Will Nashville have a streetcar?

Sunday, October 24, 2010 at 10:45pm
Portland, Ore., is recognized as a national trailblazer for its implementation of modern streetcars. Annual ridership was nearly 4 million last year.

In the Nashville of tomorrow, a West End resident could conceivably jump aboard a streetcar near Murphy Road in the morning, read the paper, enjoy a coffee, and whiz by vehicular congestion en route to downtown.

That may not be so farfetched.

Following a resurgent interest in streetcars in cities nationwide, Nashville’s transit leaders are taking an initial step that could position the city to compete for federal grant dollars to build a modern streetcar line along the Broadway-West End Avenue corridor, stretching from Lower Broadway, through the commercial district on West End, all the way to White Bridge Road near Belle Meade.

The Metro Transit Authority is looking for proposals to study the feasibility, need and cost of a modern urban streetcar down the roughly five-mile stretch. Light rail and bus rapid transit will also be examined. Modern streetcars are electric vehicles that circulate on a rail, designed to make frequent stops along heavily trafficked areas.

It’s just a study, and findings won’t be known for another one or two years, but it’s the type of blueprint other cities have followed to cash in on an unprecedented amount of federal funding available for streetcar projects.

“We want to be able to qualify for federal funds to invest in that corridor,” said MTA CEO Paul Ballard. “They have a robust planning process they require you to go through.”

In this year alone, the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded more than $258 million for streetcar projects in Portland, Ore.; Tucson, Ariz.; Dallas; Cincinnati; Charlotte, N.C.; St. Louis; and Fort Worth, Texas.

Nashville could be the next city to jump aboard the bandwagon, but several things need to happen first. The study would need to show that a streetcar on Broadway-West End is warranted over other transit options, such as additional bus service or rail. Citizens would need to express an appetite for such a system. Most importantly — and also most challenging — Mayor Karl Dean and other elected officials would need to identify a city-based funding source dedicated solely to mass transit. Without that, Nashville won’t ever be on the radar for competitive federal transit dollars.

Even in the best-case scenario, a modern streetcar system is at minimum six or seven years down the road, transit authorities say. Still, the concept has already piqued the interest of Dean, who helped launch the Middle Tennessee Mayors Caucus to consider new regional transit options.

“It’s an exciting idea,” Dean said.

Nashville playing catch-up

A modern streetcar line along Broadway and West End is one of several initiatives in the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2035 Regional Plan, poised for adoption later this year. The plan, required by federal law, establishes a transportation vision for Middle Tennessee.

“As we pursue regional mass transit, if you don’t have good circulation in downtown Nashville where people are willing to go to and from, people are going to have no way to get to those regional lines,” said Michael Skipper, executive director of the Nashville Area MPO. “I see the West End corridor as being the central piece of that.”

Transit authorities believe the Broadway-West End corridor could be ripe for a streetcar line for a variety of reasons. The corridor is among the city’s most congested; it connects neighborhoods, landmarks like Vanderbilt University, and West End’s shopping and dining outlets to downtown; and MTA’s bus lines and Music City Star feed into what could be streetcar stations. Also, it’s a nod to history and civic nostalgia, since West End featured a streetcar line in the early 20th century.

A modern streetcar system shouldn’t be confused with trolley systems featured in cities such as Memphis. Instead, a model for Nashville could be the Portland Streetcar, first launched in Portland, Ore., in 2001. Today it connects that city’s downtown with outlying neighborhoods and districts. Streetcars there run on continuous loops on a track, operate alongside vehicular traffic, and top out around 30 miles per hour, though they typically don’t run that fast. Nearly 1.4 million passengers used Portland’s streetcar during its first year, with annual ridership reaching almost 4 million in 2009.

Seen as the birthplace of the modern streetcar in the United States, Portland played host last week to the “Rail-Volution,” a conference for those interested in urban mass transit. Among those riding and analyzing Portland’s streetcar were a few Nashvillians, including Ed Cole, executive director of the recently established Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, and Gary Gaston, design director of the Nashville Civic Design Center.

“Clearly, the time has come for us to seriously consider an urban streetcar,” Cole told The City Paper by phone while at the conference. “I think there’s no question about it. It’s not just about transportation. It’s also about economic development. We’ve seen the numbers here in Portland. They just validate the fact that development potential, whether it’s commercial or retail, as well as residential, just skyrockets when you have access to an urban streetcar kind of connection.”

