For months, Metropolitan Transit Authority has been accepting bids on contracts to build facilities for a new Bus Rapid Transit system. The high-tech bus route is the centerpiece of MTA’s Strategic Master Plan and will begin to operate in September along its top ridership route, Gallatin Road.
The headliners for this new venture are six new 60-foot, articulated hybrid buses, which according to MTA, would be noticed for “their sleek, contemporary design as well as their overall comfort.” When one was put into service in April, Mayor Karl Dean and several other officials took a ride and gave enthusiastic “thumbs up.”
MTA purchased six of these buses, built by the same company — North American Bus Industries — that supplied Los Angeles with its Orange Line BRT fleet, at a cost of $880,000 each. The first six were paid for with Metro funds; plans to purchase five additional vehicles for the planned BRT along Gallatin Road will come from federal transit stimulus funds later this year.
Gallatin Road was selected because it has the highest ridership in Nashville — 87,000 passengers paid fares in March alone.
Each new bus can accommodate anywhere from a comfortable 65 to a crowded 100 passengers on the run between the Northside Marketplace in north Nashville and Music City Central downtown.
“The addition of six new hybrid buses to MTA’s fleet is a positive step forward for public transit in our city, both environmentally and in terms of enhancing service,” Dean said in April after his test ride. “We need to do all we can to encourage more people to ride the bus, and hybrids, which are lower to the ground and much quieter than traditional buses, will certainly help do that.”
No one doubts that the BRT system can do just that. The open design of the greener hybrid (diesel and electric) buses and the wider aisles give riders a more spacious feel. Plus, all of the new buses are ADA-compliant and equipped with bike racks, and there is reduced exterior noise too.
After all, few people think of bus rides and comfort as traveling companions.
With bids going out to build new shelters, traffic signal lights, roadway barriers and automated ticketing kiosks, there are even jobs to be created in this greener, environmentally sound venture.
The first BRT system was created in Curitiba, Brazil in 1999. BRT service in that city resulted in 27 million fewer automobile trips each year and about 27 million fewer liters of fuel annually. Now, Curitiba uses about 30 percent less fuel per capita and its ambient air pollution is one of the lowest in Brazil.
“These environmentally friendly buses are a part of our commitment to growing public transit in Nashville,” said MTA CEO Paul J. Ballard. “The buses offer the latest in passenger comfort and amenities as well as help the environment by using less fuel since they are hybrids. We are excited to get them into service and will use them for the initial phase of a planned Bus Rapid Transit project this summer.”
Ballard may want to temper his excitement a bit, because while Los Angeles and other U.S. cities followed the Curitiba blueprint, Nashville is leaving out what could be a key piece of the BRT puzzle.
A major component of BRT systems — dedicated lanes — will not be implemented, though it is planned for the future. Dedicated lanes are bus-only roadways that quicken commutes by segregating traffic.
The key to Curitiba’s BRT plan was to speed bus riders along their own stretch of asphalt while car commuters dealt with gridlock.
“We actually call what we’re doing BRT Light,” said Jim McAteer, MTA planning director. “Some people go to maximum BRT right away with dedicated lanes, but we’re starting in on a lower level.”
The need for speed
It can be argued that dedicated lanes are the cornerstone of the BRT model. Building a system that is contingent on new riders with an incomplete foundation may be hazardous, since sitting in traffic in a comfortable bus is still sitting in traffic.
Although it may be riskier and more expensive to finance, a true BRT system might garner more recognition and praise. The Gallatin Road buses won’t have their own lanes, but McAteer believes BRT Light will significantly improve the quality and speed of Nashville’s mass transit.
To ease passenger use, LED signs will announce arrival times, and traffic lights that adjust to accommodate bus schedules will be placed along the route.
At each of the 15 stops, passengers can purchase a ticket from a vending machine before they get on the bus. Because customers can prepay, the automated fee system eliminates transaction delays during bus stops.
“The BRT provides an opportunity for folks who might not be as comfortable riding the bus as others, these features will provide comfort,” said McAteer.
Last year a survey of 1,800 Nashvillians found that public transportation was their most prominent concern. Public transit use nationwide has increased 45 percent since 2002.
Part of a larger plan
To its credit, MTA has been formulating through staff and public meeting a strategic master plan that sets goals, priorities and actions for public transportation in Nashville, and provides guidance and strategy for short-term and long-term decision-making about public transportation for Metro.
Development of the plan is a joint effort between the Nashville MTA, Metropolitan Planning Organization, Metro Planning and the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Plans for implementing the system began more than eight years ago.
“The next five to 10 years and beyond are critical to developing a world-class public transportation system for Nashville,” Ballard added. “Public transportation goes hand in hand with economic development, tourism and jobs growth and is a critical part of any city’s success.”
With last year’s opening of Music City Central transit station at 400 Charlotte Ave., fluctuating gasoline prices, a new statewide focus by Gov. Phil Bredesen on recruiting green jobs, and concern about energy resources and being more environmentally responsible, the timing has never been better to move forward for a more comprehensive efficient public transportation system for Nashville, according to MTA officials.
Bredesen recently signed an act enabling communities to create dedicated funding sources for local transit systems. Common revenue sources usually consist of taxes on vehicle registration, hotel rooms, or rental cars.
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funds will be used to kick-start Nashville’s BRT. MTA stands to receive $3.35 million for construction of facilities and $3.57 million for purchases of buses.
A rocky history
Any improvement on the current state of Nashville’s public transportation may be viewed as welcome, and nothing’s wrong with roomier buses, less waiting times and more green lights. However, Nashville has in the last decade or so seen one alternative transportation venture fail and another struggling.
Once tabbed as the “structure to take Nashville into the 21st century” by former congressman Bob Clement, the Clement Landport was envisioned as the hub of a regional intermodal passenger system.
Built with federally funded concrete directly behind Union Station and just west of Cummins Station, the multilevel facility was built to provide links for commuter rail, car and van pools, local and regional buses, hotel and airport shuttles, bicyclists and the possible return of interstate passenger rail.
In part because of the condemnation of the Demonbreun Street viaduct, but mostly due to a lack of local commitment to it, the landport never did what it set out to do. Today, it sits vacant except for the homeless squatters who dwell there.
Then there’s Music City Star, whose downtown-to-Lebanon commuter train line is cursed by empty seats.
As part of a bigger “wheel-and-spokes” plan that would shuttle riders in and out of downtown Nashville from Murfreesboro, Gallatin, Franklin and Bellevue, it looked great on paper.
Just last week, MTA announced that Lakewood would get a trial run likely in October. Using track originally laid for the DuPont plant and operating from a platform next to Lakewood City Hall, the two-week experiment will connect with the Donelson station and downtown, according to MTA and RTA communications director Patricia Harris-Morehead.
Is the Lakewood test and the Gallatin bus rapid transit runs baby steps to a more comprehensive alternative transportation system here? If so, maybe officials and planners can insist on implementing them the way they’re designed — especially BRT — and resist the temptation to cut corners.