outside the corridor?
Ballard: That’s a tough question. I’d have to look at the map and let you know.
For instance, if I lived in Robertson or Wilson County, I’m commuting in to some place in Midtown, what’s — what’s in this for me?
Ballard: I don’t know the exact answer to it, but we’ll get it to you. But I will tell you that if — you know, from that perspective, those people who choose to continue to drive will have a lot more room to drive on the road because the people traveling locally will be on The Amp. And so it makes more room for them.
Dean: And I guess the inverse is if you don’t do it, then your commute just becomes longer. And so they gain by this investment because their commute is kept more reasonable.
Ballard: The rapid transit supporters in St. Louis have a saying which I really like, and that is, “Some of us use it, all of us need it,” and that’s really true. It really is, just from that specific question.
So if I live in Bellevue or Antioch or Hermitage and I don’t have a direct connection into this, is that the pitch? That driving in the city is going to become so interminable that I don’t have a choice?
Dean: There’s two pitches. One would be what you just said, that if you don’t make the investment, driving becomes worse because of the congestion. The second one would be that you would have connections almost anywhere you live in the city, because all the bus routes end up at some point at Music City Central, which would then connect you to The Amp. So if you live in Hermitage or you live in Donelson and you take the train to downtown Nashville to work and you work at Vanderbilt, The Amp is going to improve your quality of life. And so I think that’s the real argument.
Plus, I think the final argument is that this is not a one-off thing. This is the creation of a transit system for the city, and, you know, I think we’ve shown by starting with the BRT Lite on Murfreesboro Road and Gallatin Road that you just keep moving. And so the next thing we would do after this project would be to look at other corridors to see whether we could do full BRT or BRT lite, further connecting things together.
If you go to TSU and you want to use The Amp, and you want to get over to the Vanderbilt area, then go downtown from there, you’ll take advantage of The Amp. If you’re way over at Lipscomb and Belmont, same thing. You can use The Amp. But at some point we’re going to need Charlotte to have BRT, we’re going to need Hillsboro Road, which would be an incredible challenge, to do something there. You’re going to need Lebanon Road and Nolensville Road. But this is not a one-off. This is the beginning. And to make it work, No. 1, you’re not going to get federal funding I don’t think for any other corridor, is my sense of this. And you’ve got to pick the corridor that is most likely to succeed. So you pick the one that doesn’t have any form of BRT, that is the third-highest-traveled route with the most increasing density that you have, and the most tourists and visitors flocking to every day.
Ballard: And the locations you mentioned, for example, Bellevue, we have an express service that goes from Bellevue Park-and-Ride, jumps on the interstate, and comes in. Antioch, we just established the BRT lite. Murfreesboro Road goes right through the heart of Antioch, and you mentioned Hermitage. We have express buses coming in from there. So, I mean, it’s all part of the system that we’re growing. We try to apply the right technology to the right corridor. The Amp is the right technology for this corridor, just as BRT lite is the right technology for Gallatin and Murfreesboro, express buses from Bellevue. It’s the way for people to get to and from work using the interstate. And so we try to apply the right technology for the right corridor.
If West End is the third-largest corridor, what is the fourth? Do you know offhand?
Ballard: Yes, I do. That’s a good question. No. 4 is Nolensville Pike, and No. 5 is Charlotte. Those are our top five busiest bus routes at MTA, and we have over 40 bus routes. And then of course the RTA operates into the surrounding eight counties. That’s another issue, and those ridership numbers are increasing dramatically, too. They all come into Music City Central, some of those folks will jump onto The Amp to travel to Caterpillar or Vanderbilt or Baptist Hospital.
Dean: You might talk about how your ridership has gone up over the last few years.
Ballard: Yes. We’ve built considerable ridership in Nashville. Ten years ago, the ridership was at about 6.4 million. Last year we passed the 10 million mark for the first time this year. When the fiscal year ends at this month, we’ll be between 10.5 and 10.6 million. So we’ve seen significant growth in ridership in Middle Tennessee, and primarily in Davidson County. I think additionally the real key to that is the support of the business community.
