Nashville's BRT is ‘lite’ alternative to alternative transportation

Sunday, August 23, 2009 at 11:44pm

For months, Metropolitan Transit Authority has been accepting bids on contracts to build facilities for a new Bus Rapid Transit system. The high-tech bus route is the centerpiece of MTA’s Strategic Master Plan and will begin to operate in September along its top ridership route, Gallatin Road.

The headliners for this new venture are six new 60-foot, articulated hybrid buses, which according to MTA, would be noticed for “their sleek, contemporary design as well as their overall comfort.” When one was put into service in April, Mayor Karl Dean and several other officials took a ride and gave enthusiastic “thumbs up.”

MTA purchased six of these buses, built by the same company — North American Bus Industries — that supplied Los Angeles with its Orange Line BRT fleet, at a cost of $880,000 each. The first six were paid for with Metro funds; plans to purchase five additional vehicles for the planned BRT along Gallatin Road will come from federal transit stimulus funds later this year.

Gallatin Road was selected because it has the highest ridership in Nashville — 87,000 passengers paid fares in March alone.

Each new bus can accommodate anywhere from a comfortable 65 to a crowded 100 passengers on the run between the Northside Marketplace in north Nashville and Music City Central downtown.

“The addition of six new hybrid buses to MTA’s fleet is a positive step forward for public transit in our city, both environmentally and in terms of enhancing service,” Dean said in April after his test ride. “We need to do all we can to encourage more people to ride the bus, and hybrids, which are lower to the ground and much quieter than traditional buses, will certainly help do that.”

No one doubts that the BRT system can do just that. The open design of the greener hybrid (diesel and electric) buses and the wider aisles give riders a more spacious feel. Plus, all of the new buses are ADA-compliant and equipped with bike racks, and there is reduced exterior noise too.

After all, few people think of bus rides and comfort as traveling companions.

With bids going out to build new shelters, traffic signal lights, roadway barriers and automated ticketing kiosks, there are even jobs to be created in this greener, environmentally sound venture.

The first BRT system was created in Curitiba, Brazil in 1999. BRT service in that city resulted in 27 million fewer automobile trips each year and about 27 million fewer liters of fuel annually. Now, Curitiba uses about 30 percent less fuel per capita and its ambient air pollution is one of the lowest in Brazil.

“These environmentally friendly buses are a part of our commitment to growing public transit in Nashville,” said MTA CEO Paul J. Ballard. “The buses offer the latest in passenger comfort and amenities as well as help the environment by using less fuel since they are hybrids. We are excited to get them into service and will use them for the initial phase of a planned Bus Rapid Transit project this summer.”

Ballard may want to temper his excitement a bit, because while Los Angeles and other U.S. cities followed the Curitiba blueprint, Nashville is leaving out what could be a key piece of the BRT puzzle.

A major component of BRT systems — dedicated lanes — will not be implemented, though it is planned for the future. Dedicated lanes are bus-only roadways that quicken commutes by segregating traffic.

The key to Curitiba’s BRT plan was to speed bus riders along their own stretch of asphalt while car commuters dealt with gridlock.

“We actually call what we’re doing BRT Light,” said Jim McAteer, MTA planning director. “Some people go to maximum BRT right away with dedicated lanes, but we’re starting in on a lower level.”

The need for speed

It can be argued that dedicated lanes are the cornerstone of the BRT model. Building a system that is contingent on new riders with an incomplete foundation may be hazardous, since sitting in traffic in a comfortable bus is still sitting in traffic.

Although it may be riskier and more expensive to finance, a true BRT system might garner more recognition and praise. The Gallatin Road buses won’t have their own lanes, but McAteer believes BRT Light will significantly improve the quality and speed of Nashville’s mass transit.

To ease passenger use, LED signs will announce arrival times, and traffic lights that adjust to accommodate bus schedules will be placed along the route.

At each of the 15 stops, passengers can purchase a ticket from a vending machine before they get on the bus. Because customers can prepay, the automated fee system eliminates transaction delays during bus stops.

