Don’t look for a dedicated bus rapid transit lane to one day front Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Robert’s Western World.
Following talks between Metro transit officials and downtown business owners, Mayor Karl Dean’s proposed BRT project appears likely to take a detour at Lower Broadway to avoid the pedestrian-heavy honky-tonk district.
The so-called East-West Connector is far from a reality, lacking both funding and a final go-ahead. But as Metro officials and consultants work toward a final BRT design plan for the estimated $174 million endeavor, the transit team is leaning toward adopting a route that heads east on Broadway, then steers north on Fifth Avenue, thus avoiding Nashville’s most famous commercial district.
“We’ve been talking to groups of people saying this looks like what the project is going to do,” Ed Cole, executive director of The Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, told The City Paper, referring to a plan that from Fifth would veer right onto Commerce Street and then north on Third Avenue.
“For all planning purposes, in our conversations, this will be the route,” Cole said, though stopping short of calling it official.
This alternate — and now apparently preferred — route marks a change from the primary course that transit officials revealed to Nashvillians at a series of community meetings in July. Under that plan, the East-West Connector, which begins on Harding Road near White Bridge Road, would move through the bustling honky-tonk district before taking a left on Third through downtown to Union Street and across the Cumberland River to East Nashville. Even with the altered plan, a permanent BRT passenger wait station would likely go near Fifth and Broadway.
Transit and city planners have also explored having buses turn left off Broadway at Seventh Avenue, near Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School, but the Fifth Avenue option seems to have gained the most traction during recent meetings with downtown property owners and merchants.
Jim McAteer, director of planning and grants for the Metro Transit Authority, cautioned that despite the momentum for the Fifth Avenue-Commerce route, “Nothing is final at this stage.” He said the team of engineers and consultants working on the mayor’s BRT project introduced the line as going down Broadway to Third to put forth “what we think would be best.” This plan, however, ran into some resistance from business owners who feared the BRT project would interfere with Lower Broadway’s pedestrian activity and historic feel.
“We don’t want to damage anything,” McAteer said, specifically singling out the vibe on Lower Broadway. “We want to be part of it.”
Jack Cawthon, owner of Jack’s Bar-B-Que, situated on the 400 block of Lower Broad, said he believes the alternate Fifth Avenue detour would still be able to accommodate businesses like his by placing a BRT station in front of Bridgestone Arena — at the doorstep of the honky-tonk district.
“It wouldn’t compromise the original plan they wanted to do of going all the way down Broadway,” Cawthon said.
In a Sept. 21 letter addressed to Dean and Metro transit leaders, the organization known as The District Inc. — a nonprofit composed of downtown business owners aiming to promote the Broadway, Second Avenue and Printer’s Alley areas — offered its “general support” for the East-West Connector, but alluded to “varied opinions regarding exact routing through our downtown area.”
Sheila Dial-Barton, an architect at downtown EOA Architects on Fourth Avenue and board chair of The District, told The City Paper that a few of the group’s board members took part in recent BRT meetings to voice the position of downtown businesses.
“Our concerns were going into Lower Broadway and really cutting up that area where the more historic honky-tonks are,” Dial-Barton said, adding that it could also impede on the pedestrian flow. “Now that there’s what we hear is the direction for it to go — on Fifth — that kind of alleviates a lot of the concerns of it really going through the middle of Lower Broadway.”
Dean’s proposed eight-mile East-West Connector would consist of BRT vehicles occupying dedicated lanes of traffic, likely in the middle of the West End-Broadway corridor. By coordinating with traffic signals, the BRT buses are said to make for trips that are 25 percent faster.
The repositioned downtown route would perhaps solve one public relations hurdle. Nonetheless, concerns remain: Some residents in the Richland-West End neighborhoods near the western end of the route have questioned whether the project is warranted at all, while also voicing worries about planned commuter parking areas near Elmington Park. Meanwhile, some residents of North Nashville are feeling left out of the project altogether — which they are.
The timeline of Dean’s BRT project is also unclear. Metro officials had been eyeing a Sept. 14 deadline to apply for up to $75 million in federal grant dollars — the kind of money that Dean’s BRT project needs to become a reality.
One week before this deadline arrived, however, MTA announced it would instead be seeking entry into the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts program under MAP-21, a new transportation law that goes into effect Oct. 1.
The move has shifted Metro and its transit consultants to a new but still unidentified application deadline. Metro officials say the the goal is for a late 2015 East-West Connector opening, but acknowledged recently that it could push into 2016. Funding likely wouldn’t be available until 2014.
“We’re still waiting for some guidance based on the MAP-21 changes, so it probably is a little bit too early to say,” MTA’s McAteer said when asked when the route and application would be finalized. “As soon as that comes out, we’ll have a sense of what we need to have finalized.
“I kind of see this as an opportunity to reach out more and to make sure people have a full understanding of the project,” he said.
The city’s impending BRT funding federal application received a boost last month when the Metro Council approved a massive rezoning of 455 acres in the city’s Midtown neighborhood to accommodate urban-inspired, pedestrian-friendly development. Though borne out of Midtown’s community plan, the new guidelines also promote the type of development necessary for the mayor’s mass transit vision.
Peter Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, while in town for a September MTA electric bus announcement, told reporters his agency had been following Dean’s BRT push “very closely.”
“We’ll be looking for certain things,” Rogoff said of the grant application review process. “We’ll be looking for a strong local financial commitment. We’ll be looking for strong local support. We’ll be looking for the right kind of zoning that will promote the right type of economic development to maximize the impact of the federal investment. But I think things are moving in the right direction.”
The mayor caught some flak from transit enthusiasts in December when he announced he would be moving forward on a BRT system instead of a more ambitious — and decidedly more expensive — modern streetcar.
Rogoff, however, said the mayor made a good call. “Bus rapid transit, when it’s done right, you move a great many people at a very affordable cost. And it’s not just the lower cost of building the project, it’s the lower cost of maintaining the system for decades to come.”