Every day in Charlotte, N.C., some 16,000 people ride the Lynx, a 15-station light-rail system that has revolutionized transit in the once-sleepy banking city. It’s a service for which riders pay $1.50 a trip.
In Denver, residents are willing to pay about 4 percent more to live near FasTracks, the burgeoning light-rail system voters approved — with a 0.4 percent hike in sales tax for dedicated funding — in 2004. According to a study released last week, developers are paying an average of 25 percent more for land near current or future light-rail stations, of which there are now 56.
And in Austin, Texas, a 32-mile north-south line that opened in 2004 has led to renewed investment in and development of, among other places, a stretch of Main Street in that city’s Midtown. As the Houston Chronicle reported a few weeks ago, a village of locally owned shops will anchor the light-rail station there.
A week after Mayor Karl Dean and the Chamber of Commerce issued their Partnership 2020 economic development initiative, with local media still chewing on its various parts, one chunk of bait dangles on the hook: mass transit.
Dean and members of the regional mayors’ caucus don’t need persuading on the benefits of mass transit. The mayor said to expect serious discussions by fall, adding that Nashville will cut its own cloth whether contiguous counties are in or not.
In a few weeks, the Metro Planning Organization’s final report on the Northeast Corridor — to and from the Hendersonville/Gallatin area — will be wrapped. According to Metro Transit Authority CEO Paul Ballard, a rail line is a strong possibility.
That’s a good start, but Nashville needs to go stronger. Dean acknowledged that the Music City Star, the heavy-rail commuter line that runs from Lebanon to
downtown, is good for the one stretch, but once riders arrive here, transit options are inadequate.
An inner-city light-rail system would benefit anyone working, living or playing (as the boosterific slogan goes) downtown. Bolster it with streetcars (which Dean seems fond of) that would run along the Broadway/West End corridor — not to mention MTA’s downtown circulator and current bus routes, as well as a bus rapid transit stretch on Gallatin Pike, all of which are now in effect — and you’d have the beginnings of a comprehensive system for citizens to move themselves around without cars.
The economic development case for mass transit is an easy one. Young, educated people follow it. Of the 20 smartest American cities — as determined by the number of bachelor’s and graduate degrees per square mile (credit: U.S. Census via the blog “Extraordinary Measures”) — all but one have
comprehensive public transit systems, including rail.
Young, educated people also tend to favor a certain type of domestic situation. In a recent story in the Atlantic Monthly, Christopher Leinberger argues that the sought-after demographic — 20- and 30-somethings — “are particularly drawn to urban living, seeing it not only as exciting but as healthy and environmentally friendly.” And that situation, to encapsulate Leinberger’s lengthy (and worthy) argument, is advanced immensely by the presence of public transit.
Nashville ranks near the bottom of major American cities for its number of bachelor’s and graduate degrees per square mile. At the top, not surprisingly, are San Francisco and New York. Nashville is fifth from the bottom, boasting 268 degrees (for perspective, SF has 7,031). The need is extant.
Voters have passed some two-thirds of all transit-oriented ballot measures in recent years, and major projects like light rail need dedicated sources of funding. Our sales tax is stupid-high, so you can probably scratch a bump in that off the list. But what about increasing the gas tax by half a percent, or adding another small fee every time the DMV sniffs a car for emissions? Drive or ride, in this user-fee utopia, you pay for better transit and buy into a more pleasant and livable city.