“The BRT provides an opportunity for folks who might not be as comfortable riding the bus as others, these features will provide comfort,” said McAteer.

Last year a survey of 1,800 Nashvillians found that public transportation was their most prominent concern. Public transit use nationwide has increased 45 percent since 2002.

Part of a larger plan

To its credit, MTA has been formulating through staff and public meeting a strategic master plan that sets goals, priorities and actions for public transportation in Nashville, and provides guidance and strategy for short-term and long-term decision-making about public transportation for Metro.

Development of the plan is a joint effort between the Nashville MTA, Metropolitan Planning Organization, Metro Planning and the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

Plans for implementing the system began more than eight years ago.

“The next five to 10 years and beyond are critical to developing a world-class public transportation system for Nashville,” Ballard added. “Public transportation goes hand in hand with economic development, tourism and jobs growth and is a critical part of any city’s success.”

With last year’s opening of Music City Central transit station at 400 Charlotte Ave., fluctuating gasoline prices, a new statewide focus by Gov. Phil Bredesen on recruiting green jobs, and concern about energy resources and being more environmentally responsible, the timing has never been better to move forward for a more comprehensive efficient public transportation system for Nashville, according to MTA officials.

Bredesen recently signed an act enabling communities to create dedicated funding sources for local transit systems. Common revenue sources usually consist of taxes on vehicle registration, hotel rooms, or rental cars.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funds will be used to kick-start Nashville’s BRT. MTA stands to receive $3.35 million for construction of facilities and $3.57 million for purchases of buses.

A rocky history

Any improvement on the current state of Nashville’s public transportation may be viewed as welcome, and nothing’s wrong with roomier buses, less waiting times and more green lights. However, Nashville has in the last decade or so seen one alternative transportation venture fail and another struggling.

Once tabbed as the “structure to take Nashville into the 21st century” by former congressman Bob Clement, the Clement Landport was envisioned as the hub of a regional intermodal passenger system.

Built with federally funded concrete directly behind Union Station and just west of Cummins Station, the multilevel facility was built to provide links for commuter rail, car and van pools, local and regional buses, hotel and airport shuttles, bicyclists and the possible return of interstate passenger rail.

In part because of the condemnation of the Demonbreun Street viaduct, but mostly due to a lack of local commitment to it, the landport never did what it set out to do. Today, it sits vacant except for the homeless squatters who dwell there.

Then there’s Music City Star, whose downtown-to-Lebanon commuter train line is cursed by empty seats.

As part of a bigger “wheel-and-spokes” plan that would shuttle riders in and out of downtown Nashville from Murfreesboro, Gallatin, Franklin and Bellevue, it looked great on paper.

Just last week, MTA announced that Lakewood would get a trial run likely in October. Using track originally laid for the DuPont plant and operating from a platform next to Lakewood City Hall, the two-week experiment will connect with the Donelson station and downtown, according to MTA and RTA communications director Patricia Harris-Morehead.

Is the Lakewood test and the Gallatin bus rapid transit runs baby steps to a more comprehensive alternative transportation system here? If so, maybe officials and planners can insist on implementing them the way they’re designed — especially BRT — and resist the temptation to cut corners.


20 Comments on this post:

By: idgaf on 8/24/09 at 1:46

How much will it cost for the security on the vending machines? And their cost?

"At each of the 15 stops, passengers can purchase a ticket from a vending machine before they get on the bus. Because customers can prepay, the automated fee system eliminates transaction delays during bus stops."

By: Kosh III on 8/24/09 at 6:18

One thing left unexplained is that the new BRT buses will only stop at a few places along the way. This is what will make it faster.
Right now the #26 has way too many stops, this is one thing that delays the route so much. There is no need for 14 stops between Gallatin Rd and Briley Parkway.

By: Kosh III on 8/24/09 at 7:06

No LTE today! Gasp! What are we gonna do? Arrrrggghhhhhhhhhhhhhh

By: shinestx on 8/24/09 at 8:07

The MTA is so bass-akward! Why isn't it putting these buses on a dedicated route without competing traffic? So now we can sit in a "sleek" bus while traffic comes to a stand-still. Is this the sort of "thinking" that's running the MTA? No wonder!

