Governments drove mass transit initiatives in the United States during the 20th century. A grassroots Nashville-based group wants the city’s advocates of urban living to consider redefining that dynamic in the 21st.
Transit Now Nashville will celebrate one year of low-profile existence this June. Although still no more recognized in Nashville than housing density is in Brentwood, the urban planners, architects and public policy wonks who make up the nonprofit offer some key characteristics sometimes lacking in other progressive-leaning mass transit advocacy groups: 1) a focus on luring the private sector to their cause; and 2) a membership comprising true professionals rather than, as is often the case with such groups, various hobbyists and lay people.
“As transit advocates, having civic and business alliances is extremely important in terms of getting an agenda advanced,” Lynn Otte, associate vice president of Chicago-based TranSystems said of TNN. TranSystems currently is working with the Metro Transit Authority to develop a strategic master plan.
Because Transit Now Nashville is leaning toward promoting a circulator transit system focused on downtown and Midtown — one that could be established without the huge capital outlays that inevitable make government the big dog in the kennel — its hybrid approach makes sense, the group said.
“This can’t be seen as just a grassroots effort or just a government effort but, rather, as a public-private effort,” said Cliff Lippard, a TNN founding member and downtown resident who is known for his practical sociopolitical stances. “We see our growth being through relationships.”
Those relationships will involve private transit advocates as much as they do Metro Planning Department and MTA. Lippard and the TNN team realize mass transit is increasingly shifting from a traditional government-operated model to one of public-private cooperation and, in some cases, a pure private-sector model.
For instance, the New York Waterway ferries that helped during the rescue of US Airways 1549 passengers this spring were privately operated. And Hong Kong's rail system in 2005 became a public-private enterprise that now has about as many private shareholders as any other company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
The Nashville Downtown Partnership, a private-sector nonprofit corporation, operates both a shuttle bus system, Park It! Downtown, and a lunch-time shuttle route. Lippard said that “demonstrates the successes and potential for a circulator.”
But private-sector operation of mass transit systems remains uncommon. For example, in the 1990s, Indianapolis enlisted a private entity, the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp., to operate some of the city’s public bus fleet. The move was unpopular and short-lived.
Exploring U.S. success stories
Learning from the past and taking notes from contemporary systems, Transit Now Nashville members said they are very open to advocating not just bus rapid transit (which MTA would oversee) but also an urban circulator or a light-rail system that blends public and private-sector ideas, management and funding.
There are some U.S. models for that: The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line in New Jersey is run by privately held 21st Century Rail Corp., which snagged some federal funding to help with the construction. And in Charlotte, lawmakers have explored the idea of diverting a portion of property taxes from homes and businesses along a planned streetcar line to help fund that project. Doing so would cover between 20 percent and 30 percent of the project’s cost.
Liza Joffrion, a TNN member and principal of Nashville-based transit consultant MultiModal Research LLC, said the city also might want to look at Detroit’s Woodward Streetcar Project.
“It was initiated by the private sector, the private sector is providing a significant portion of the capital costs, and ongoing operating costs will be provided partially through tax increment financing and partially by the state,” Joffrion said. “The arrangement has required several pieces of state legislation to enable the project to go forward.”
On the state legislation theme, the Tennessee General Assembly is considering two bills (one each in the House and the Senate, that would allow regions of the state with populations of more than 200,000 to have the freedom to form a regional transportation authority and establish a dedicated funding source for transit.
Federal dollars are available for the construction and equipment needed for new transit service, but the money is contingent on having a dedicated source of funding to cover the gap between fare revenue and operating costs.
“Basically, [the state] won’t pay to build it unless we have a realistic plan for how we are going to pay to operate it,” Joffrion said.
So the question simply becomes: What type transit system — in addition to Metro Transit Authority buses focused primarily on funneling commuters into the city’s cure — is best for Nashville’s urban core at this point in the city’s evolution?
Various Southeastern peer cities have enjoyed some success with basic downtown circulators. For example, Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority’s three-line DART Circulator (gas-powered rubber-wheel trolleys that traverse the city’s existing central core streets) started in 2000 and expanded (with a new route and additional trolleys) in 2002. Revenue generated is limited by a modest 25-cent fare, but the trolleys have solid ridership, according to members of Birmingham’s Five Points Merchants Association.
Similarly, the public transit authorities in Jacksonville and Louisville operate replica trolleys that run on rubber wheels. However, the central cores of Birmingham and Louisville have greater building and people density — key factors in public transit success — than that of Nashville.
Brian Phelps, a TNN member and an architect with downtown Nashville-based landscape architecture and planning firm Hawkins Partners Inc., said Transit Now Nashville is looking at the downtown circulator that was a part of the recommendations of MTA’s recent planning efforts as “our first focus.”
“But a regional transportation plan will be required to determine a comprehensive course of action and the appropriate transportation choices to include over time,” Phelps added.
Expanding the concept of private involvement
On Transit Now Nashville’s blog, Phelps writes that interest in public-private partnerships is increasing. He cites two articles — “Leasing of Landmark Turnpike Puts State at Policy Crossroads ” from The Wall Street Journal and “Cities Debate Privatizing Public Infrastructure ” in The New York Times — reporting on the trend.
Phelps writes the Federal Transit Administration’s Public-Private Partnership Pilot Program (known as Penta-P) is currently studying the application and benefits of PPPs for transit projects. The program intends to demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of PPPs. Cities and regions taking part in the program include Denver, South Florida, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Portland.
Mary Vavra, TNN member and spokeswoman, said the group researches innovative solutions found in Europe, Asia and South America as well as successful transit-related PPPs throughout the United States.
Vavra, who works for MACTEC, an engineering and consulting firm that does some work in the planning and transit industries, stressed that private-sector involvement in mass transit is not limited to a company actually investing in or operating a system but, rather, can also include development along certain transit stops and districts.
“In the United States, we have looked at successful public-private partnerships such as the transit-oriented design of Mockingbird Station in Dallas,” she said, which incorporates office space, lofts and retail outlets with a train station.
Along those lines, Vavra said Transit Nashville Now sees a “great opportunity” for private developers to capitalize on the public investment of the Music City Star commuter rail line.
“Each stop along our Music City Star is a great opportunity for private investors, working with their public agencies, to build walkable mixed-use neighborhoods that have access, via transit, to the major employers and amenities along the corridor,” she said.
Vavra said TNN’s long-term goals include hiring an executive director to help manage the group’s events and initiatives. Recently, the organization, at the recommendation of the Tennessee Public Transportation Association, discussed the need to build a statewide presence.
“In the short term, we are pursuing grants to help achieve more in the next 12 months,” Vavra said. “And we are reaching out to well-established advocacy groups such as Transportation Riders United and local nonprofits like Walk/Bike Nashville to learn from their organizations’ growth and successes.”
TranSystems’ Otte said TNN is poised to make an impact.
“Their focus on development and design,” she said, “as well as availability of service for everyone, is a combination that works well.”