Dean has also cited the role a modern streetcar, or other transit solutions, could play in spurring development and “increasing the city’s tax base.” In Portland, the streetcar is credited with transforming previously underdeveloped, even blighted, parts of town into lively neighborhoods. The Broadway-West End corridor certainly isn’t underdeveloped, but transit enthusiasts still say it would benefit from such a system.

“For other cities, it’s resulted in a huge reinvestment,” Gaston said. “What we’ve been doing is thinking about how do you get higher use of the property that surrounds West End. If you think about it, there are so many one-story buildings on what’s supposed to be our signature street. I think that with an investment like streetcar, you would start to see larger developments go there.”

Gaston and other civic design center staffers have been working with the Nashville Area MPO, putting together schematic designs and renderings to offer a visual representation of what a modern streetcar line could look like along the Broadway-West End corridor. The design center is set to display its work at a later exhibition.

“Thinking of all the cities that we are currently comparing ourselves to,” Gaston said, which often includes Charlotte, Denver and Austin, Texas, “they already have some type of streetcar system or light rail, so we’re really playing catch-up. I think this is critical for us to do.”

The future of transit in Nashville is not limited to the streetcar concept, nor are ideas centered just on Broadway-West End. MTA recently launched a new bus rapid transit system on Gallatin Pike in East Nashville; that could be duplicated on other corridors. Light rail has been discussed as another option. There’s also the forthcoming Northeast Corridor Mobility Study, which will recommend transit strategies for the 30-mile corridor between Nashville and Gallatin.

For Nashville to overhaul its last-century mass transit system, leaders need to find a local, dedicated funding stream. Possibilities — none have picked up political steam — include a vehicle registration fee, a wheel tax, tax-increment financing or an addition to the local sales tax, though Tennessee’s sales tax is likely already too high for that to float.

“Probably not this year, but some point next year there will be more of a large discussion on that issue,” Dean said.

31 Comments on this post:

By: tomw on 10/25/10 at 9:02

Didn't nashville have a streetcar system that was junked in favor of other transit?
figures. gott reinvent the wheel all the time

By: Lealand419 on 10/25/10 at 9:35

A Broadway-West End Streetcar system (or light rail) for Nashville is an excellent step in the green direction. If Nashville doesn't get on board the mass-transit bandwagon soon, we'll just get left further and further behind. As our central core grows, densifies, and develops, more and more folks will choose to live, work, and shop there, thus alleviating the horrendous suburban sprawl gobbling up the once-verdant Middle Tennessee countryside. We owe it to our present and future generations to think and plan ahead. The city simply cannot afford to sustain more growth of gas-guzzling, exhaust-spewing traffic. I say, hurrah for the streetcar, hurrah for light rail, and hurrah for more bike-friendly and pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares and green spaces.

By: localboy on 10/25/10 at 9:54

Good points all, but a streetcar line/light rail will be no panacea to our traffic issues raised by suburban sprawl...witness Denver.

By: Alphadog7 on 10/25/10 at 10:27

One possible revenue stream could come from vehicle safety inspection, like most other streets have. When you see some of the unroadworthy things people drive around with bald tires and brake lights out, it's a necessity for everyones safety. Tennessee is routinely last in highway safety. Seeing how and what people drive here, it's not surprising. Maybe they can solve multie issues at once.

By: NewYorker1 on 10/25/10 at 10:49

I think M'boro Rd and Dickerson Rd are better options for a streetcar to help redevelop those areas. West-End is already development.

By: shinestx on 10/25/10 at 10:56

For all you fools who are planning to vote for Jim Cooper, you need to know two reasons why I believe he is not deserving of, or even qualified for, the job of representing Nashville in Congress. The first is that Nashville has been on the GSA list of new federal courthouses as a critical need for EIGHTEEN YEARS!!! Even worse, funding for same has been bumped down the priority lists as other cities have leapfrogged over Nashville for funding. When asked why, Cooper was quoted in the Tennessean last month saying, "I really don't know." Say what?

