In case you hadn’t heard, Mayor Karl Dean occasionally rides the bus. Just Wednesday morning, the mayor made his way from his house in Green Hills to the nearest shelter on Hillsboro Pike, waited alongside other commuters and took the Metro Transit Authority bus to his downtown office.
“Every morning that I take the bus, I get to work in a better mood than when I don’t,” Dean told The City Paper. “So, the staff encourages me to take the bus.”
Besides lifting his spirits, the mayor’s ritual reinforces his mass-transit preference, the mode he sees as the wave of the future for Nashville: buses — more specifically, bus rapid transit. BRT can take on different forms, but it is generally defined as a bus service that’s faster and more efficient than the traditional model, with enhanced infrastructure.
Dean, his image plastered on various MTA bus advertisements, trumpeted the merits of BRT in a television spot during his initial run for office five years ago. That campaign pitch was a sign of things to come. Over the winter, Dean announced plans to move forward aggressively on a new $136 million BRT line, with buses occupying dedicated lanes of traffic, along a so-called east-west connector from East Nashville to Broadway, down West End Avenue. (Dean ruled out a possible modern streetcar line for this same stretch, largely due to price.)
The east-west BRT connector is currently in its planning phase, but a trickier part is still unclear: no funding mechanism has been identified.
While Dean and MTA officials work toward that ambitious project — landing federal dollars is essential — the mayor’s proposed Metro budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year also takes a step toward BRT, albeit a much smaller one.
As part of his $297.7 million capital-spending plan, which relies on a proposed 53-cent property tax increase, the mayor has carved on $4.8 million for a new BRT “lite” line for Murfreesboro Pike that would stretch from downtown to the Hickory Hollow Mall area in Antioch.
The less audacious BRT approach for Murfreesboro Pike, modeled on a 3-year-old BRT system on Gallatin Pike, would lack the exclusive bus lanes proposed for the east-west connector. Rather, BRT “lite” allows for fewer bus stops, thus speedier trips, and includes amenities such as more refined bus shelters and fuel-efficient hybrid buses.
“It’s a great way to deal with congested corridors,” Dean said, adding that the plan is to someday connect the BRT project on Murfreesboro Pike to the east-west connector.
“It’s also another example of the added services we’re putting toward southeast Davidson County, which is the fastest-growing part of our city,” he said.
The mayor’s tax hike is set for a crucial second of three council votes on Tuesday. The added revenue is a prerequisite for Dean’s capital plan, which is heavy on infrastructure, particularly the renovation of schools and addressing long-neglected paving projects. On the transit front, Dean’s plan also calls for millions to replace MTA vehicles and a new crosstown “university connector,” bridging Tennessee State, Vanderbilt, Lipscomb and Belmont universities.
Branded as “lite,” the BRT plan for Murfreesboro Pike might not excite most passionate mass-transit enthusiasts. Nonetheless, Metro officials contend it will attract more riders on an already-busy corridor.
The Murfreesboro Pike proposal, which would commence in the spring of 2013, comes three years after Dean kicked off BRT “lite” on East Nashville’s Gallatin Pike, a 12-mile stretch from downtown’s Music City Central to RiverGate Mall. Since its inception, MTA officials say bus ridership along Gallatin Pike has increased from 80,000 trips per month to 120,000 per month.
Based on the Gallatin Pike numbers, Paul Ballard, MTA’s CEO, said he anticipates bus ridership on Murfreesboro Pike to increase from 71,000 passengers per month to 100,000 per month. The two corridors, both bordering low-income neighborhoods, are MTA’s busiest stretches.
“Murfreesboro Road really is a similar candidate for that precise type of service because it’s a long route, and the ridership there has been growing,” Ballard recently told The City Paper. “It just seems like the ideal candidate to speed up the service and improve the bus stops. It’s just a natural.”
MTA officials describe buses as a booming enterprise in Nashville right now. And the spike comes as Nashville ranks 32nd nationwide in vehicular traffic congestion, according to a report released last week by INRIX, a leading traffic research firm.
For the first time in a generation, MTA leaders project transit passenger trips for the current fiscal year to surpass the 10 million mark, a number that includes commuters on Music City Star and other regional services as well as city buses. Half of these passengers use public transit to commute to and from work, according to MTA figures.
“As gas prices have risen, and as we’ve managed to keep our service levels relatively sustained and in some cases improved throughout the economic downturn, we just continue to see increased demand for transit,” said Freddie O’Connell, who chairs MTA’s board of directors.
Apparently, BRT is Metro’s way to meet that demand.
Based on MTA’s Nashville Strategic Master Plan, BRT “lite” could be an option for future corridors down the road, though nothing has formally been proposed. O’Connell said he could imagine BRT going along a new northeast corridor connecting Nashville to Gallatin, and perhaps all the way to Hendersonville.
“I would expect we would see various forms of BRT and express bus service used throughout Davidson County and Middle Tennessee over the next several years,” O’Connell said.
Like several of the mayor’s proposed infrastructure investments, the Murfreesboro Pike BRT “lite” proposal caters to the fast-growing Antioch area. But this southeast part of town also happens to include districts of council members most hostile to Dean’s property tax hike plan.
“Mass transit is not a good use of property tax increases,” said District 33 Councilman Robert Duvall, who represents part of southeast Davidson County and is Dean’s most outspoken tax-hike critic. “Police officers, firemen, EMT — that is a great use of property taxes.”
District 28 Councilman Duane Dominy, whose district also borders Murfreesboro Pike, said some residents in the area “depend on that bus line,” adding that the new service would be “beneficial to them.”
“But the cost? I don’t know,” said Dominy, who said he’s undecided how he’ll vote on the tax hike. “I have concerns about that.”
In a competing budget put forth by the conservative think tank The Beacon Center of Tennessee — a proposal that has emerged as the primary counter to Dean’s budget — the group suggests ending Metro’s subsidy to MTA and other departments as one way to avoid a tax hike.
At a recent council budget hearing, At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry asked Ballard to discuss the effect of losing its subsidy.
Ballard responded: “We would become the only city of any size in the United States which does not provide or attempt to provide a balanced approach to transportation.”
BRT “lite,” despite a few council skeptics, does have the support of other Antioch-area council members including District 32 Councilwoman Jacobia Dowell.
“It makes sense,” Dowell said of the proposal, adding she believes it would be highly used. “We have a lot of people commuting from Rutherford County into Nashville. The southeast area is a very dense area, and right now the infrastructure does not support the growth out there.”