By: JeffF on 8/24/09 at 8:10

II am stunned that no one has noticed what all the transportation failures have in common. Come on, the first transportation that figures out that very few people need to get to downtown will win.

BRT is a good idea about to turn down the wrong path. Do not take the shortcoming of trains (a permanent and inflexible route)and foist that on a flexibly routed system.

By: Kosh III on 8/24/09 at 8:33


MTA is trying cross-town routes, but most fail because there are not enough riders consistently to justify it. Have you ever attended one of their public planning meetings where all this is explained and the data is available?
I do agree that trains are NOT the answer, they take far too long to start and are too expensive.

shinestx? What dedicated route do you mean? There is no way from Rivergate to downtown(26 route) or other route which has no competing traffic.

There are also other components of BRT not mentioned. One is a system which allows buses to signal traffic lights to stay green until the bus has passed through. This can be a major time saver.

By: idgaf on 8/24/09 at 8:43

What they need is an agressive, experienced people mover .

Once the bus is filled it should be expressed downtown by alternate routes like Ellington or Briely Pkys. (that have HOV lanes)

Once you see the pattern then you can ajust what you need, when and where you need it .

I am not impressed by the need or wisdom of articulated buses.

It is also possible to combine with private bus companies to reduce cost reduceing the need to gear up to peak capacity.

You already know that I think vending machines are a mistake , a waste of taxpayer money and an invitation for crime. (break ins)

By: townsend on 8/24/09 at 8:48


I don't really understand why you rail opponents *always* use the argument that a rail line is a "permanent and inflexible" way of getting around. It's no more permanent than concrete or asphalt; in fact, it's a lot easier to build a rail line than to build a roadway, and it can be done much faster (if the contractor wills it...).

If we had a comprehensive LIGHT rail system comparable to the current-day road system INSTEAD of the roadways -- which would be overkill, obviously -- then rail would be the easiest way to get around. Unfortunately, over the decades we have chosen to go with only one local transit option, the paved road and private cars, instead of building a more flexible mixed system.

It's time to add a competitive option for transport. The Nashville to Franklin corridor should be used for a well-designed light-rail system, using the typical local/regional system in use in Europe as the model.

By: idgaf on 8/24/09 at 8:52

PS on return trips from downtown the route can be divided to handle two seperate sections . One for the bottom half and the other that expresses outbound again using Biely or Ellington Pkys.

When the bus is full you dispatch it immediately not according to a schedule.

By: idgaf on 8/24/09 at 9:15

Jeff you can change a bus to a different route but you can't change a train unless you want to throw more money away and build another railine.

You are feeabley attempting to compare apples and oranges.

By: house_of_pain on 8/24/09 at 9:35

Unless new tracks can be built in such a manner as not to cross any streets, the trains end up causing more traffic snarls.

By: Kosh III on 8/24/09 at 9:46

A fleet of buses running from Franklin to downtown can be up and running in a year or so.
Can a light rail do that? Will it cost less than the buses? No.

No to rail. Period.
Look at San Diego with it's clean fast and efficient trolley line. The first line opened in 1981. There are now only six lines and the impact on traffic is marginal at best.

By: idgaf on 8/24/09 at 10:18

"A Fleet" of buses from Franklyn?

Last I heard the express bus from Lebanon carrys less then 25 people.

People overestimate the people that work downtown and that will/can use mass transit.

btw if you have the passengers I will have all you need in a week or two. A month on the outside. in the event you have a huge demand (snicker) If the demand is there (which it isn't from potential riders) Supply is the easy part.

Did we not learn anything from the Star which I predicted?

