Business leaders: $5.5B of light rail and speedy buses is not enough

Nashville Business Journal
Adam Sichko

The most ambitious of three potential ways Middle Tennessee could expand its mass transit would cost $5.5 billion over 25 years, involving a mix of features that are MIA today: light rail, streetcars and giving buses their own lanes on the busiest roads and highways.

A number of leaders of Nashville’s business community believe that isn’t bold enough. They argue that should be the minimum that Nashville and its neighboring counties undertake to blunt the region’s rapidly worsening traffic congestion. It’s taking notably longer to get to work, school, the grocery store or a Nashville Predators game. In some cases, that’s an inconvenience. In others, it can mean a job candidate sours on Nashville— underscoring that traffic woes hinder a company’s ability to retain skilled workers and attract younger talent who increasingly want to use mass transit, while emerging as a new challenge to Nashville’s traditional boasts about its lower cost of living and higher quality of life.

The death of Nashville’s last attempt to expand mass transit, dubbed the Amp, smarted for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and others who had backed the vision of then-Mayor Karl Dean. So they regrouped — and today, they’ll seek to show progress in proactively wielding their collective high profile to set the agenda, influence key decisions that loom in the months ahead, spur government officials to act urgently and win the public’s support.

Moving Forward, a chamber-created group of more than 100 business and community leaders (including some Amp opponents), will publicly present their call to action this morning at the Nashville Public Library’s main branch. Moving Forward’s chairman is Gary Garfield, who is president and CEO of Bridgestone Americas — which will become one of downtown’s largest employers when its SoBro headquarters opens next year.

“This is a core group we believe will play a big part in mobilizing the community. We want to hold elected officials and the public sector accountable, critique their plans and then get behind that vision and try to be a force to advocate for results,” said Pete Wooten, vice chairman of Moving Forward and an executive vice president at Avenue Bank.

Wooten said he would be surprised if the Metro Transit Authority and the Regional Transportation Authority didn’t endorse that most extensive of the three mass transit scenarios those groups laid out earlier this year.

“Yes, I’d be surprised. I think all of us would be disappointed,” Wooten said. “This is our moment to take some action.”

Wooten said he anticipates MTA and RTA will cement their plan for expanding regional transit by year’s end. Much of that plan will focus on how to move people from neighboring counties into and out of Davidson County. Separately, the office of Mayor Megan Barry is newly underway on developing a plan for the other vital piece: How best to circulate those people around downtown once they arrive.

Wooten is advocating both studies wrap up by year’s end. “That is a cornerstone that has to happen,” Wooten said of a downtown-specific plan. The lack of such a way to circulate mass-transit users around the urban core is seen as a factor that deters ridership on the Music City Star, a commuter train connecting downtown to Wilson County.

“Our role will now turn more to advocacy,” Wooten added. “Think about it like a political campaign to make the public aware of the need for this. That’s the role we think of the business community playing. … This isn’t a ‘nice to have.’ This is a ‘need to have’ piece of infrastructure for Middle Tennessee.”

Moving Forward has been at its efforts for a year. Its first report, being released Wednesday, outlines the scope of those research and educational efforts and attempts to prime the public for the debate to come. The report, which contains 29 recommendations, will be posted on Moving Forward’s website ( click here).

One of the biggest and thorniest unanswered questions is how exactly the region would pay for an expanded system. Moving Forward says Nashville, Orlando and Washington, D.C., are the largest metro areas in the nation without a dedicated local source of transit funding — in other words, a specific tax or allocation solely for that purpose. (Metro, of course, provides funding to the MTA. But that money comes from the general fund, which means it must be approved every year.)

Moving Forward believes that without dedicated local funding, it’s all but impossible to expand mass transit.

“I suspect we will see some pushback. The risk of doing nothing also will become apparent,” Wooten said. “We have to focus on the communities that want this and will get behind it and will make the zoning changes that will allow it to happen.”

On average, the mass-transit systems in a set of 10 peer cities receive $136 per capita in transit revenue, both in fares and taxes. Nashville’s system receives $87 per capita, or two-thirds of that benchmark average, according to Moving Forward’s report. The selected peer cities include Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Tampa.

Local officials project the most extensive of Nashville’s three potential scenarios will cost $230 per capita, based on a projected population of more than 3 million people living in Middle Tennessee.

Moving Forward is withholding specific suggestions on funding until the MTA-RTA report is finished, Wooten said. He and other members of Moving Forward have already met with MTA and RTA officials to present the ideas contained in the report issued Wednesday.

“2016 is about setting the vision, and 2017 is about how we get it funded,” saidMarc Hill, chief policy officer at the chamber. “The discussion about financing and taxes gets complicated when there’s not agreement on what you’re paying for. That’s what we have to get first.”

That is a shift from how the Amp debate played out, in which proponents sought to line up funding while plans were still in flux.

“There were a lot of lessons in the Amp,” Hill said. “We backed up and said, ‘Well, that failed. How should we approach this?’ “


  1. Telisha Cobb says

    Now is the time for growth strategies that leave no one behind. We have seen the ill effects of gentrification and the slashing of pubic services to sustain our mega projects. I hope to be able to understand better how we will prevent this from happening this time around?

    1. Will there be transit village plans that demonstrate public benefit beyond transit within 1 and a half mile? Will these include affordable housing and commercial space for small businesses?

    2. How are we deliberately incorporating equity principles into this project?

    3. Are we looking at sustainable capitol AND operating funding sources?

    4. Is there a value capture approach that addresses big businesses who will financially gain from transit? All I have seen is the “public good” pitch.

    5. Are we going to also look at affordable housing choices that shorten the travel distance to work for some? Isn’t this the most cost effective way of addressing our traffic issues for working families? And is beneficial to long term goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

  2. Rebecca Katz says

    Here are several lessons I hope transit advocates learned from the Amp’s failure:

    – Be honest about the pros and cons of all modes of transit.
    – Traffic projects should NOT assume that every BRT bus will be filled to capacity.
    – People are willing to pay more for a better, faster, less intrusive mode of transit.
    – People want to know not only WHAT modes of transit will be implemented, but HOW that will happen, how long that will take (under best-case and worst-case scenarios), what the likely impacts on neighborhoods (both positive and negative) will be, and how much it will cost.

    One big issue I had with the Amp was that it was presented as a done deal and a great thing when most neighborhoods on the route had been offered no opportunities for input. Rather than participate in the process, we had to fight a badly engineered design that had been announced AND a paid PR campaign that falsely claimed a majority of Nashvillians supported the Amp (had that been true, we’d be building it now).

    Running roughshod over the neighborhoods that make Nashville a great place to live in an effort to implement transit isn’t a good strategy. Try moving beyond the 8,000 N Motion survey respondents into the community instead of doing what you did with the Amp: choosing a solution and then trying to claim everyone supported it when most of us didn’t find out about it until it was supposedly a “done deal.”