The business community has supported what we call our Easy Ride Program, where employers pay for the employees to ride public transportation. That has been the single biggest builder of ridership in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. It started with Vanderbilt University, and they currently have approximately 45,000 trips a month, every month, for their faculty, staff and grad students to ride the bus. Belmont is onboard. Lipscomb University is onboard. Metro government is onboard. The state of Tennessee pays for almost 50,000 trips a month. So that’s really how we have, in addition to expanding services, providing more trips, providing more bus routes, expanding into the surrounding counties, the program has built ridership, and it’s built diversity on our buses. We have folks from all walks of life who use public transportation.
Dean: When I take the bus, I take the No. 7 Hillsboro bus. I get on near Woodmont, and you get on the bus and it’s three-quarters full for most of the ride. But, you know, you’ve got a huge number of people in the morning getting off the bus at Vanderbilt because they’re students or they’re working at the university. Then you have a large influx of people coming on the bus in the morning, people who are leaving Vanderbilt Medical Center and going down to Music City Central, and they may live in any part of the city, but that’s their — the way their connection is done. And I would say on a given morning there’s probably one person who is actually putting money in the coin box. Everybody has got a card. And it expedites things, but it makes it — it’s a real value. I mean, I have a pretty direct route. I just go right downtown, but it’s the best way to start the day.
Ballard: About 28 percent of our customers still use cash, and we’re working really hard to get that down even smaller. Ten years ago it was the exact reverse, 70 percent paid cash and 30 percent paid — had a prepaid card of some kind. We could not maintain our schedules or maintain our level of service if we hadn’t shifted that to a prepaid medium.
Now, all of this sounds really attractive and that all these people would be riding this, but a couple years ago when we rolled out the Music City Star [commuter rail from Nashville to Lebanon], the projections of how many people were going to be riding right away didn’t pan out. What guarantees do you have that this is the ridership you’re going to have?
Ballard: Well, there are no guarantees, but I think that we patterned this right after the Gallatin Pike BRT lite. We saw the ridership there. When we added the BRT lite, it went from 70,000 a month to 110,000 trips a month. Murfreesboro Road is in the 75,000 trips per month. I fully expect that that’s going to do the same thing that Gallatin did. I think the issue on the Star is that we’re providing around a thousand trips a day. Prior to startup, there were some estimates as high as 1,500 a day. That’s not materialized. We know what the issue is, we’ve got to increase frequency. We only have three trips in the morning and three trips at night. The trains are well patronized, they’re two-thirds full. But in order to take us to that next plateau, we’ve got to add some trips to get to those higher numbers, and that’s true really across the country. It’s frequency that promotes public transportation, whether it’s The Amp, whether it’s the regular bus routes, or whether it’s the Music City Star. We need more frequency on the Star, then you’ll see those numbers.
Dean: I would mention — Paul won’t do it — but when MTA and Paul started managing the RTA and running the Star, you started seeing dramatic increases in ridership on the Star over the last few years, and part of it, giving him the credit that’s due, is good management. But you’re seeing more and more people use it, and you talk to Councilman [Phil] Claiborne, for instance, from the Donelson area. I mean, he thinks one of the great possibilities for economic development in Donelson is people building housing, apartments, condominiums near the transit stops in Donelson because, you know, you can have the quasi-suburban lifestyle, not an urban lifestyle, and still hop right on the train right outside your condominium or apartment and get downtown. You know, the Star has its own issues in terms of how it was set up, but the ridership has increased, and it’s been fairly constant.
How will The Amp function within the central business district? I mean, these are narrow streets …
Ballard: Well, we’re going to use Fifth Avenue, which is now a two-way street. On Fifth Avenue, it will function as a conventional bus, but it is two-way traffic, and we believe that it will move very well. It’s not like a fixed guideway. We have fixed exclusive guideway for 80 percent of the route, that is the part that will operate slightly slower than the rest of The Amp. And we do recognize that, and we will account for that in our scheduling. But we feel that it’s important to connect it to Music City Central. Now, once it hits Music City Central station, which is on Charlotte between Fourth and Fifth, you know, it will be a quick shot right over to the bridge right over to East Nashville. So it’s a very, very short distance that that will be a problem. We’re excited about Fifth Avenue becoming two-way for multiple reasons, one because it works well for The Amp, but secondly we did some calculation with Fifth Avenue as a one-way street. A lot of our buses coming out of the station have to circle around Municipal Auditorium. We calculated that with Fifth Avenue being two ways, we will have 500,000 fewer bus turns per year with Fifth Avenue being two-way. That is huge.
