Pitch begins for Nashville's 'subway on wheels' while funding question remains unanswered

Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 11:20pm

In a city with a penchant for the automobile and interstate, Metro officials are giving Nashvillians a crash course on something alien: mass transit — in this case, Mayor Karl Dean’s plan for bus rapid transit along an eight-mile stretch from West End Avenue to downtown Broadway, and across the Cumberland River to East Nashville.

“It’s a subway on wheels,” Jim McAteer, director of planning and grants at Metro Transit Authority, told curious spectators gathered at the downtown library last week for one of four well-attended forums designed to introduce the proposed “east-west connector.”

The vision, one of “fast, frequent service,” is modeled on systems in Eugene, Ore., Cleveland, Ohio, and elsewhere. Transit officials are eyeing a 2015 opening — one last ribbon-cutting before Dean’s second term expires. “A very expedited schedule,” one official called the process.

If all goes as planned, Nashvillians one day will be able to make their way to permanent wait stations — described as “iconic” in design — along the heavily trafficked corridor, which is home to 25,000 residents and 170,000 jobs. From there, they will take out smart cards to pay to ride buses that resemble streetcars minus rail underneath: Wide doors open from both sides of the vehicles; passengers enjoy level boarding from the sidewalk; and ample room inside the buses allow passengers to store their bikes.

With buses stopping every 10 minutes, waits should be minimal — and relatively pleasant after the surrounding streetscape is upgraded. Buses will occupy two dedicated lanes of traffic, one in each direction, likely in a middle median along West End-Broadway. The key to BRT’s speed is its coordination with traffic signals: BRT has priority. As cars line up bumper to bumper during rush hour, these buses will whiz through green lights, making for trips that are 25 percent faster. 

Ed Cole, executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, described a hypothetical East Nashville resident who works at Vanderbilt University. To begin her day, this transit pioneer walks to the Five Points station. She travels west via BRT to the Eighth Avenue and Broadway station, visits the library and lunches downtown. Eyeing a 4 p.m. meeting at Vanderbilt, she takes the east-west connector there with time to spare.

“Then it’s a one-seat ride all the way back to East Nashville, and then you’re home, and you go to bed,” Cole said. “That’s the kind of experience that this system will allow.”

Make no mistake: The BRT sales pitch has already begun. This month’s forums were just as promotional as informative. After years of growth, transit officials say the time has come for Nashville to join the likes of Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C.

“They’re very far ahead of us in terms of transit,” McAteer said of Nashville’s sister cities, delivering a PowerPoint presentation to a packed library auditorium. He proclaimed economic development and quality-of-life benefits of transit. Officials like him expect Nashville’s BRT ridership to exceed 4,500 weekly trips in year one, 1.35 million overall during those 12 months.

“Cities big and small have kind of realized that to be competitive and to plan for the future, we need to be thinking in terms of transit,” he said. But this mass-transit campaign will soon have to pivot from one selling the transit lifestyle to explaining why it is worth an estimated $174 million price tag. ($136 million is for the transit component. Another $38 million is required for streetscape. Figures aren’t final.)

The mayor’s administration isn’t ready to publicly discuss the local financing component of Dean’s BRT project. Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling told The City Paper the funding process would begin in the fall.

Yet a dialogue will have to happen soon.

A prerequisite for Nashville’s BRT is landing a grant from the Federal Transit Administration that could cover as much as $75 million of the transit piece. Metro officials are anticipating a mid-September grant application deadline. For the federal government to even consider Nashville’s project, Dean’s administration will have to outline a local funding source. A decision on whether Nashville is awarded the grant will come months later.

Fresh off engineering Davidson County’s first property tax hike increase in seven years, the mayor will have to pitch a funding mechanism that meets the political test — one that the Metro Council and the public won’t resist.

It’s all speculation for now.

Ways that some cities have paid for transit — but long-shot possibilities here — include a gas tax, a wheel tax, increasing property taxes or bumping up local sales taxes. In Nashville, the latter two options would require public referendums. On the one hand, a referendum on transit can be wise politically. It gives citizens the say on raising their taxes. The downside is such measures often lose: When Nashvillians last voted on whether to increase the local sales tax, in 2005 — a half-cent to fund education initiatives — they rejected the proposal overwhelmingly.

