In a city with a penchant for the automobile and interstate, Metro officials are giving Nashvillians a crash course on something alien: mass transit — in this case, Mayor Karl Dean’s plan for bus rapid transit along an eight-mile stretch from West End Avenue to downtown Broadway, and across the Cumberland River to East Nashville.
“It’s a subway on wheels,” Jim McAteer, director of planning and grants at Metro Transit Authority, told curious spectators gathered at the downtown library last week for one of four well-attended forums designed to introduce the proposed “east-west connector.”
The vision, one of “fast, frequent service,” is modeled on systems in Eugene, Ore., Cleveland, Ohio, and elsewhere. Transit officials are eyeing a 2015 opening — one last ribbon-cutting before Dean’s second term expires. “A very expedited schedule,” one official called the process.
If all goes as planned, Nashvillians one day will be able to make their way to permanent wait stations — described as “iconic” in design — along the heavily trafficked corridor, which is home to 25,000 residents and 170,000 jobs. From there, they will take out smart cards to pay to ride buses that resemble streetcars minus rail underneath: Wide doors open from both sides of the vehicles; passengers enjoy level boarding from the sidewalk; and ample room inside the buses allow passengers to store their bikes.
With buses stopping every 10 minutes, waits should be minimal — and relatively pleasant after the surrounding streetscape is upgraded. Buses will occupy two dedicated lanes of traffic, one in each direction, likely in a middle median along West End-Broadway. The key to BRT’s speed is its coordination with traffic signals: BRT has priority. As cars line up bumper to bumper during rush hour, these buses will whiz through green lights, making for trips that are 25 percent faster.
Ed Cole, executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, described a hypothetical East Nashville resident who works at Vanderbilt University. To begin her day, this transit pioneer walks to the Five Points station. She travels west via BRT to the Eighth Avenue and Broadway station, visits the library and lunches downtown. Eyeing a 4 p.m. meeting at Vanderbilt, she takes the east-west connector there with time to spare.
“Then it’s a one-seat ride all the way back to East Nashville, and then you’re home, and you go to bed,” Cole said. “That’s the kind of experience that this system will allow.”
Make no mistake: The BRT sales pitch has already begun. This month’s forums were just as promotional as informative. After years of growth, transit officials say the time has come for Nashville to join the likes of Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C.
“They’re very far ahead of us in terms of transit,” McAteer said of Nashville’s sister cities, delivering a PowerPoint presentation to a packed library auditorium. He proclaimed economic development and quality-of-life benefits of transit. Officials like him expect Nashville’s BRT ridership to exceed 4,500 weekly trips in year one, 1.35 million overall during those 12 months.
“Cities big and small have kind of realized that to be competitive and to plan for the future, we need to be thinking in terms of transit,” he said. But this mass-transit campaign will soon have to pivot from one selling the transit lifestyle to explaining why it is worth an estimated $174 million price tag. ($136 million is for the transit component. Another $38 million is required for streetscape. Figures aren’t final.)
The mayor’s administration isn’t ready to publicly discuss the local financing component of Dean’s BRT project. Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling told The City Paper the funding process would begin in the fall.
Yet a dialogue will have to happen soon.
A prerequisite for Nashville’s BRT is landing a grant from the Federal Transit Administration that could cover as much as $75 million of the transit piece. Metro officials are anticipating a mid-September grant application deadline. For the federal government to even consider Nashville’s project, Dean’s administration will have to outline a local funding source. A decision on whether Nashville is awarded the grant will come months later.
Fresh off engineering Davidson County’s first property tax hike increase in seven years, the mayor will have to pitch a funding mechanism that meets the political test — one that the Metro Council and the public won’t resist.
It’s all speculation for now.
Ways that some cities have paid for transit — but long-shot possibilities here — include a gas tax, a wheel tax, increasing property taxes or bumping up local sales taxes. In Nashville, the latter two options would require public referendums. On the one hand, a referendum on transit can be wise politically. It gives citizens the say on raising their taxes. The downside is such measures often lose: When Nashvillians last voted on whether to increase the local sales tax, in 2005 — a half-cent to fund education initiatives — they rejected the proposal overwhelmingly.