So when The Amp is traveling south on Fifth, it will take a right on Broadway.
Ballard: Yes. It will have a station right there in the middle of the road. That will be one of our premier stations right there, serving Bridgestone, Lower Broadway, and it will be right there.
The payment system that you’ll have in place with The Amp, you’re on the honor system to some degree. You could enter the bus at the second door, if you will. So, I mean, not everyone is going to pay, obviously. What’s the percentage that it’s estimated of those riders who won’t? Is it 5 percent?
Ballard: Well, we really don’t call it an honor system. We call it a proof of payment system, so we’ve got to get the terminology right. But the way that works is we will have supervisors and fare inspectors who will inspect a percentage of the fares. We really haven’t developed what that percentage is. We will look at the other successful cities, see what percentage they’re expecting, because it’s a balance of what it costs to check and the fares that you’re collecting. You know, the older legacy transit systems built elaborate gates and turnstiles and things like that, and I think in some cases it cost more to collect the fares than the fares you’re collecting. We don’t want to get into that situation. So we’ll design a system that is a proof of payment. You will be asked to show your ticket, your fare, whatever it is, periodically. I can’t tell you right now what that will be, but you will expect to — if you’re on the platform waiting to board the bus, you can be asked to show your fare media at that time. So it will be not only on the bus, but past a certain point on the platform you will be required to have your proof of payment, and we will inspect those.
There’s a building question in the council about Charlotte Avenue, and why not do BRT down Charlotte, or a segment of Charlotte. There’s a lot of potential ridership over there.
Dean: Yeah. I think Charlotte, there’s a compelling case for Charlotte by the fact that it’s No. 5 on the list. West End is No. 3. That’s just pure existing ridership right now without the density issues and the development issues that move West End up and its location issues next to major employers and major tourist attractions. But I certainly would foresee us, you know, perhaps as early as next year, doing BRT lite or whatever on Charlotte. But the answer we’ve already given about why the West End corridor was selected and the feasibility would still stand. I mean, clearly you have more riders already on West End, and you have greater density and greater potential ridership. And so if you’re making the case to the federal government to give us our first project to start with, you go with your best hand. And it’s not close, but I agree Charlotte has got huge potential. I think it’s going to continue to develop, and it will be — there will be a lot of potential ridership over the years there. But it’s on the list and I’d say high on the list of things that we’ll do.
I was just going to say one thing that has come up about Charlotte from some people on the council and some of the groups is that, depending on how — where the local funds end up coming from, that if you use TIF funding that could potentially be better on Charlotte or more beneficial on Charlotte, because of the potential for development there, whereas West End is really developed. What’s your response to that?
Dean: Well, you know, my preference is not to do any form of tax or collecting a fee from the businesses along any route. The way I look at this, we are one city. And whatever economic growth is spurred by the development of the West End-East Nashville corridor is going to serve the benefit of every citizen in Nashville. It’s going to expand our tax base, allow us to fund schools more, allow us to fund our police more. And so I think whatever, however we fund it, I don’t want to say to people we’re already going to be digging up your roads and doing other things, we also would like to tax you for the honor of this.
Transportation is what any great city does. If you don’t do it, you won’t stay a great city. And that’s what we need to do. But there’s no question, I don’t think anyone has challenged the fact that West End has the greatest density, has the most potential for more ridership, and has more ridership right now, in fact. But I’m not slighting Charlotte. I mean, you know, if we can, I would be anxious to move forward with Charlotte as soon as we can.