Meanwhile, Atlanta is in the middle of a contentious referendum vote to add a penny to its sales tax, albeit to fund a much more ambitious transit project: $8.5 billion transit upgrades for the entire Atlanta region. Polls suggest voters are split on the matter, which will be decided July 31.

In short, referendums can turn into political wars.

A more likely scenario could be the creation of a special assessment district along the corridor, whereby an expected jolt in tax collections from new and existing development would retire debt from a city bond issued for transit. It essentially operates like tax increment financing.

“It’s the idea of value-capture,” said Doug Tennant, vice president of URS Corp., a San Francisco-based engineering firm with a Franklin office, which MTA has contracted with on the BRT project. “If we went out there and created a new street and streetscape for West End Avenue, and created a better West End Avenue, it would enhance property values along that corridor. If you own a restaurant there, and I create a nicer environment, suddenly your property gets enhanced.”

But capturing some observers’ attention is a different model: establishing a central business improvement district. Instead of relying on expected tax growth, transit beneficiaries along the corridor — the assortment of hospitals being one possible component — would pay an additional tax for the added service. Again, revenues would pay off debt.

Whichever financing plan emerges as the mayor’s choice could find an ally in the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which has served an integral function in advancing mass-transit discussion. The chamber helped build the transit alliance.

“I’m sure we’ll play an active role,” chamber president and CEO Ralph Schulz said. “It’s kind of the same thing as [the Music City Center]. Number one, the way we look at is, does the community need it? And obviously the city needs transit.”

Moving forward, transit officials plan to use the recently concluded BRT forums to “fine-tune” the east-west connector plan. A second round of public meetings is set for August where citizens can view a more detailed proposal.

Officials plan to address public concerns. Whitland-area residents along West End are wary of plans for a new parking station near Elmington Park to accommodate transit passengers, fearing it could undermine the popular public green space. Transit leaders have also discussed plans for parking near St. Thomas Hospital and H.G. Hill Realty Co.-owned property at White Bridge Road and Harding Pike, where the BRT route begins. The intersection is already a traffic nightmare, they say. Wouldn’t parking exacerbate the problem?

The BRT route also makes its way through Lower Broadway, leading skeptics to worry about the impact BRT could have on a district where pedestrians walk freely.

Robert Waits, an occasional bus rider who lives in East Nashville’s Inglewood, said he believes mass-transit expansion is needed in Nashville. “The size of the city is getting bigger, and we’re going to have to address it eventually.”

But Marty Kooperman, an attorney who lives off West End and works in East Nashville, is skeptical. He claims he leaves his Bowling Avenue home by car each day and arrives at his Woodland Street office in 10 minutes. “There’s no time incentive,” he said, adding that the east-west connector would be more beneficial if it stretched to Bellevue, Hillwood and West Meade. “Those people really need quicker, more convenient transportation into town. I don’t think the area that it’s being built really needs it.”

Listening to that conversation, however, Calvin Marable of North Nashville disagrees. “I use transit, and I’ve used it throughout the world,” he said, recounting a recent trip to Portland, Ore., where a streetcar operates. “I’ve seen this thing work.”

Gaining support of people like Marable in historically black North Nashville could be key to BRT’s fate here. While the east-west connector would reach many black residents in East Nashville, the route proceeds down a largely affluent (and white) neighborhood along West End.

At-Large Councilman Jerry Maynard, an African-American, said he’s spoken to many North Nashville constituents and council members who are willing to support the BRT proposal as long as a future connector is assured for their neighborhoods.

“They’re supporting it with the understanding and expectation that the next phase will be the north-south BRT connector — coming down Clarksville Highway, Rosa Parks Boulevard, and connecting then to the east-west connector,” Maynard said.

20 Comments on this post:

By: shinestx on 7/23/12 at 7:14

What a waste of money!! Hey Jim McAteer! Subways ARE on wheels, which run on tracks.

Why doesn't Dean see that adding dedicated lanes to West End will just increase congestion on the parallel streets? These bus lines (that's all they are... and we already have buses) need to run along Charlotte and Music Row, out 12South to Green Hills. Even 21st/Hillsboro Road will be a cluster-f*ck with this thing, but there are few alternatives.

