Riding the rails

Sunday, February 14, 2010 at 11:45pm

Nashville is a lot of things, but it’s certainly no Charlotte, N.C., when it comes to mass transit.

They’re both Southern cities, similar in size, growth trends and demographics. They often compete directly for new economic development. But citizens of the banking capital voted more than decade ago to enact a new half-cent sales tax, the revenue from which led to a dramatic overhaul of the city’s transportation system. The jewels of that crown were a light rail line, expanded bus routes and a more sophisticated bus rapid transit system.

Meanwhile, transit innovation in Nashville — absent a local revenue source — has been modest at best. Highlights include the 2006 launching of Music City Star, which commutes passengers down a single track from Wilson County to downtown; a small, recently installed bus rapid transit line along Gallatin Avenue in East Nashville; and the 2008 opening of Metro Transit Authority’s new 434,000-square-foot central bus hub, known as Music City Central.

All are signal improvements from the status quo, but they leave much to be desired.

As a consequence of the snail-paced shift to mass transit, Nashville — and the entire state of Tennessee, for that matter — is nowhere to be found on the map of cities to be linked by a new high-speed rail system proposed as part of President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Without any skin in the game on a local level, the city is largely overlooked as a player for federal funds both large and small. Put simply, Nashville isn’t even on the radar.

It was with a recognition of Metro’s lagging mass transit record that Mayor Karl Dean, who chairs the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, announced intentions earlier this month to launch a reinvigorated effort to update MPO’s regional transportation plan, hoping to pull input from transportation leaders and the Middle Tennessee community at large to outline the vision of what transit should look like over the next 25 years. Contributors have zeroed in on a May 26 completion date.

“As we look around the country and we compare us to other regions, we compare very favorably in a lot of ways,” Dean said. “But it is not lost on any of us that as we look around at Denver, Charlotte and Austin — and we do — that they are moving ahead of us in terms of transportation. It is our responsibility to make sure we don’t get left behind, that we catch up, and we indeed move forward.”

Though it’s not unusual for a major municipality to update its regional transportation plan — cities traditionally revise it every five years or so — Dean and others are hoping the latest version will look much different, reflecting a paradigmatic shift toward fully embracing mass transit.

A big part of that is light rail, a system that functions around the clock, relying on electric rail cars that operate on private right-of-way lines separate from freight vehicles.

Pounding the pavement

Historically, Nashville has relied on these sorts of transportation plans — bulky, technical documents that reflect a number of civic constituencies — to direct financial resources toward an “asphalt-centered approach,” according to Trip Pollard, a leading expert on transportation reform who works for the Southern Environmental Law Center. The “lion’s share of taxpayers’ dollars” in Nashville tends to support a vehicular mode of transportation, he said, providing the basis for the enormous flow of state dollars to bankroll the ongoing expansion of State Route 840, for example.

“There’s a whole lot of things we could have done with that money,” Pollard said. “We’ve got to get away from that kind of 1950s, 1960s way of thinking of building massive asphalt. Roads are definitely going to part of our transportation plan, and they need to be. But it’s getting away from that kind of ‘mega-project’ that much of the rest of the country has begun to move away from, realizing that we need to provide more choices.”

Updating the regional plan — no different than what Nashville is doing now — was the first step Charlotte officials took before mass transit boomed there. In the mid-1990s, city planners recognized the need to offer enhanced transit access along five neglected corridors — known affectionately as the “corridors of crap.” (For Nashvillians, barren stretches like Nolensville, Charlotte and Dickerson pikes may come to mind. Incidentally, land-use experts from the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute are in the process of working with Nashville leaders to find ways to attract more infill development along corridors that feed into downtown.)

Charlotte’s initiative was fairly radical for a city in the South, a region long known for its dearth of public transit options. But when then-Mayor Pat McCrory started pushing a new tax — an additional half-cent sales tax to generate local dollars for the sole purpose of transportation — things got tense.

The “transit tax,” as it came to be known, arrived as a public referendum in 1998, passing with 58 percent approval. That outcome, never inevitable as the proposal endured fierce attacks from opponents, enjoyed a second victory a few years later, when it survived a recall effort.

“It was a tough battle,” said McCrory, a Republican who completed a 15-year run as Charlotte’s mayor in December. “It took the private and public sector working together. But it was a tough sell, especially for a Sun Belt city.”

Authorizing that funding source — which generates as much as $80 million for transit purposes annually — paved the way for Charlotte’s mass transit renaissance: a major upgrade of the city’s bus system resulted in a dramatic increase in ridership, and the installment of the first phase of a new light rail system, dubbed the LYNX, spurred sizable amounts of urban development along its 12-mile stretch.