How much political support do you have from, you know, our area congressmen? The financial picture up in Washington is always fairly tight and very fluid. You know, what kind of conversations have you had with our congressmen? How much support or political capital are they willing to give to help make this happen?
Dean: Well, we’ve had contact with all of the three relevant federal players, the two senators and the congressmen, regarding this, and Paul meets with them regularly because, you know, even our existing transit is reliant on federal funding. I think, as in anything, they’ll be helpful in getting a project that benefits our city done. I think the only issue when it comes to the funding, you know, there is more uncertainty in Washington probably than at any point in recent years about funding issues. But, you know, the fact is you can look at the transportation for 2013 and fixed guideway capital investments — I mean, the cities, Mesa, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, Denver, New Britain, Orlando, Honolulu, Grand Rapids, St. Paul, city of Charlotte again getting more money, New York East Side access, New York Second Avenue subway, Portland, Dallas, Houston, Northern Virginia and Seattle-University [transit link]. So there is money available and money being spent as recently as a month ago. So we need to be moving forward, and that’s why I think it’s important to move forward with this [Tuesday night], is it strengthens our hand to show that we’re serious.
I think Paul is exactly right in saying that the FTA is impressed by where we are. I think we’re further along than any city in the Southeast. And if we’re willing to show we’re putting skin in the game and that we care about it, I think we’ll have a good chance of getting it. But again, I don’t control the timeline. You know, this is not like the convention center, where you can say we’re going to build it, and it’s going to be done X. You know, you’ve got to go through a variety of people, the state, the MPO [Metropolitan Planning Organization], the federal government. But I think it’s hard to meet people who don’t get the fact that we’ve got to do something here.
Just a quick follow-up on that, which it’s clear that everyone’s confident, you guys are confident that the federal funds are there. Is there a contingency if the federal funds don’t come or Nashville doesn’t get those funds?
Dean: Well, we can’t go forward without the federal funding. The issue is — yeah, you can think of a scenario. I’m reading the Bob Woodward book, The Price of Politics or something, the most recent one about the federal debt limit. And you’re hearing all these negotiations and all this, and you could create a scenario where the federal government goes into gridlock again, and it’s worse than the sequestration we have right now, where everything just stops. But even in that event, we should be applying and setting ourselves up to get it when the gridlock breaks. I mean, right now what’s happening is Charlotte — and I love these cities. Charlotte is a great city. We just had a fitness challenge with the mayor there. He’s a great guy, and he’s going to be secretary of transportation. But Charlotte and Austin have gotten hundreds of millions of dollars to move their cities forward and to create economic opportunities for everybody in terms of jobs that are commutes, growth, expanded tax base. And unless we get access to those federal funds, too, we fall further and further behind. And it’s happening every day. And it’s the list I just read you. And some of these cities, you know, clearly we have a stronger case I would think than Grand Rapids. We’re a much bigger city. And so we need to be doing it. We need to be doing it aggressively.
And again, that’s why I say I don’t control the schedule. I mean, something may happen up there and it gets delayed by six months or gets delayed for longer, or it just goes right through. But we need to be going about doing our business and setting it up and getting it done.
What accounts for Nashville’s lagging behind these other cities?
Dean: I don’t think we’ve asked. I mean, the city itself, I mean, we have not put forward an application for those types of funds for this. We’ve asked for lots of federal funds for buses, we’ve asked for support for the rail. But we have — up until now, we have not put forth an application to ask for bus rapid transit or light rail.
Ballard: I think, if I may, we started a bit behind the cities that the mayor is talking about, Charlotte and Austin. I mean, they focused on public transportation, quite frankly, before we did. So there has been a bit of catch-up, but we’re ready to move ahead of them now. We’re just as qualified.
Dean: The urgency has gone up, too. I mean, you see the job growth. You see the volume. You see the people. The urgency has increased. Parking is much more of a problem, transportation, and again — I keep coming back to the young people — the young professionals that are here, they’re coming here looking for a different option. They’re looking for an alternative.
