Dean's proposed budget would expand bus rapid transit 'lite'

Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 11:31pm

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.”

12 Comments on this post:

By: Kosh III on 6/4/12 at 6:49

Yes. More buses more often on more routes.

We should put these "lite" buses on all the major routes as quickly as possible. We should expand the express buses from the exurbs: the new service to Clarksville is one example of this.

By: Beentheredonethat on 6/4/12 at 8:16

Please! In a better mood when he rides the bus. Does he think we're all stupid? He rides around in 2 brand new suburbans with body guards and he wants us to think it puts him in a better mood to ride the bus. And let me tell you about bus rapid transit. Travel Gallatin Rd and you'll see the BRT either immediately in front of the regular bus or right behind it. If it is actually a rapid transit bus why is it always close to the regular bus? It's like they are playing tag. All of this BRT stuff is just to make people feel good that the mayor is doing something. It's just wasteing money. These articulated hybrid BRT buses cost $800,000. each. How many regular buses could they have bought for that money and just put more of them on the routes.

By: MusicCity615 on 6/4/12 at 8:17

I am a fan of putting BRT 'lite' in the areas aforementioned now, but Nashville really needs full BRT on the East/West Corridor as soon as possible. My hope would be to have the Gallatin Pike and Murf. Road 'lite' structures then move to Full BRT.

We need dedicated lanes so these buses don't sit in traffic. Once people feel the cost benefits on mass transit and physically see the efficiency of Full BRT on dedicated lanes while they sit in traffic, this could really be a huge investment in Davidson County.

Is there anyway we could negotiate with CSX to get Amtrak service in Nashville? Did Nashville use to have Amtrak service in the past? I could see a station in The Gulch connecting Nashville to Chattanooga and Atlanta.

By: Left-of-Local on 6/4/12 at 9:01

Been, you know about jack squat concerning the Mayor's daily activity, but thanks for painting yourself an expert.

Fact is ALL busses should be the more expensive environmentally-superior type, regardless. Sometimes, you pay to do what is RIGHT. Speaking of... why are still talking about busses anyway? Why aren't' all you concerned citizens raising hell for trains? Light rail? High speed? What is this ridiculous redneck obsession we have in these parts for tires, pavement, and steering wheels?

By: MusicCity615 on 6/4/12 at 9:54


I want LRT/Streetcar/ High Speed Rail, but those are heavily dependent on federal dollars and I think Dean knows he can't receive them at this time, which is why he is going for the next best thing- BRT.

Do you know if there is anyway we could negotiate with CSX to get Amtrak service in Nashville? Did Nashville use to have Amtrak service in the past?

By: sharko20 on 6/4/12 at 12:41

Tires, pavement and steering wheels = independence and freedom. Bus rapid transit? Now that is funny. Karl Marx Dean typical lib addicted to taxpayer dollars.

By: MusicCity615 on 6/4/12 at 12:43


Let's see how "free and independent" you feel when gas prices reach $7 per gallon.

By: MusicCity615 on 6/4/12 at 12:44

Not to mention the average savings for people that use public transit versus buying cars/gas is $9,000 per year.

By: yucchhii on 6/4/12 at 1:46

FIRST get rid of the "UN" NECESSARY TAXES that do nothing but go into the politicians pockets...then tax us for the lite rail!!!

By: catenarykat on 6/4/12 at 5:03

Been, I just can't let youe comments go unchallenged.
In the first place, you have to admire Mayor Dean for living what he believes in. At least, I sure do.
Second, the articulated buses are far more economical than a bunch of "regular buses." MTA's biggest operational cost on a bus route, by far, is labor. It would cost them far more to operate multiple "regular buses," over time, than to buy and operate the articulated ones. Yes, you occasionally see "empty" buses of all types at the ends of the lines or in off-peak hours, but if you've ever watched the articulated BRTs come in at Music City Central, you'll see they're actually FULL. Imagine that! Of course, like most critics, you've probably never set foot on a bus, much less Music City Central. Don't mean to be mean here, just sayin'.
Third, of course the BRTs will play tag with the regular buses. They don't all start at one point and someone waves a green flag for "go." BRT makes about 14 stops along the way, and they are spaced about 15 mins apart. "Regular"buses make many, many more stops, and they are regularly running alongside and overtaken and passed by BRTs.
Four, Mayor Dean deserves some credit, too, for chosing BRT as the cost-effective alternative.

By: thinking12 on 6/4/12 at 9:09

"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."
So the people who live in Davidson County (property owners)should pay (property tax increase)for the people who work in Davidson County but live in Rutherford to have a less costly and more expeditious way to work?

"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”.

What is amiss with this picture?

Is Rutherford County the next in line to "need" a raise in property taxes to build a bus line for Davidson County residents to commute to Rutherford county for their jobs?

By: shinestx on 6/5/12 at 11:33

With no dedicated routes, no bypass around the most congested areas, this is a horrible waste of money. "Lite" is the operative word... nothing more than an overpriced bus line for buses that will be constrained by the same congestion that other drivers must contend with. Obviously, the Dean adminiistration has not thought this through... or maybe they have, and they know somebody who is selling them this bill of goods.