Compare Jim Cooper's inept representation in a Democrat dominated Congress to that of Atlanta's Congressman John Lewis, who has brought to his district almost $200 million for mass transit, not to mention his $150 million (in 1991 dollars!!!!) for an elaborate (too much so IMH) federal building built into the old Rich's department store downtown. Lewis (D-GA) recently brought home an additional $63 million for construction of a new streetcar line that will go between Atlanta's Centennial Park and the Auburn Avenue Historic District.

So just consider what Jim "Stupor" Cooper will do in a Republican Congress. The word "irrelevent" comes to mind.

By: shinestx on 10/25/10 at 11:03

Now about the streetcar, specifically: It is a shame that the city planners have not already staked out possible routes for a streetcar/LRT system that would go along the paths of highest density. In Nashville, this would call for the first line to run up Church Street to Centennial Park, left to 25th, and wrap around Park Plaza to 31st. From there it should go south/southeast to Wedgewood and on to 21st until it gets to Division, and then through Music Row to Demonbreun, back to downtown. It should use the Music City Central, as the transfer station to the buses. Now, I don't expect this idea to materialize because it makes too much sense. In fact, I really think Nashville will be left in the dust by other more forward-thinking cities.

By: caluttc on 10/25/10 at 11:11

A suggestion for a sorce of funding------one already proven with the motor vehicle. Have each rider pay their way.
Or since the proposal is deemed economic development. Channel the economic development to less congested cities. Transit seldom reduces vehicle congestion ----only permits in fact requires high density. As stated by other commenters, none of the cities cited claim to have solved their congestion challenge. Portland OR claims to have solved all urban problems---homeless, crime, congestion, poverty. They are on a media roll. Isn't their Mayor currently charged or under some kind of investigation. Although, one experience is not a representative sampling, I have been to both Portland and Denver. I experienced same congestion there as elsewhere. I n Denver recently, I asked each airport shuttle driver, tour bus operator and cab driver I used if their modern transit had helped them. None deemed it had made a contribution.

By: stlgtr55@yahoo.com on 10/25/10 at 11:12

Never, ever admit that you would pay more for anything. That is music to these politicians' ears. Besides, this all sounds nice, but it would be just a matter of time before thugs would take over the streetcar system, and it would be to scary for honest law-abiding citizens to ride it. They would rule it, the politicians would protect them, and the rest of us would get to pay for it.

By: Trumpetman on 10/25/10 at 12:30

To NewYorker1: I totally agree, especially with puting it Sout East of town, Mboro rd, as Dickerson would be fine too. But Definatly the South Eastern corridor is the most conjested. I-24, Mboro Rd. I never understand why that area is neglected. The commuter train travels from Lebanon to Nashville and I've heard talks about putting a second one from Nashville to Franklin and then the article mentions another study being done on the Gallitin to Nashville Stretch, but what about the Murfreesboro to Nashville stretch. The most hected, most populated part of the Metro area, gets least interest put into it when it comes to making a better commute.

By: judyboodo@yahoo.com on 10/25/10 at 1:23

How quickly we all forget. One minute we complain about Jim Cooper not ever missing a earmark and the next we want to take more government money for a streetcar! Now I know that Federal money is free and we never have to pay for it but surly we can't have that short a memory.This is the kind of thinking that we need to ween ourselves from.

By: Netrat on 10/25/10 at 1:25

They don't use the buses that circulate around downtown now enough to cover the cost of running them. What makes anyone think the a streetcar will be any more profitable?

By: JeffF on 10/25/10 at 1:27

Someone tell me what a streetcar could do on that route that a bus cannot do. Apparently the only thing to gain is looking like a "forward thinking city" or not being "left behind" by other forward thinking cities. A streetcar is a silly little notion that does no more than existing technologies. To think a streetcar is going to help stop families from moving to the burbs away from the dirtiness, expense, and failing schools here in Nashville is absurd.

Take the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be needed to replace buses on this street, add the amount of tax revenue being spent so Shriners can have their annual soiree in town, and invest it in activities that will improve the lives of the human beings here in town (schools, law enforcement, utility infrastructure).

Williamson, Rutherford, Wilson, and Sumner counties are kicking our butts in education and quality of life because they are not getting caught up in the silliness that goes on in other failing cities trying desperately to keep failing downtowns from becoming even more irrelevant. Urbanistas want everyone to look further away at marginal success stories so you do not notice the real success stories a lot closer to home. Cool Springs and Maryland Farms gain corporate headquarters while we fiddle around with tourists and train sets and fight to the death to stop corporate campus developments.

