“We need to develop a bold new vision for mass transit to lead us into the 21st century,” Mayor Karl Dean told the crowd that gathered Wednesday for the unveiling of a long-term plan for mass transit in the region.
The details, especially regarding funding, are uncertain, but the Nashville Metropolitan Planning Organization announced its “bold vision” while revealing the first iteration of its 2035 Regional Transportation Plan at the second annual "Power of Ten: Convening the Region" summit.
Mass transit improvement is a critical issue for the 10 counties comprising the Cumberland Region of Middle Tennessee. The population of that region is projected to rise by nearly 1 million residents by 2035, increasing current road congestion and transportation relation pollution. Over the next 25 years, the Regional Transportation Plan will determine how to spend roughly $5 billion on roads, bridges, transit, walking, and bicycling.
MPO Executive Director Michael Skipper highlighted three goals of the 2035 RTP: expand mass transit options, improve and expand active transportation choices (e.g. biking), and preserve and enhance current roads. He noted that the plan helps Tennessee compete for federal funding.
Listing four guiding principles — livability, sustainability, prosperity, diversity — the draft plan adopts a “fix it first” mentality. It places emphasis on improving, repairing and sustaining current transportation infrastructure before undertaking any new projects.
“First and foremost, we’ve got to fix what we have”, Skipper said. “We can’t continue to build roadways at the rate we are doing it unless we can prove that we can maintain them.”
New ideas are being considered as well. Skipper cited a study by the Texas Transportation Institute on Nashville congestion that concluded Nashvillians spend around $420 million a year on fuel consumption and lost time.
Using cities with recently implemented transit systems (Denver, Austin, Charlotte) as models, several options were listed to reduce congestion on Metro roadways. Expanding urban fixed route services, such as Bus Rapid Transit and light-rail, were among proposed solutions. Increasing regional commuter rail lines to Lebanon and adding a new line to Clarksville were also mentioned.
A potential return to urban street cars was portrayed through digital images of Nashville streets. A line was displayed running down West End and connecting downtown, Vanderbilt, St. Thomas Hospital and Centennial Park. It would loop back up 21st and Broadway.
The plan aims to expand bicycling lanes and walking communities. Skipper noted that in an urban environment, half of all trips are 3 miles or less.
Gallatin Mayor Jo Ann Graves sees a shift to mass transit as the only viable solution to the problem. Regarding I-65 traffic, she said, “We’ve added lanes of traffic and, quite frankly, there isn’t room to build anymore. Mass transit is the only long term solution that cities and towns can buy into.”
Ed Cole, executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, stressed the importance of community in the project.
“The most important thing is that the vision of public transit is moved out for public discussion by the MPO,” he said. “There will be meetings and discussions about that — we want to encourage people to participate. We’re going to organize some of those throughout the 10 counties.”
But the plan is anything but concrete. While Skipper said a part of the plan is being implemented every day, it will be a while before completion of larger goals.
“It’s debatable how quickly we can turn this around as we lack funding,” said Skipper.
“It’ll be done in pieces, the funding issues will be major that we’ll have to address,” said Cole. “We’re at least, probably, 2 to 3 years away from major new things. But we already have a step with the Music City Star and then there will be planning, actual work underway even though construction hasn’t started.”
The next big date for the RTP is July 21, when an MPO board meeting will endorse a preferred investment strategy and formally draft the Plan. On Oct. 20, the MPO will formally adopt the 2035 Regional Transit Plan at another board meeting.
Multiple speakers at the summit referenced the unity shown by Middle Tennessee persevering through the flood as an example for how to approach the issue of public transit. Pieces of frayed rope were given out with programs to symbolize the strength of Middle Tennesseans when they work together.
But reality will prove harder than metaphor when funding solutions are needed.
“I think the most important part is to get the vision, and then people can talk about the hard choices we have to make [funding]” said Cole.