“It exploded beyond our expectations,” McCrory said. “It gave us the jump over other cities similar to our size. We now use it as an economic development tool. We’ve proven that the Charlotte public will support it and ride it — all economic sectors and demographics.”

Those innovations — particularly the implementation of a light rail system — happen to be measures Dean favors for Nashville. “It’s hard to envision a long-term mass transit plan in this area that would not include light rail,” Dean has said.

A future light rail system could be regionally based; the idea has appeared to gain traction in neighboring Williamson, Rutherford and Sumner counties, areas represented in the newly formed Middle Tennessee Mayors’ Caucus. For example, outlined in the MPO’s Northeast Corridor Mobility Study — likely to be included in the updated regional transportation plan — is a light rail system that would connect the 30-mile stretch between Gallatin and Nashville.

“Light rail is something that is being done in a lot of the cities that we compete with,” said Gallatin Mayor Jo Ann Graves, chair of the caucus. “We know it works, we know it’s convenient for our citizens, and we believe and feel that it’s the way of the future.”

In the much more immediate future, however, Dean has indicated to look for an expansion of BRT services to other high-trafficked corridors besides Gallatin Avenue.

Who will pay for light rail?

If Nashville wants to use Charlotte’s story as a template — that is, turn its transportation plan into a reality — leaders know what needs to happen next.

“The number one thing we’ve got to be working on is dedicated funding,” Dean said. “We need to probably go back to the legislature with a proposal that would allow local governments to enact a specific source.”

To that end, Nashville scored a necessary victory when the Tennessee General Assembly last spring approved legislation that enables the state’s regional transportation authorities to create such a dedicated regional revenue source to expand transit services. Still, a source hasn’t been pinpointed.

Using a portion of sales tax may be an option. For starters, while North Carolina imposes just a 4.25 percent tax rate, Tennessee’s sales tax rate stands considerably higher at 7 percent. Another possibility, according to Michael Skipper, director of the Nashville Area MPO, could be a tax on fuel, a tool frequently employed by other municipalities to create transit dollars.

Dean isn’t ready yet to endorse any one alterative. “It could be a variety of things that we need to look at,” he said. “It depends on how much money they generate and politically, whether you can get it done.”

Shockingly — given Nashville’s past — political will for a local dedicated funding stream may finally be in place.

It seems the transit movement has also gained buy-in from the business community, the same folks who successfully advanced the now-approved $585 million new convention center south of Broadway. Following Dean’s creation of the mayors’ caucus, whose purpose is addressing transportation issues, a group of area business leaders created the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee.

“What we want to do is support the plan that’s addressed and brought forth by the mayor,” said Nashville attorney Charles Bone, who chairs the transit alliance. “That’s our goal — to make the plan work, and to make it work as quickly as possible.”

As well, area chamber of commerce presidents launched a similar transit-minded advocacy group.

Ralph Schulz, CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, said the city’s business leaders felt “a growing urgency” to explore mass transit options after Nashville’s gas shortage episode during the fall of 2008, which affected how companies conducted operations.

All this seems to signal a seismic shift in attitude, as business leaders don’t traditionally praise spending public dollars on mass transit. Making sure a new transit system has sufficient revenues to operate “would undoubtedly involve public-private partnerships,” Schulz said.

Another question altogether is whether car-happy Nashvillians are ready to use new mass transit mediums. Transit advocates believe the city is finally turning the corner.

Paul Ballard, executive director of MTA, pointed out that city buses in Nashville now make 9 million passenger trips each year, up from 6 million just six year ago.

And while acknowledging there’s significant spread between reality and the future, Ballard said the new Music City Central, Music City Star and future advancements like MTA’s two new bus routes (slated to open next month) are “major steps forward.”

“We’re constantly making improvements,” he said. “Obviously people are responding and using public transit. We’re seeing a whole cross-section of political leaders, business people and the multicounty region interested in promoting public transportation, and for all the right reasons.”

20 Comments on this post:

By: idgaf on 2/15/10 at 6:59

Once again we do not have enough people in the "central business district" to justify such expence. We are the second largest county in the country and no matter how much rail you put in it won't be enough to take everyone or even most people where they want to go.

The Star which was realitively cheap is a glaring example. We could pay the regular riders full salary to stay home and lose less money then operating it and we didn't have to buy the land, lay track and buy expensive equipment if we did.

