If Nashville’s peer cities include places like Charlotte, N.C., and Denver, as Music City’s biggest boosters occasionally declare, then Metro is arguably deviating from the pack on the transit front.
While these two cities, and a long list of others, have made or plan to make significant investments in light rail, modern streetcars, or some combination of the two, Nashville’s big transit push has suddenly steered toward something less sexy and decidedly less expensive: buses. Specifically, bus rapid transit, a popular system in its own right that allows buses to occupy dedicated traffic lanes and, with advanced technology, operate independently from automobile stoplights.
It appears Nashville won’t be riding the rails –– at least not in the immediate future. This city is sticking to tires.
By following a path put forth by a transit report on a potential east-west connector, which Mayor Karl Dean and others unveiled last week, Nashville would join the likes of Eugene, Ore., Cleveland, Ohio, and Las Vegas as American cities with sophisticated bus rapid transit lines. (Call them Nashville’s new sister cities.) The bus rapid transit approach would require less infrastructure –– no tracks below or electric cables above vehicles are necessary –– and far fewer years and dollars to undertake than a streetcar that runs on rails.
The recommendation for bus rapid transit, commonly called BRT, along a new east-west connector capped off a much-anticipated yearlong study led by engineering consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. The analysis, a prerequisite to land highly coveted federal funding for transit projects, explored a five-mile stretch from West End Avenue at White Bridge Road, along Broadway downtown, across the Cumberland River to East Nashville’s Five Points district, via Main or Woodland streets. Consultants released the findings to members of the steering committee for the Broadway-West End corridor last Monday. Dean, an open supporter of expanding transit options since taking office, immediately endorsed the plan.
Planners say they looked at four options for the east-west corridor: doing nothing or establishing light rail, modern streetcars or BRT. They identified streetcars and BRT as the two modes that best addressed the city’s needs. Cost, they say, became an overriding factor in narrowing it down to BRT. Installing a streetcar would cost at minimum $275 million, but BRT’s price tag is $136 million. It’s fewer dollars for comparable ridership figures. And as for popularity with riders, the report predicted that a streetcar on the Broadway-West End corridor would generate an estimated 1.44 million first-year trips, while BRT would generate a projected 1.35 million trips.
Dean, who in a 2007 campaign television ad made a brief mention of BRT, told the small audience last week that now is the time to “move forward boldly” with BRT on the traffic-congested corridor. After the system is installed, he said people in other parts of the city would be “crying out” for BRT near them.
In putting his political weight behind BRT, Dean made frequent reference to the cost disparity between streetcars and BRT: “If you look at it from the position that I have to look at things, there’s 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.”
BRT’s optimal timeline is another factor.
A BRT line from West End to East Nashville –– which still requires Metro Transit Authority approval along with clearing several financial hurdles –– could be ready by late 2014 or 2015, the mayor said. A modern streetcar, however, would require more time to navigate the morass of bureaucracy to land necessary federal transportation funds, transit leaders say. So a streetcar would likely have to take root well past Dean’s second term, which ends in 2015. BRT, on the other hand, could emerge as one of Dean’s final signature projects. He could be there for the ribbon-cutting.
“I would like to see everything done in the next four years,” Dean told reporters after the unveiling of the transit study. “That’s my personal desire. I think we need to move forward. There’s this proverb that says, ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.’ ”
Metro and transit officials say the stretch along West End, Broadway and across to East Nashville is an ideal spot for mass transit investment because it “brings together” universities, hospitals, businesses and tourist and cultural attractions. The study says 170,000 people currently work along the corridor, and another 25,000 residents live near it, with numbers expected to increase by 10 percent and 24 percent, respectively, by 2035.
At first glance, Dean’s preference for BRT over a modern streetcar doesn’t seem like the most exciting option for Nashville’s transit enthusiasts. Nonetheless, many say they’re already on board.
Ed Cole, executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, told The City Paper he considers himself a “convert” from pro-streetcar to favoring BRT. He likened the east-west corridor to a “Main Street” for the entire Middle Tennessee region.
“BRT is a very strong solution,” Cole said. “I think it will work. I think the dollar savings speak for themselves. The secret and the key to this is to do it right. And the ingredient to doing it right –– and we hear it from people who talk to the alliance all the time –– is reliable service, frequent service and a sense of permanence.”
That’s the sort of formula that Metro officials and Parsons Brinckerhoff consultants described as they released the study’s findings.
In terms of physical appearance, BRT buses would look similar to streetcars even though one consists of rubber-tired vehicles and the other rail cars. Through visible signage, BRT would be “easily identifiable” to stand out to riders. BRT is designed to move passengers in and out quickly. Fare collection is designed to be fast and easy. Stations would dot the corridor, allowing buses to stop every 10 minutes.
In 2009, Metro installed a simpler version of BRT along Gallatin Pike in East Nashville. But the version proposed for the east-west connector would be dramatically different, largely in two ways: Dedicated lanes would be set aside for BRT buses, and the system would be capable of traffic-signal preference for the buses.
Michelle Kendall, who works out of Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Nashville office, said besides the cost there are other considerations that make BRT ideal for Nashville’s east-west connector over a streetcar system: the shorter installation time frame, more flexibility, higher probability of securing federal dollars and future transit expansion.
“Cost was one of the factors,” Kendall said. “But there’s a variety of things that we looked at when we studied what’s the best fit.”
Among groups that seemed captivated by the idea of a modern streetcar was the nonprofit Nashville Civic Design Center, which last year put together schematic designs and renderings to offer a visual representation of what a modern streetcar line could look like along the Broadway-West End corridor.
But after hearing the study’s case for BRT, Gary Gaston, the design center’s director, believes BRT has its benefits.
“I think the fact that it can be done quickly and cost less –– as opposed to maybe having to wait up to 10 years to get something like a rail system –– is better,” Gaston said. He added that if successful, which he believes BRT would be, it could transition to further transit advancements in the future. “I’m really excited. I think the fact that we’re going to do this on hopefully a fast track to get this in place, is probably the most important thing.”
While the level of Metro’s financial commitment to help pay for a $136 million BRT system is still unclear, Dean said BRT offers “the best chance” to acquire federal funding. To compete for federal dollars for large-scale transit projects, Metro would likely need to identify a local dedicated funding source at some point. The east-west corridor will continue to be the topic of future community meetings.
Michael Skipper, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said federal transportation grants typically go to projects that produce the “most amount of travel savings for the population for the least amount of money.” He described the process as “highly competitive.” He also said competitive federal funds for transit were set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. There are also formula federal funds that Metro already receives, he said.
Moving forward, Skipper said it’s important future transit options in Nashville be “transformative” in the way it moves people, spur economic development, and helps people re-think the possibilities of public transit. He believes BRT achieves these goals.
“Typically, rail can meet all three of those challenges and traditional bus can’t,” Skipper said. “But what we’re beginning to have available are really innovative and transformative BRT projects. What’s key is how you implement it.”