Now if you want to talk about a subway, Mr. McAteer, then you could go under West End... but obviously that's not going to happen as it would be incredibly expensive. Even Light Rail would need to run along the secondary arteries, as other cities have learned in their traffic management strategies.

By: budlight on 7/23/12 at 7:20

"If all goes as planned, Nashvillians one day will be able to make their way to permanent wait stations — described as “iconic” in design — along the heavily trafficked corridor, which is home to 25,000 residents and 170,000 jobs. From there, they will take out smart cards to pay to ride buses that resemble streetcars minus rail underneath: Wide doors open from both sides of the vehicles; passengers enjoy level boarding from the sidewalk; and ample room inside the buses allow passengers to store their bikes."

Well, I say that if the 25,000 residents and 170,000 jobs need the rapid transit, let them pay for it. Because if we are spending this money just to benefit them, then I'm not for it. And I hope my councilman would not be for it either.

Dean has a lot of gall!

By: shinestx on 7/23/12 at 7:22

And why was that bus transfer station built on Gay Street just four years ago? Who the hell is in charge of planning for this town?

By: NewYorker1 on 7/23/12 at 8:38

This entire project seems like it's only to blow up Dean’s ego evern bigger. If they really want to build a BRT system, why not start if from Murfreesboro, TN all the way into downtown Nashville up M'boro Rd or up Nolensville Rd, or Dickerson Rd into downtown? That seems like the most bang for your buck to me.

By: NewYorker1 on 7/23/12 at 8:40

And visitors coming in from the airport can connect to the M'boro Rd bus into downtown.

By: JohnGalt on 7/23/12 at 8:48

Will someone please take the Metro checkbook away from herr Dean and lock it away forever?

By: FaceBook:Emmett... on 7/23/12 at 9:20

JohnGalt - And lock Karl Dean away as well. Or send him back to New York at least.

By: BHN homeboy on 7/23/12 at 1:14

This is a great project and is an excellent start to providing forward-thinking mass transit to Nashville. ScottT

By: 3sides on 7/23/12 at 1:42

I agree with shinestx. I think Charlotte would be a more appropriate corridor for BRT. You still pass through the main medical district and downtown (avoiding Pedestrian heavy lower broad). West end and broadway are already so heavily developed and congested with vehicle traffic. I like the idea of BRT but not on the proposed route they have. BRT on Charlotte would be a nice shot in the arm for a very utilitarian artery into Nashville.

By: Shadow63 on 7/23/12 at 4:13

Walk like a Greek!

By: CitizensWin on 7/23/12 at 4:14

The West End corridor is Belle Meade solution looking for a problem.

The folks who walk and would use busses on a daily basis are on Harding and Nolensville. In fact, the city could start with a sidewalk on Harding from Nolensville road up to 24 by simply paving the existing foot path.

It's laughable to call a bus a 'subway on wheels', but it is harmful and shameful to do nothing for those who don't have cars at all. Put the 'subway on wheels' where it is needed as a necessity. Not where it is perceived as a nicety.

By: Kosh III on 7/24/12 at 7:26

Metro is already working on sidewalks from Nolensville Rd to 24 on Harding. One section is already underway with the final portion ready to start.

One thing not mentioned is that there will be new lines added which will be crosstown, such as the soon to be completed 28th Ave link, plus feeders on streets like Murphy Rd etc.
This new line would eventually continue on up Gallatin Rd perhaps as far as Hendersonville or even Gallatin.

More buses more often on more routes.

By: localboy on 7/24/12 at 8:24

The dedicated lane(s) would need to be physically segregated with no vehicular access from the street, otherwise it might devolve into a situation similar to the HOV whores on the interstate.

By: PillowTalk4 on 7/24/12 at 9:26

Outside of Atlanta, southern cities are so far behind with mass transit. Charlotte and Austin have made inroads into enhancing their cities with mass transit. Nashville needs to do the same to stay competitive with it's peer cities and those above it.

