Recognizing that other cities are lapping Nashville’s mass transit efforts, Mayor Karl Dean Thursday kicked off the drafting phase of a new plan to outline future transportation investments in Middle Tennessee for the next 25 years.
A product of the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the so-called “Call for Projects” will solicit contributions from stakeholders and citizens from Nashville and its surrounding suburbs, updating the area’s plan for transportation solutions. With a final document to be unveiled at a May 26 summit, organizers hope to take the next step toward a much-needed mass transit funding source.
“Places like Denver, Austin and Charlotte are our friends, but they’re also our competition for jobs and economic prosperity,” said Dean, who was recently elected chair of the Nashville Area MPO. “And they are moving ahead of us in terms of their innovations in transportation.”
Though the “Call for Projects” initiative is broad in scope — addressing the full range of transportation, from sidewalks and cycling to bus rapid transit and rail — Dean seems to support transitioning toward light rail, typically defined as a low-capacity system and found in cities such as Denver, Colo. Light rail relies on electric train cars.
“We don’t know what will be in the plan,” Dean said. “I would say, though, that it’s hard to envision a long-term mass transit plan in this area that would not include light rail. I’m just speaking for myself at this point. I think we’ll probably see some elements of that as we go down the road.”
In the interim, more Metro Transit Authority bus rapid transit lines — like the one found along Gallatin Avenue in East Nashville — could remain the most likely advancement, as Dean said he plans to continue to expand BRT to other corridors as funding allows.
“Bus rapid transit is a nice entry-level way toward light rail,” Dean said. “But light rail is on the table. It is something we’ve all discussed amongst ourselves, and I would anticipate we’ll be hearing more about it.”
By all accounts, funding presents the greatest hurdle for transit progress.
The Tennessee General Assembly last year approved legislation that allows the state’s regional transportation authorities to create a dedicated regional revenue source to expand transit services. Still, that dedicated funding source hasn’t been defined.
“The number one thing we’ve got to be working on is dedicated funding” Dean said. “We need to probably go back to the legislature with a proposal that would allow local government to enact a specific source.”
In other cities, transit revenue streams often come from fuel taxes or portions of sales taxes. According to Michael Skipper, executive director of the Nashville Area MPO, Denver levies a one-cent sales tax that generates $250 million per year for transit, while Charlotte has a half-penny sales tax that collects $70 million annually.
While funds aren’t yet there, addressing Nashville's mass-transit deficiencies has gained some momentum of late.
In the past year, Dean led the formation of the Middle Tennessee Mayor Caucus, a coalition organized around the idea of discussing regional transit options. More recently, a group of Middle Tennessee business leaders created the Transit Alliance and area chamber of commerce presidents launched a similar transit-minded advocacy group.
“We’re seeing strong support from the business community because we’re starting to see the writing on the wall in terms of where this region’s going,” Skipper said. “We’ve got to provide people more choices to get around other than just getting in a car and sitting in congestion."