Rail is a loser and will make many properties undesirable (lower taxes) not to mention the lawsuits fighting emminant domain and the cost of those properties needed. We are talking TRILLIONS to do what they want would like to do. Divide that by a population of roughly 1/2 million.

By: shinestx on 2/15/10 at 7:19

Gaf, since it's the first point in support of your argument, I need to point out that you are just wrong that Davidson County is the "second largest county in the country". Not even close. Whether you're speaking of area or population, you are factually incorrect. No surprise.

By: nashwatcher on 2/15/10 at 7:31

charlotte's revenue source generates 80 million a year which apparently is sufficient...fuel tax seems to make sense to fund, or even a half cent sales tax...would be interesting to see how it connects the city...

By: cashnthings on 2/15/10 at 7:53

Yea more trying to sell us something we do not want.

By: midwesterner on 2/15/10 at 8:07

I would gladly pay more taxes if I didn't have to drive. Either sales tax or property tax.

By: stlgtr55@yahoo.com on 2/15/10 at 9:38

Please, don't tell politicians you'd gladly pay more taxes, even if you would. That is music to their ears. To make this sellable, it has to be made financially beneficial to the customers. It has to be cheaper and more convenient to ride the rail than to drive to work. If it isn't, people will not buy it. The numbers need to be crunched. Maybe the new Convention Center will create so many more jobs that We'll need some way to get all these people to work.

By: WayneJ on 2/15/10 at 9:46

Karl Dean wants to compare Nashville to Charlotte. Back at you!

Charlotte: Current operating hub of the teams competing in NASCAR’s three national touring divisons.
Nashville: How many similar teams are based out of here?

Charlotte: Has a 1.5 mile superspeedway in its suburbs that is home base for one of the two top venue-owning entitites hosting NASCAR events (the other being the entity owned by the owners of NASCAR).
Nashville: Can look to the first county east of here and find a slightly smaller facility that is owned by one of the other track-owning entities.

Charlotte: Will soon host the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Nashville: Evicting the Musicians’ Hall of Fame from their property.

Charlotte: If not home base for Bank of America, then certainly hosts a substantial presence through once having been Nationsbank’s home base.
Nashville: Any banks based here that can stand toe to toe with Bank of America?

Charlotte: Smart enough to get light rail built without bankrupting its citizens and sending its downtown core jobs scrambling to the suburbs to avoid tax increases.
Nashville: Will have already bankrupted its citizens with the Music City Cashcow and has already sent its core jobs (except State Government) scrambling to the suburbs to avoid the inevitable tax increases.

Like they say, better to keep silent and have people think you're a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.

By: airvols on 2/15/10 at 11:18

WayneJ, you are so wrong on the two cities.
Nashville, has a music industry that runs 365 a year not a season like NASCAR.
Nashville has twice as many visitors as Charlotte.
Nashville has a major medical hud Charlotte does not have.
Nashville will host the CMA, Women's final four, World Cup hopefully, Regional NCAA
NASCAR is not a major factor, it music here!
Nashville is behind Charlotte in light rail, but we can and should look to improve that in the near future. The real concern is the high speed rail that has not included Tennessee in the build. I blame that on our Senators and Congressmen an Congresswomen. They should be all over this and not concerned about getting elected the next time.

By: joe41 on 2/15/10 at 12:21

I have been to Charlotte and I wouldn't visit there again unless forced to. When all the banks downtown close, not many people will ride the rails.Joe

By: rtoddbouldin on 2/15/10 at 2:46

I applaud the Mayor's initiative. It is long overdue. As someone who splits his time between Los Angeles and Nashville, I can attest that Nashville must embrace this vision now before it's too late (it actually already is). While LA has a decent public transit, rail and subway system, it goes to too few high traffic areas. The result is gridlock, wasted commute time, and in an entertainment city like both of our cities ... a lot more DUI arrests because many decide to risk the drive rather than obtain an expensive taxi late in the night.

It's interesting to me that some still want to argue that this is too early or that it's not needed. Cities of similar size, and especially those who match our aspirations, are light years ahead of us.

Congressman Bob Clement was arguing for this vision 15 years ago and obtained federal funds to sponsor it that Metro and the state never matched because of lack of vision and resources. Even then, he doubled our highway funding in Tennessee, obtained funding for the intelligent transportation systems we enjoy on our Interstates, and was instrumental in the development of our transportation programs. He then dreamed of the restoration of Amtrak service to Nashville and commuter rail to our most traveled corridors. Our members of Congress largely have been willing to assist Metro and the state in making this vision a reality, but the political will hasn't always been there. I'm glad to see that this Mayor is boldly taking up that vision that Nashville should have embraced 15 years ago.