I recently returned from a trip to San Francisco and found their BART system useful in getting from the airport into the city. It was cheaper than a cab or shuttle service and I'm sure it was faster given that it was during the morning rush hour when I arrived. In addition to BART they have the historical street cars (too many toursit for them to serve the general population) and they have the electric bus system, which I believe they call the MUNI. I used both while there. Only once did I use a taxi and it was more expensive and quite frankly I had to give the driver directions. Nashville could benefit from a BRT or rail system if done properly and located in areas where it will achieve maximum utilization.

Obvioulsyt the more arteries you have on the system the more convenient it will be for all. But, to start the system needs to be along current corridors that serves the working class and areas where people are most likely to use the system. The East Nashville side of this proposal seems logical. Although Main Street and Gallatin Road seems to be broad enough to service the area and could eventually go as far out as Rivergate. The West End artery seems less obvious, but West End Ave is central to the mid-town area and most businesses and neighborhoods are within a short walk of that street. However, I agree that Charlotte Pike should be considered as an alternate artery or at least considered in future expansion.

Speaking of future expansion I also think a north - south artery shoud be included in the plan. I like that someone mentioned a route to Murfreesboro. Such a route should include the airport within the route. This could be a route that leads towards Clarksville on the northern side of downtown. However, I'm sure many would argue that Dickerson Pike would be equally as strong of a route.

One thing that strongly has to come into play are shuttle routes to the main arteries. No system will ever be built that will serve every major artery in and out of downtown Nashville. So, a series of shuttle to move people to the BRT system is equally as important.

The big question is obviously funding current plans and of course future expansion. There are plenty of communities in Nashville that would benefit from some form of mass transit. Nashville has to find the right mix and proper utilization of various forms of transit. Oh, and off subject but equally as important in my opinion... Nashville needs to start talking with Amtrak and Congress to get train service restored to the city. Nashville's location makes it an ideal location for Amtrak. It's a region that is suffering from poor alternatives to travel. You either drive, catch a plan or bus. Amtrak should have routes going through Nashville that can get you to Chattanooga, Atlanta, Orlando, Birmingham, Mobile, New Orleans, Memphis, St Louis, Louisville, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinatti, Knoxville, Washington, DC, Richmond, Charlotte, Charlston. I would suggest that Mayor Dean start on that project to increase tourism, provide travel alternatives and to some degree people use Amtrak in some areas to commute to work. At least in Virginia there is a VRE which is a commuter train that shares the Amtrak rails. This rail system is used to transport commuters from as far away as Richmond, VA into the DC area. People using the VRE then use the DC Metro rail to their working locations. The result fewer cars on the roads, less pollution and congestion.

By: BHN homeboy on 7/24/12 at 3:36

First of all - I highly recommend attending the information sessions. The next round of meetings is in August I believe. I went to one at West End UMC and found the presentations to be very helpful both in understanding the looming problems that lead to the need for a solution. Many of the above objections are addressed or answered in the sessions.
The West End artery is important for a couple reasons. One is that it has the greatest opportunity for success. There is a good concentration of business along this corridor. It leads directly to downtown. There are 179,000 jobs along this corridor. Also - the street is a flagship street for the city.
There is excellent opportunity for mixed-use development along the corridor - more residential, more retail, more office, etc.
Your first reaction to this kind of development may be - "oh great, more cars in the midtown area - more congestion". The reality will be that these are people locating there so they don't have to use their cars. They will be locating there because the convenience and availability of the BRT will make driving unnecessary.

In cities like Cleveland where a similar project went in - the commercial investment along the corridor after the implementation of the transit project was impressive. That's in Cleveland!
Portland saw significant increases in residential development along the corridor for their street car line.
This line will help to transform West End into a much more cohesive and pedestrian friendly corridor. The BRT helps to diminish the need for the use of automobiles.

When the transit people say its a subway on wheels - what they mean is that the buses are more like subway cars than buses. The doors are wide like a subway car to allow for higher volume ingress and egress.

This is a pilot project. The success of this project will lead to lines on Murfreesboro, Nolensville, Charlotte, Gallatin. All of this will transform Nashville into a much more livable city.
We have a great city now. As we grow we must over-improve our mass-transit options. If we don't, then we doom our city to being uninviting, difficult and second-class.