The castle has no walls anymore but the princes of downtown are desperately trying to keep the serfs indentured to a neighborhood that serves no one.

Good luck taxing the outlying counties residents so we can have a Portland-like streetcar running down West End. Nashville is about to become forever irrelevant when the census grants more seats to the evil burbs who are already in charge of both state houses.

By: NVanReece on 10/25/10 at 1:55

Please join the conversation with the Transit Alliance of Middle TN on Facebook and Twitter: http://www.facebook.com/talliancemidtn and http://www.twitter.com/TAllianceMidTN

Carpe Diem Management
New Media Director
The Transit Alliance of Middle TN

By: catenarykat on 10/25/10 at 2:05

Q: What makes anyone think the streetcar will be "profitable?"

A: NO ONE thinks the streetcar will be "profitable."
No one thinks the buses will be "profitable."
Public transit is not "profitable." It is a public service, just like police, fire, library, roadways, and schools. We profit from a cleaner environment and better quality of life. We profit from providing a way for people to get to work.
The Music City Circuit carries 20,000 people every month. FREE. Of course it doesn't profit.

And no, it does not pay for itself in other cities, either. They consider it a wise investment in the future of their communities.

p.s. 700,000 people a month use public transit in Nashville.

By: localboy on 10/25/10 at 2:52

Is that 700,000 rides on MTA and Music City Star a month? It would have to include multiple rides per individual, since Davidson County 2009 estimated census was 635,710 per the US Census Bureau. Still a nice number.

By: Netrat on 10/25/10 at 3:31

I know that public transit will never be profitable. That's why, when taxpayers are struggling enough, we don't need another money pit. We already have buses that go everywhere that a streetcar would go. At best, it's a duplication of services and it won't do a thing to attract or retain a significant number of people in Nashville.

And did somebody say Federal money is free? No, it's not. Somebody else paid for it, which means we paid for something that went somewhere else.

By: JeffF on 10/25/10 at 3:31

I was about to "like" the Transit Alliance Facebook page until I noticed they went off the reservation and made the Music City Center a favorite page. A supposed consortium of town and cities devoted to transportation issues went out of its way to favorite a non-transportation, non-quality of life issue page?

The Alliance needs to tell their kids at MP&F to not mix issues on their social media sites.

Public transportation is an important issue, I believe in it and it should not have to be profitable. It is a government service first, not a business. But I also believe that it is yet another important issue about to be hijacked by downtown-first interests. This has happened in countless cities and set back smart growth and smart infrastructure development in all of them.

Nashville deserves and needs public transportation, yet it is about to become just another example of an expensive failure of downtown redevelopment.

It is possible to do things to benefit Nashville and Nashvillians without first making money for downtown businesses. Sadly, all plans will include downtown as a terminus, and fans of the most expensive option available will always cry "progress" louder than the others.

By: CountryBoyinCity on 10/25/10 at 4:10

Will Nashville have a Streetcar? Yes.

Lets make it happen and lets be agressive. I'm ready for Nashville to be a leader in transportation of every kind. Visiting other cities its obvious to me that great transit service is the most cost effective way to increase density and R.O.I. in downtown and our urban neighborhoods while reducing parking demand. Our grandparents and great-grandparents had it right: streetcars are the way to get around in town.

"Well, if it rains, I don't care
Don't make no difference to me
Just take that streetcar thats goin' up town
Yeah, I'd like to hear some funky Dixieland
And dance a honky tonk"

By: Kosh III on 10/26/10 at 6:25

Streetcars, just like light-rail is very expensive, it takes years to implement.
Buses are a better option: cheaper to buy and quicker to be in service by far.

The new BRT service on Gallatin Rd has been a major success, travel time is less, the buses are less crowded.
We should focus on BRT lines on the major streets such as West End and Franklin Rd and we should have more buses more often on more routes.

Downtown has enough. It's time to do something for the rest of the city.