If we do not, and our city maintains its growth, we will become a gridlocked DC, Atlanta or LA, and that is not what any of us want for our city.

By: JeffF on 2/15/10 at 2:50

No rail line should be committed to the ground until the route has been proven over time with an express bus line. If people will not commit to an affordable bus option, they definitely will not accept an expensive and ironclad firm rail line. City's tend to let rail obsessionists push them to the end of the book rather than waiting to gather evidence or proof of success. Still worse, cities usually end up hiring the same people lobbying for the more expensive transportation modes to do the management of the system once it is built. The Star was initially manged by people making six-figure salaries who were also on the original lobbying team. Those people have since moved on to lobby other cities to start rail services and then get hired to manage those systems.

This is all another example of Nashville not trying to be a leader, this is yet another example of Nashville rushing to follow the same path to dismal results that other cities have. With the convention center Nashville was trying to build a brand by doing what at least 20-30 other cities have just done? Now Nashville is going to be a world-class city by FOLLOWING Charlotte,Portland, and Denver on their paths?

By: Myth_of_the_Nob... on 2/15/10 at 4:30

I'd much rather be a Portland, Denver, or Charlotte than an Atlanta, Houston, or LA.

We need more transportation options and we need to limit parking instead of requiring parking, that's the real uneeded burden (it also subsidizes driving because you expect to find a parking space, and you usually expect it to be free). LA has the density and the transit, but it’s the parking that makes its infrastructure and cost of living so expensive.

I agree that we should pursue BRT, but fixed guideways (rails) are the only way to signal to developers that the service will be there perpetually and it’s okay to reduce their parking, otherwise we will continue to externalize the cost of excessive parking and inflate the costs of everything else to pay for it. A parking garage costs an average of 15 thousand dollars per space to construct, a surface parking lot costs about 2 to 3 thousand a space if you include the required strormwater and landscape improvments.

By: cegrover on 2/15/10 at 5:02

Where are the return on investment studies when other rail projects are referenced? I've heard that MARTA, for example, is a money loser. I've also tried using it, and it's just not convenient, at least on a weekend with too few trains. While the weekend slow-down doesn't take away commuter benefits, it does take away the DUI benefit mentioned earlier, as well as much of the tourism benefit.

What makes people think, each time rail projects (including Obama's) are brought up, that they'll always be the exception. It seems like each time, I hear things like "OURS will work", when all previous examples show that the US and rail just don't get along that well, except in more truly urban environments, like NYC, Chicago or Boston, where the subways/rail systems at least work well for the downtown, but still don't work that well for large numbers of commuters.

By: JeffF on 2/15/10 at 5:25

cegrover, you nailed the reasoning in the last sentence. Transit has become an opportunity for downtown proponents to funnel funding to their burgh. When all the local money is spent, these same people (Dean for example) will suddenly take a regional view in order to harvest more funds for the exclusive benefit of that single, small, lightly populated neighborhood. Unfortunate for those of us who do see a legitimate need for mass transit, these people have made it impossible to detach transit from downtown-centric policy. Try to propose a train or bus line between two neighborhoods that will not include downtown and you suddenly will hear cries of pain from them. Transit is apparently regional as long as everyone in the region agrees the purpose is to improve the economy and society of downtown. In this tight circle money spent on real neighborhoods is a waste of resources and no one questions this urbane cult on their logic.

Build a transit system, allow it to serve all of Metro, and the regional cooperation will follow. Right now it would be hard to fault a Franklin or Murfreesboro resident for refusing to fund a transit system that serves them as far as getting them to a bar in the downtown Nashville tourism district. We in Nashville first need to cooperate and serve all Nashvillians before we ask for the same for the region. Right now though it looks like a lot of urbanistas here would burn at the thought of someone going from suburb to suburb and using their own money to do it.

By: idgaf on 2/15/10 at 9:13

Unbelievable how many people want to throw tons of money away.

Then again there is a lot of new names there. Could it be they have something to gain?

By: MusicCity615 on 2/15/10 at 10:43

IDGAF- I will bet that you are well over 65. It's amazing to me how limited your opinion is.