That’s one thing I was curious about. I mean, you were speaking about the appeal of public transportation to aging boomers, you know, as an alternative to cars. But how do you court them and younger people who want to ride the bus? I mean, those seem like constituencies that are often at odds with each other.
Dean: They’re really not, because when you think about people moving into — I mean, the density, moving to the core, the folks who are moving toward the core are young people who want to live closer to where the amenities are and where there’s more restaurants and activity, and another big group that’s moving closer to the core are the elderly. I mean, lots of empty nesters move out and come downtown. But I’ll give you another — I was talking to another mayor — I asked him if I could say this about him, but mayor of a comparable city to us that is about the same, a little bit behind us when it comes to transit. And what he told me about his city’s efforts to move forward on transit is, look, the traffic congestion isn’t my No. 1 concern; my No. 1 concern is we’re not going to attract young people to our city unless we have it, and we’ve got to get it. The other thing I’d mention is that by 2035, Middle Tennessee, this region, this 10-county region, is going to grow by a million people. So if you put that in today’s terms, the Middle Tennessee region will be the size of the Denver region now. And if you go to Denver, I mean, Denver has very wisely and very effectively spent a lot of money and federal money over the course of the last 10 to 15 years on transit. I mean, they keep building light rail, they keep adding bus rapid transit, they keep expanding. And if we don’t do it, you could imagine what Denver’s region would be like today if they didn’t have this transit investment. That’s the urgency of this. It’s really not a choice — we have to do it I think.
Ralph Schulz (Nashville Chamber): You know, coming back to that question on courting both, they both have the same economic situation, right? You’ve got — in this economy you’ve got slower-growing wages, slower-growing salaries, you’ve got inflation that’s pinching the purchasing power. You’re looking for alternatives that are cost-effective. If you’re getting close to senior status, you’re thinking, how am I going to operate on a fixed income, how can I predictably and reliably project my transportation needs, and I want to stay active, I want to stay accessible. So it’s really not a different marketplace; they’re both kind of affected by the same things.
I need to ask something about what some critics have picked at — various statistics, including a 2012 study which I think Parsons Brinkerhoff had done for MTA. Can you address the criticism that the numbers in that study are different than the wait times that we were talking about now?
Ballard: Sure, absolutely. That was an initial study to determine what mode we should pick. We were looking at streetcars, we were looking at light-rail vehicles, we were looking at BRT. Even at the start, you know, subways were on the list. So it was a wide-ranging look at all the different modes. And then besides looking at the different modes, it looked at, well, what are the possible operating scenarios. So one of the operating scenarios they looked at was to maintain two lanes for The Amp in both directions at all times. That study clearly pointed out — and we paid attention — that that would not work because it would have a negative impact on automobile traffic. So at the conclusion of what we called phase one, we threw that option out. So the option of not maintaining two lanes in both directions at all times was thrown out, you know, over a year ago, year-and-a-half ago when that was done. There was also no engineering done with that. It was simply an alternatives analysis. So the current study is an engineering study; it’s roughly 30 percent of the engineering. It takes it to that level. And the difference is — in fact, what we have chosen to do is that where the corridor does narrow, we will narrow The Amp because we can do that very easily with signal control. There will be a few key points where The Amp will narrow down to one lane. We’ll have signals, and the buses will — the signals will apply to the buses, and it will not slow us down. We can schedule them so that that will work just fine. So we’re narrowing The Amp. That’s the choice that we made, and we’re preserving the two lanes in each direction at all times on the West End corridor. So that approach that is being cited was discarded over a year ago.
Has there been any talk of incorporating a stop like public art, where people could park vehicles of some kind?
Dean: Yeah. There’s — well, Seab Tuck has been working on this, and I think the idea would be that the stations would be much more elaborate than your current stations. They’d be larger, obviously, but they would also fit into the area of town that they’re in. And I think public art would be a good part of it. One of the things that we learned in Seattle was the importance of public art with transit. I think Denver does the same thing.
City Paper editors Steve Cavendish and William Williams, reporters Steven Hale and Andrea Zelinski, and Nashville Scene editor Jim Ridley asked questions of Mayor Dean and his advisers.