By: Trumpetman on 10/26/10 at 6:55

Key phase is "Downtown has enough"... Yes, Nasvhille needs to focus on other areas, all surrounding areas outside of the downtown area. Also, with a street car, or the current bus system, or what ever kind of mass transit system we have, there need to be routes that connect communities rather than all the routes filtering in to downtown. It is very inconvient to ride the bus from Donelson to Harding Place area, or Madison because you would have to go into downtown first, then to your destination, rather than a few miles North of Donelson to Madison or a few miles south of Donelson to Harding Place areas. The current system is so incovienent.

By: Netrat on 10/26/10 at 10:42

To Kosh III :

There's a reason why the BRT on Gallatin isn't crowded.
That's a major success? At what, wasting money?
If it's a major success, what was the goal it was to achieve?

By: Kosh III on 10/26/10 at 11:40

Netrat? What's your basis for saying no one rides it? I take it every day. It carries plenty of people and is usually near capacity during rush hour.
Facts only please.

By: catenarykat on 10/26/10 at 11:50

For Pete's sake, 90,000 riders used the Gallatin local and BRT, JUST LAST MONTH!
My guess is that Kosh III knows what he's talking about, because he wants to get a seat!

By: JeffF on 10/26/10 at 12:53

I think Kosh meant the non-BRT buses are less crowded on that route because of the number of riders moving over to the BRT. Take a deep breath.

90,000 riders a month on a single line is very, very good. and is doing something that light rail and streetcars advocates can only dream of.

Imagine building a fixed rail line and realizing that more people would ride if the line was moved a few blocks in another direction. Buses allow that sort of flexibility (when you don't build a single terminal away from everyone). With rail operations, you are stuck with what you got.

By: Netrat on 10/26/10 at 2:00

Kosh III: Everytime I see one of those BRT's it has many, many empty seats.

By: fightcrib on 10/26/10 at 2:40

By: NewYorker1 on 10/25/10 at 11:49
I think M'boro Rd and Dickerson Rd are better options for a streetcar to help redevelop those areas. West-End is already development.

Murfreesboro road and Dickerson...... Ha!!!!! Good one!

By: WickedTribe on 10/26/10 at 3:12

It would also be a good idea in reverse... for people who want to take the Music City Star but don't want to deal with the nightmare of getting to West End from the train stop. You could get off the train and take this street car the rest of the way.

By: catenarykat on 10/26/10 at 3:15

Netrat, you'll see empty seats near the ends of lines...bus, streetcar, rail, you name it. You'll see them closer in during non-peak hours, as well.
They don't cut back on routes or bus size drastically, in the middle of the day, because frequency and availability at all times are important to the whole concept. Also, it would wind up being too much of a logistical nightmare and it would not save money in the end to switch out drivers and equipment several times a day. So, in any transit system, you do see empty seats near the ends of the lines and at off-peak times.
I doubt you're a bus rider, but since you seem genuinely interested, please give this a try: Go down to Music City Central station between 2-5pm on a weekday afternoon. Have a donut and a cup of coffee and watch the BRT load and unload. You will also be amazed at how many riders are coming and going on all the buses.
Here's one more thing to consider: How often is your car driving around with empty seats, anyway?

By: JeffF on 10/27/10 at 8:46

You know, a transportation investment in Murfreesboro Road and Dickerson Pike would be a good idea but not something likely to happen since those street are not downtown-centric gateways. Money spent on streetcars would be a big ol' waste just like West End, but BRT lines on these important avenues would be wise and fair.

But wise and fair does not figure on transportation decisions in this city. Money is only spent once the following question is asked: What is in it for downtown?

By: useful-communit... on 10/27/10 at 6:44

Always interested in seeing what other communities are thinking. Sounds like Nashville is typical in that once a trend begins (in this case, streetcars are sexy), everyone has to hop on the bandwagon.

While it sounds promising that this route was a historic streetcar line, I do agree that the amount of economic development to be realized through a new streetcar system is related directly to the amount of redevelopment the community is willing to undergo and the amount of additional density that makes sense in a particular corridor. When I speak of density here, I'm talking not just about housing units per acre or some other typical measure, but I'm really referring to whether it makes sense architecturally and in terms of urban design to add height, fill in vacant spots along the building line, and so forth.

When you listen to the Portland proponents speak, they are talking about replacing downtrodden two-story buildings with six-story buildings, for example. If this corridor is already maxed out, where is the economic development going to come from? Not from the farebox, as already noted. So it makes sense to question your government about trying to tag onto a popular notion of the day.