Mayor Karl Dean has his eyes set on a full-fledged bus rapid transit system –– with buses occupying exclusive lanes of traffic –– taking passengers from West End Avenue down Broadway, across the river to East Nashville’s Five Points district.
That’s the preference over a more ambitious –– and considerably more expensive –– modern streetcar system to serve as an east-west connector, following the Monday release of a much anticipated transit study.
In a report conducted by the engineering consultant firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, planners pinpointed a streetcar and bus rapid transit, BRT, as the two best transit options for future transit investment along the congested Broadway-West End stretch. But the installation of a streetcar –– like those in Portland, Ore., for example –– would cost $275 million. The price tag for BRT is significantly smaller: $136 million.
“I’m a big fan of our buses,” Dean said Monday morning to members of the Broadway-West End Steering Committee, who voted to support consultants’ recommendations for BRT. “The fact is, with BRT, we’ll have even better buses.
“If you look at decisions the way I have to look at things, there is the cost,” he said. “There is a $130 million difference in the cost. That is significant when we have to figure out how to pay for this.”
Dean, who said BRT would generate virtually the same ridership numbers as a streetcar, indicated a new BRT system along West End, Broadway and into East Nashville could be installed by late 2014 or early 2015. The report –– initiated more than a year ago to review transit options from White Bridge Road to East Nashville –– is a prerequisite to land federal dollars for transportation projects. The level of local dollars needed for the project is still unclear.
“We’ve been working with consultants, looking where the best chances are to get federal funding,” Dean said. “We believe it is bus rapid transit.”
Metro installed a light BRT system on East Nashville’s Gallatin Avenue in 2009. Under consideration for Broadway-West End is a more sophisticated BRT version in which buses would occupy lanes exclusively.
Paul Skoutelas, transit market director of Parsons Brinckerhoff, said consultants explored four options for the east-west corridor: doing nothing, light rail, a streetcar and BRT. He said consultants emphasized finding an option that could begin operating within a short timeframe.
In physical appearance, Skoutelas said buses for BRT would look similar to streetcars. BRT buses –– which use advanced technology to operate freely from automobile traffic lights –– could be hybrid or electric. They are designed to allow riders to board or exit quickly. BRT stations would be located along the corridor at unspecified locations.
Streetcars require the construction of rails and overhead electrical wiring. BRT can run along preexisting roadways and requires low infrastructure investments.
The report projects a streetcar system would generate 1.44 million trips during its first year of operations, while a BRT system would generate 1.35 million trips in year one.
“A BRT system, to really come into its own, needs its own identity,” Skoutelas said, referring to design and signage that sets the system apart from traditional buses.
Orlando, Fla., Cleveland and Las Vegas are some of the cities nationwide that have adopted sophisticated BRT approaches. Many of Nashville’s so-called “sister cities” such as Denver, Colo., have streetcars.
“At the national level, both bus rapid transit and streetcars are seen as amenities to improve economic development,” he said, adding development is dependent on BRT having its own, exclusive lanes. “That’s first and foremost. That’s the most important factor.”
Metro officials identified the east-west corridor because it “brings together” universities, hospitals, businesses, and tourist and cultural attractions.
“In many ways, this is a ‘Main Street’ for the region of Middle Tennessee,” said Ed Cole, executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee.
The idea of a modern streetcar along Nashville’s most prominent corridor had generated buzz around Nashville. The nonprofit Nashville Civic Design Center, interested in the design of a streetcar, produced a visual study last year that explored how a streetcar would look on the corridor.
Nonetheless, developers and others see some positives of BRT.
“I’m excited about the concept of the BRT,” said Joe Barker, a principal at MarketStreet Enterprises, a development group with a strong presence in The Gulch neighborhood. “We all had visions in our mind about light rail. But we don’t have the density for that.
“BRT has come so far,” he said. “I really feel like now is the time to embrace BRT.”