Nashville is a lot of things, but it’s certainly no Charlotte, N.C., when it comes to mass transit.
They’re both Southern cities, similar in size, growth trends and demographics. They often compete directly for new economic development. But citizens of the banking capital voted more than decade ago to enact a new half-cent sales tax, the revenue from which led to a dramatic overhaul of the city’s transportation system. The jewels of that crown were a light rail line, expanded bus routes and a more sophisticated bus rapid transit system.
Meanwhile, transit innovation in Nashville — absent a local revenue source — has been modest at best. Highlights include the 2006 launching of Music City Star, which commutes passengers down a single track from Wilson County to downtown; a small, recently installed bus rapid transit line along Gallatin Avenue in East Nashville; and the 2008 opening of Metro Transit Authority’s new 434,000-square-foot central bus hub, known as Music City Central.
All are signal improvements from the status quo, but they leave much to be desired.
As a consequence of the snail-paced shift to mass transit, Nashville — and the entire state of Tennessee, for that matter — is nowhere to be found on the map of cities to be linked by a new high-speed rail system proposed as part of President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Without any skin in the game on a local level, the city is largely overlooked as a player for federal funds both large and small. Put simply, Nashville isn’t even on the radar.
It was with a recognition of Metro’s lagging mass transit record that Mayor Karl Dean, who chairs the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, announced intentions earlier this month to launch a reinvigorated effort to update MPO’s regional transportation plan, hoping to pull input from transportation leaders and the Middle Tennessee community at large to outline the vision of what transit should look like over the next 25 years. Contributors have zeroed in on a May 26 completion date.
“As we look around the country and we compare us to other regions, we compare very favorably in a lot of ways,” Dean said. “But it is not lost on any of us that as we look around at Denver, Charlotte and Austin — and we do — that they are moving ahead of us in terms of transportation. It is our responsibility to make sure we don’t get left behind, that we catch up, and we indeed move forward.”
Though it’s not unusual for a major municipality to update its regional transportation plan — cities traditionally revise it every five years or so — Dean and others are hoping the latest version will look much different, reflecting a paradigmatic shift toward fully embracing mass transit.
A big part of that is light rail, a system that functions around the clock, relying on electric rail cars that operate on private right-of-way lines separate from freight vehicles.
Pounding the pavement
Historically, Nashville has relied on these sorts of transportation plans — bulky, technical documents that reflect a number of civic constituencies — to direct financial resources toward an “asphalt-centered approach,” according to Trip Pollard, a leading expert on transportation reform who works for the Southern Environmental Law Center. The “lion’s share of taxpayers’ dollars” in Nashville tends to support a vehicular mode of transportation, he said, providing the basis for the enormous flow of state dollars to bankroll the ongoing expansion of State Route 840, for example.
“There’s a whole lot of things we could have done with that money,” Pollard said. “We’ve got to get away from that kind of 1950s, 1960s way of thinking of building massive asphalt. Roads are definitely going to part of our transportation plan, and they need to be. But it’s getting away from that kind of ‘mega-project’ that much of the rest of the country has begun to move away from, realizing that we need to provide more choices.”
Updating the regional plan — no different than what Nashville is doing now — was the first step Charlotte officials took before mass transit boomed there. In the mid-1990s, city planners recognized the need to offer enhanced transit access along five neglected corridors — known affectionately as the “corridors of crap.” (For Nashvillians, barren stretches like Nolensville, Charlotte and Dickerson pikes may come to mind. Incidentally, land-use experts from the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute are in the process of working with Nashville leaders to find ways to attract more infill development along corridors that feed into downtown.)
Charlotte’s initiative was fairly radical for a city in the South, a region long known for its dearth of public transit options. But when then-Mayor Pat McCrory started pushing a new tax — an additional half-cent sales tax to generate local dollars for the sole purpose of transportation — things got tense.
The “transit tax,” as it came to be known, arrived as a public referendum in 1998, passing with 58 percent approval. That outcome, never inevitable as the proposal endured fierce attacks from opponents, enjoyed a second victory a few years later, when it survived a recall effort.
“It was a tough battle,” said McCrory, a Republican who completed a 15-year run as Charlotte’s mayor in December. “It took the private and public sector working together. But it was a tough sell, especially for a Sun Belt city.”