Meanwhile, Atlanta is in the middle of a contentious referendum vote to add a penny to its sales tax, albeit to fund a much more ambitious transit project: $8.5 billion transit upgrades for the entire Atlanta region. Polls suggest voters are split on the matter, which will be decided July 31.
In short, referendums can turn into political wars.
A more likely scenario could be the creation of a special assessment district along the corridor, whereby an expected jolt in tax collections from new and existing development would retire debt from a city bond issued for transit. It essentially operates like tax increment financing.
“It’s the idea of value-capture,” said Doug Tennant, vice president of URS Corp., a San Francisco-based engineering firm with a Franklin office, which MTA has contracted with on the BRT project. “If we went out there and created a new street and streetscape for West End Avenue, and created a better West End Avenue, it would enhance property values along that corridor. If you own a restaurant there, and I create a nicer environment, suddenly your property gets enhanced.”
But capturing some observers’ attention is a different model: establishing a central business improvement district. Instead of relying on expected tax growth, transit beneficiaries along the corridor — the assortment of hospitals being one possible component — would pay an additional tax for the added service. Again, revenues would pay off debt.
Whichever financing plan emerges as the mayor’s choice could find an ally in the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which has served an integral function in advancing mass-transit discussion. The chamber helped build the transit alliance.
“I’m sure we’ll play an active role,” chamber president and CEO Ralph Schulz said. “It’s kind of the same thing as [the Music City Center]. Number one, the way we look at is, does the community need it? And obviously the city needs transit.”
Moving forward, transit officials plan to use the recently concluded BRT forums to “fine-tune” the east-west connector plan. A second round of public meetings is set for August where citizens can view a more detailed proposal.
Officials plan to address public concerns. Whitland-area residents along West End are wary of plans for a new parking station near Elmington Park to accommodate transit passengers, fearing it could undermine the popular public green space. Transit leaders have also discussed plans for parking near St. Thomas Hospital and H.G. Hill Realty Co.-owned property at White Bridge Road and Harding Pike, where the BRT route begins. The intersection is already a traffic nightmare, they say. Wouldn’t parking exacerbate the problem?
The BRT route also makes its way through Lower Broadway, leading skeptics to worry about the impact BRT could have on a district where pedestrians walk freely.
Robert Waits, an occasional bus rider who lives in East Nashville’s Inglewood, said he believes mass-transit expansion is needed in Nashville. “The size of the city is getting bigger, and we’re going to have to address it eventually.”
But Marty Kooperman, an attorney who lives off West End and works in East Nashville, is skeptical. He claims he leaves his Bowling Avenue home by car each day and arrives at his Woodland Street office in 10 minutes. “There’s no time incentive,” he said, adding that the east-west connector would be more beneficial if it stretched to Bellevue, Hillwood and West Meade. “Those people really need quicker, more convenient transportation into town. I don’t think the area that it’s being built really needs it.”
Listening to that conversation, however, Calvin Marable of North Nashville disagrees. “I use transit, and I’ve used it throughout the world,” he said, recounting a recent trip to Portland, Ore., where a streetcar operates. “I’ve seen this thing work.”
Gaining support of people like Marable in historically black North Nashville could be key to BRT’s fate here. While the east-west connector would reach many black residents in East Nashville, the route proceeds down a largely affluent (and white) neighborhood along West End.
At-Large Councilman Jerry Maynard, an African-American, said he’s spoken to many North Nashville constituents and council members who are willing to support the BRT proposal as long as a future connector is assured for their neighborhoods.
“They’re supporting it with the understanding and expectation that the next phase will be the north-south BRT connector — coming down Clarksville Highway, Rosa Parks Boulevard, and connecting then to the east-west connector,” Maynard said.