By: shinestx on 7/26/12 at 12:29

PillowTalk, you can't seriously believe that Nashville will get any leadership in Washington, right? Jim "Stupor" Cooper is one of the lest-respected Congressmen by both parties. He is a legacy representative who takes no initiative on budgetary matters. Even worse, he self-righteously claims to vote against all earmarks, while voting in favor of huge boondoggle federal programs that don't directly benefit his own district. Stupor went to school in the Northeast... he lives in Washington now... and he's not tied to the people he represents. Even his children were not educated in Tennessee! As long as Nashville keeps voting for this do-nothing backbencher, they deserve "everything" they get.

By: shinestx on 7/26/12 at 12:29

PillowTalk, you can't seriously believe that Nashville will get any leadership in Washington, right? Jim "Stupor" Cooper is one of the lest-respected Congressmen by both parties. He is a legacy representative who takes no initiative on budgetary matters. Even worse, he self-righteously claims to vote against all earmarks, while voting in favor of huge boondoggle federal programs that don't directly benefit his own district. Stupor went to school in the Northeast... he lives in Washington now... and he's not tied to the people he represents. Even his children were not educated in Tennessee! As long as Nashville keeps voting for this do-nothing backbencher, they deserve "everything" they get.

By: JeffF on 7/26/12 at 4:52

I think transit is one of the most important things a local government should be doing right now. But, right now the transit gurus are busily designing business and tourist oriented systems while no one thinks to run buses, trains, vans, whatever by the actual homes of people (non tourists). This trickle down of approach of having the businesses and tourist attractions and entertainment venues being connected and hoping people will somehow stumble upon it is insane.

The West End part of this corridor is just a social engineering project. Aside from Dorms are there really that many bedrooms located within a reasonable walking distance from it? And is there really that much space along that part of the corridor to accommodate the "boom" of people who will suddenly be interested in living along a bus route?

Buses remain the only democratic form of transit in this community, but the leadership of MTA and the elected officials who are somehow supposed to govern them still insist on making the buses a downtown-oriented going concern. Buy some buses, hire and train more drivers, and take some of the buses going to and from the downtown station and make them run between neighborhoods FIRST. If the argument is the buses are too big and it would be a waste to run them among the people of Nashville then you bought the wrong buses for Nashville.

Right now every new bus route is planned around the question of "What's the quickest way to the Music City Central?" That is pig headed foolishness. The question to be asked is where do we route these buses to get the most Nashvillians to their jobs, schools, and shopping the most efficiently? I doubt spending hundreds of millions of dolalrs on a West End and Downtown oriented post-card system will do very little to get the most Nashvillians where they need to be.

And no, an airport link for getting people the quickest to downtown is even more counter to the true purpose of transportation. There are already vans, taxis, and buses doing that. The airport is not important to the daily lives of almost all Nashville citizens. Relatively very few are flying in and out or working there. More people need to go to Kroger for groceries than need to get to the airport. Why spend millions on an airport plan while the grocery-getters are ignored?

By: Kathy_1957 on 7/27/12 at 9:54

I have lived in both the metro Washington, DC area and Chicago metro area. I find it unbelievable that Nashville does not have a decent transportation system already. I have lived here since April 2001 and would much prefer to use mass transit rather than driving to any job in the Nashville metro area, however, the system currently stinks. I think money could be more wisely spent for massive improvements to create a broad, far reaching transit system rather than this proposed system which appears to benefit a limited area. I live in Madison and there needs to be a system which reaches from Gallatin, TN to Franklin, TN and Murfreesboro, TN to Nashville. There is no excuse for a metro area of this size to have a system which is so incredibly outdated and basically useless for anyone who needs to travel to the outskirts of the city to get to work. Moving closer to a particular job is not an option for many since the job market is in such a state of flux. No matter how green Mayor Dean wants the city of Nashville to be, there needs to be a more far reaching solution to the transit problem than what is currently being discussed.

By: blitz on 8/9/12 at 9:04

Mayor Dean - Please don't shove a subpar mass transit solution down our throats. This is well intended, but creates a bottle neck for West Nashville. Sure lets make the West End 440 bridge one lane, take away turning lane on West End, and remove any bike lanes on West End. Not that we really have a bike lane on West End, but people sure won't be able to ride anymore. I live on West End (25 yrs), and I'm selling if this actually gets built. Hello Williamson County - Davidson has finially run me off