Authorizing that funding source — which generates as much as $80 million for transit purposes annually — paved the way for Charlotte’s mass transit renaissance: a major upgrade of the city’s bus system resulted in a dramatic increase in ridership, and the installment of the first phase of a new light rail system, dubbed the LYNX, spurred sizable amounts of urban development along its 12-mile stretch.
“It exploded beyond our expectations,” McCrory said. “It gave us the jump over other cities similar to our size. We now use it as an economic development tool. We’ve proven that the Charlotte public will support it and ride it — all economic sectors and demographics.”
Those innovations — particularly the implementation of a light rail system — happen to be measures Dean favors for Nashville. “It’s hard to envision a long-term mass transit plan in this area that would not include light rail,” Dean has said.
A future light rail system could be regionally based; the idea has appeared to gain traction in neighboring Williamson, Rutherford and Sumner counties, areas represented in the newly formed Middle Tennessee Mayors’ Caucus. For example, outlined in the MPO’s Northeast Corridor Mobility Study — likely to be included in the updated regional transportation plan — is a light rail system that would connect the 30-mile stretch between Gallatin and Nashville.
“Light rail is something that is being done in a lot of the cities that we compete with,” said Gallatin Mayor Jo Ann Graves, chair of the caucus. “We know it works, we know it’s convenient for our citizens, and we believe and feel that it’s the way of the future.”
In the much more immediate future, however, Dean has indicated to look for an expansion of BRT services to other high-trafficked corridors besides Gallatin Avenue.
Who will pay for light rail?
If Nashville wants to use Charlotte’s story as a template — that is, turn its transportation plan into a reality — leaders know what needs to happen next.
“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 governments to enact a specific source.”
To that end, Nashville scored a necessary victory when the Tennessee General Assembly last spring approved legislation that enables the state’s regional transportation authorities to create such a dedicated regional revenue source to expand transit services. Still, a source hasn’t been pinpointed.
Using a portion of sales tax may be an option. For starters, while North Carolina imposes just a 4.25 percent tax rate, Tennessee’s sales tax rate stands considerably higher at 7 percent. Another possibility, according to Michael Skipper, director of the Nashville Area MPO, could be a tax on fuel, a tool frequently employed by other municipalities to create transit dollars.
Dean isn’t ready yet to endorse any one alterative. “It could be a variety of things that we need to look at,” he said. “It depends on how much money they generate and politically, whether you can get it done.”
Shockingly — given Nashville’s past — political will for a local dedicated funding stream may finally be in place.
It seems the transit movement has also gained buy-in from the business community, the same folks who successfully advanced the now-approved $585 million new convention center south of Broadway. Following Dean’s creation of the mayors’ caucus, whose purpose is addressing transportation issues, a group of area business leaders created the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee.
“What we want to do is support the plan that’s addressed and brought forth by the mayor,” said Nashville attorney Charles Bone, who chairs the transit alliance. “That’s our goal — to make the plan work, and to make it work as quickly as possible.”
As well, area chamber of commerce presidents launched a similar transit-minded advocacy group.
Ralph Schulz, CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, said the city’s business leaders felt “a growing urgency” to explore mass transit options after Nashville’s gas shortage episode during the fall of 2008, which affected how companies conducted operations.
All this seems to signal a seismic shift in attitude, as business leaders don’t traditionally praise spending public dollars on mass transit. Making sure a new transit system has sufficient revenues to operate “would undoubtedly involve public-private partnerships,” Schulz said.
Another question altogether is whether car-happy Nashvillians are ready to use new mass transit mediums. Transit advocates believe the city is finally turning the corner.
Paul Ballard, executive director of MTA, pointed out that city buses in Nashville now make 9 million passenger trips each year, up from 6 million just six year ago.
And while acknowledging there’s significant spread between reality and the future, Ballard said the new Music City Central, Music City Star and future advancements like MTA’s two new bus routes (slated to open next month) are “major steps forward.”
“We’re constantly making improvements,” he said. “Obviously people are responding and using public transit. We’re seeing a whole cross-section of political leaders, business people and the multicounty region interested in promoting public transportation, and for all the right reasons.”