Nashville Area Wants Big, Bold Transit, so Build It

The Tennessean
David Plazas

Nashville-area residents asked for a big, bold transit plan and that is exactly what they got in the nMotion recommendations released Wednesday.

Now, their elected officials need to commit to the funding and the follow-through to make this ambitious, expensive and very long-term project a reality.

The $6 billion price tag for the 25-year comprehensive proposal presented by the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Regional Transportation Authority to their boards this past week is in 2016 dollars.

A positive is that the estimate is less than the $7.2 billion to $9.9 billion regionalscenario presented by the NashvilleNext comprehensive plan in 2015.

However, if a dedicated funding source is not found to support and sustain the project, it has the potential to face the stops and starts that rival any Middle Tennessee interstate in peak traffic.

That will not bode well for a fast-growing region, looking to grow by 1 million people in the next 20 years and trying to position itself as a viable competitor for talent, business and tourists against peer cities like Austin, Texas; Seattle; Orlando, Fla.; and Charlotte, N.C.

Middle Tennessee investment key

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry has said her office plans to identify funding sources by the end of the year and other Middle Tennessee mayors should follow suit.

Barry serves as a vice chair for the Mayors’ Caucus, a regional group of Middle Tennessee top city executives that committed in January to support, at least in concept, a regional transit system.

This is essential for various reasons.

While not everyone lives in Nashville, 50 percent of people in the designated market area (DMA) work in Nashville and congestion continues to worsen annually, as documented by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Vital Signs report.

Cities surrounding Nashville are trying to build their own tax bases and infrastructure. Working together to build a regional transit system will connect them more deeply and provide residents a viable alternative to the automobile to get around town efficiently for work or leisure.

Legislative wins, work ahead

Earlier this year the Tennessee General Assembly took some important steps to help lay the groundwork for the future of transit in the state.

Lawmakers approved legislation authorizing private-public partnerships to authorize municipalities to raise capital and build projects in tandem with the very people who know workforce needs best.

Another piece of legislation will allow buses to ride on the shoulders of highways in dedicated lanes, which is a step toward regional bus rapid transit.

There is still more work to do, and lawmakers, post-2016 election, should get serious about dedicating a portion of the gas tax or a new stream of revenue to help pay for regional and municipal projects as well as the infrastructure needed to support them, such as sidewalks and greenways.

They also should authorize efforts to allow citizens to vote to tax themselves if they wish to use those funds for a transit system.

The recently authorized five-year federal highway transportation law provides opportunities for cities to apply for grants that could make major projects a reality.

Public support before project

The nMotion plan has several projects outlined in the recommendations, from commuter rail linking Nashville and Clarksville to light rail leading to Nashville International Airport and on major pikes.

In the case of all of these projects, the mantra “public support before project” needs to take hold so officials do not fall into the same trap that doomed the failed Amp bus rapid transit proposal in 2014.

People need to understand why a project is being built and why it will benefit them, and they deserve input. Over the next 30 days there will be plenty of opportunities for public comment.

A clear benefit is the need to connect people to their workplaces, especially, as housing affordability makes it too expensive for some people to live near the urban core, sending them instead to suburban areas like fast-growing Southeast Nashville, where transit infrastructure is lacking.

Builders need to keep the needs and wants of riders in mind during this long-term process.

While the visions of millennials and seniors embracing transit opportunities have been touted, low-income, bus-dependent people are still the bulk of the ridership.

However, appealing to a broader population has the potential to improve service for all.

The initial steps to improve efficiency, frequency, hours of service and tracking and payment technologies are small but important steps.

They are only a fraction of what is needed for the Nashville area to deal with its growth and avoid decline due to shortsightedness.

“It” cities come and go. Great cities make great investments that benefit the people who are here and those who are yet to come.

Opinion Engagement Editor David Plazas wrote this editorial on behalf of The Tennessean editorial board. Call him at 615-259-8063, email him at dplazas@tennessean.com or tweet to him at @davidplazas.  

The future of transit

What: Panel discussion and Q&A on the future of transit in the Nashville area

Who: This event is presented by The Tennessean in partnership with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Metropolitan Transit Authority and Nashville Public Library.

When: 6:30-8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31; registration starts at 6 p.m.

Where: Nashville Public Library main branch, 615 Church St., downtown Nashville 37219

Panelists: MTA/RTA CEO Steve Bland, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, Metropolitan Planning Organization interim director Michelle Lacewell and Luvenia Harrison on behalf of the Chamber’s Moving Forward initiative 

Registration: Register at transitforum.tennessean.com. Send any questions or comments beforehand to Opinion Editor David Plazas at dplazas@tennessean.com or call 615-259-8063

Bonus: Join a Facebook Live chat with David Plazas on the future of transit at 6 p.m. Monday on facebook.com/tennessean.