1.) When was the last time any road, highway, or interstate system made money for Nashville or Tennesse?
2.) Please show me the facts of the BOGUS claim of it is cheaper to pay ppl full salaries and have them work at home then ride the MCS. This is just laughable.
3.) If Nashville had lightrail first, MCS's numbers would be much higher. If the MCS was a line to murfreesboro, numbers would be in the black. The fact that Nashville currently does not have any means of transportation when the MCS riders arrive in downtown, let alone have to be out of work by 5pm, I am astonished the numbers are as high as they are.
4..) It is INSANE to keep spending more and more $ on the roads and our cars when OIL is a FINITE RESOURCE. Do you know what FINITE RESOURCE MEANS? We have to have other means of transportation!!!!!!!
5.)Nashville is the second highest carbon emitter of any area in the country.
6.) You see a bunch of new names that are in favor of lightrail, that's because people have been to a city that invests in smart transportation systems and notice the benefits of it!!!!!! IT IS COMMON SENSE TO INVEST IN MASS TRANSIT!!!

JeffF- I agree with you that in order for a city's mass transit system to be efficient, it needs to be able to connect people to ALL parts of the city. However, extensive busing AND lightrail are the ways to accomplish this.

Nashville has a downtown workforce of 40,000 plus. We have Vanderbilt University, Belmont University, Lipscomb University, Fisk University, Tennessee State University + Vanderbilt Hospital, Meharry Medical School, Baptist Hospital, Centennial Hospital, St. Thomas Hospital. + The Sommet Center + LP Field + BNA = LIGHTRAIL NOW!!!

By: MusicCity615 on 2/15/10 at 10:44

Thank you Mayor Dean for putting forth the effort to make the investment before it's too late!!

By: Myth_of_the_Nob... on 2/16/10 at 1:46

MusicCity, good point... you can't say transit is subsidized without talking about the 40 BILLION of ANNUAL federal spending that goes directly to highways and roads to subsidize driving, not to mention the local government mandates for private developers to provide huge amounts of parking (i wish I had nationwide dollar amounts for that, at $3,000 to $15,000 a space, I'm sure the number is enormous), driving is subsidized:

Why do we accept this much government regulation and subsidy? Because people view roads and parking lots as engines for economic development. And they are. But ALL infrastructure improvements are engines for economic development including transit, and in urban neighborhoods and higher density suburbs transit can actually be a superior economic engine, and definitely a more sustainable one.

See the article below that ran last month in Charlotte NC, transit is doing what road construction cannot do alone: driving development in this dismal economy. Developers are moving ahead because they see a growing demand for compact, walkable, transit oriented communities.

On track: Urban village near train
Firm: Listless market won't stop Crosland Greens near Scaleybark light-rail stop.

key quote:
"Northwest Mutual Life Insurance Co. is Crosland's capital partner and is committed to moving forward with the project this year"


Forget surpassing cities like Charlotte, Austin, and Denver for a moment... suppose we just wanted to stay competitive with those other cities, even if our goals are modest, quality transit service is mission critical.

It seems those who would oppose the expansion of transit in Nashville are hung up on what is, rather than seeing what could be.

Fortunately, there is a broad and growing coalition of grass-roots, business, and political leaders who see transit as a quality of life issue that's vital to Nashville and the middle Tennessee region's sustainable economic growth and competitiveness. Before you indulge in a knee-jerk reaction, maybe you should try and understand why so many people see this as an important investment which has benefits that significantly outweigh its costs.

By: MusicCity615 on 2/16/10 at 9:59

Myth of the nob-

Excellent points. Could not have said it better myself. Thank you.

Do you, or anyone, have a copy of Nashville and Tennessee's budget? I will support a tax dedicated to mass transit, but I wonder if we could just transfer some of the money sudsidizing highways and interstates to Mass Transit?

By: Myth_of_the_Nob... on 2/18/10 at 10:48

Music City,

Until very recently it was almost impossible to use federal highway dollars for mass transit, luckily two things have changed, one is the TN state legislature passed a bill into law last year that allows the larger metropolitan regions in the state to create a dedicated funding source for mass transit. The second is that federal guidelines are changing to account for Livability issues in addition to shortening commute times when prioritizing projects for federal spending. The last peice of the puzzle will be to approve a local (regional) source of dedicated funding for mass transit. This press release from the Nashville MPO gives more details, but here's a key quote.

"The Middle Tennessee region could soon be much better positioned to pay for transportation projects that support a
higher quality‐of‐life, due to a dramatic change in federal policy announced in mid‐January by U.S. Transportation
Secretary Ray LaHood. The Obama administration just proposed new funding guidelines for major transit projects, with
a focus on livability issues such as economic development and environmental benefits – in addition to cost/time savings,
which were the primary criteria under the Bush administration."