By: catenarykat on 8/24/09 at 11:37

Perhaps before we start calling MTA "bass-akward," and pronounce BRT Lite as "heading down the wrong path," we might consider something the article failed to mention (!!!), and that's the cost of this "missing piece."
Would someone please write out a check for, say, $200 million, plus? Maybe MTA would gratefully launch "real" BRT with that kind of money. It cost that much in Cleveland to implement "real" BRT on a line similar in length to the Gallatin one.
Can anyone really imagine a proposal to spend that much in Nashville?
"Baby steps" make a lot more sense, and the line can be improved later to be "real" BRT or used to all-but string the catenary for light rail.
It's easy to criticize, but maybe folks deserve a little credit for making progress as we can afford it.
If dedicated funding for transit passes, we'll be able to do much more. Meanwhile, we're learning and setting the stage for greater improvements to come.
p.s. There is no express bus from Lebanon, and never has been.

By: Kosh III on 8/24/09 at 1:32


The buses from Mboro and Gallatin/Hendersonville are packed.

By: idgaf on 8/24/09 at 8:00

The bus runs or did run from the Wal-mart parking lot in Lebanon.

It the buses are packed from Murphfreesboro and Hendersonville then they should have accurate numbers to justify a train which I am guessing they don't.

You need more then a few hundred people to justify the cost. 4 buses will handle over 200 and thats road/inter city coaches which should be on that kind of run.

By: MusicCity615 on 8/25/09 at 7:09


Why don't you understand that the Music City Star was built STRICTLY because the rail line was already built and it was BY FAR the cheapest option. It was NOT built because of demand, and if MTA were to build by demand, it might be the last to build. Therefore, your reasoning that since the Lebanon commuter route is struggling, we shouldn't build anymore lines and just continue relying on our cars and tearing up the environment to build more roads is ludicrous.

If the Music City Star was built to Brentwood, Franklin, and Murfreesboro, ridership would be through the roof.

For Nashville to be successful in transportation, we need to have ALL forms of transportation. Lightrail, a great system of clean bus systems, taxes, bike paths, etc.
We cannot just have buses, Los Angeles, Houston, Cincinnati have all tried that and are failing miserably.

When DC, Charlotte, Portland, etc. built its rail line- everyone said "no one will give up their cars! It's too expensive!!" Well, now the tax payers voted for additional taxes in Charlotte, DC would never be the city it is without its rail line, and Portland is seen as the prototype for great transportation.

We need rail within Davidson County with a GREAT bus system connecting residents to ALL areas of the city. Rail lines are permanent and add HUGE incentives for for people to live, work, and entertain around the rail.

By: catenarykat on 8/25/09 at 7:48

Good post, MusicCity615. The rail line to Lebanon was used because of low cost, and it was in fact built at the lowest cost of any commuter rail line in the country.
Also, just for clarification, MTA did not build the Music City Star line: RTA built the Music City Star. They were not even under the same management then, but they are both managed by MTA now, beginning this year. RTA is still a separate organization.
Ridership on the Star was up significantly last month, according to an article in the Tennessean only a few days ago.
But once again: There is no bus from Lebanon to compare ANYthing to. I called the information people with MTA/RTA, and there simply is no bus. They can't remember there ever being a bus.

By: townsend on 8/25/09 at 9:54

idgaf, Kosh III, and other rail opponents:

Bus service to outlying areas can be up an running with minimal (relative) expense ONLY BECAUSE THE ROADS HAVE ALREADY BEEN BUILT.

Put the cost of building an entirely new road up against building a new light rail line, and the light rail line is MUCH cheaper per mile -- and requires less land.

To eliminate road/rail conflict, the rail in congested areas should be elevated. It's easy enough to build elevated stations, also -- in fact, multi-story buildings can be retrofitted for elevated stations, which draws more traffic into said buildings and increases their value and utilization. Elevators and escalators work in many other cities; why not here?

The service should be frequent, with self-propelled ELECTRIC single- and/or double-car trains only, NOT the antique style service provided on the Star. And forget about serving commuters only! The system should be designed for the general population to use in daily affairs -- thus the service should be available AT LEAST 16 hours a day.

By: MusicCity615 on 8/25/09 at 4:17

Great post townsend. Couldn't agree with you more.