Downtown traffic: There is no escape plan

Nashville Business Journal
Adam Sichko

Within the next 12 months, three towers will open on a two-block stretch of Demonbreun Street. Combined, they can hold more than 3,500 office workers and apartment renters.

How will that intense, clustered development worsen downtown traffic?

Nobody has a clue.

That’s right. No one, from developers to elected officials, has any idea of the aggregate effect Nashville’s blitz of construction is going to have on downtown traffic. Accordingly, the mayor’s office is accelerating efforts to test a dramatic overhaul of bus service downtown as city and regional leaders embrace a proposed $6 billion regional expansion of mass transit.

That ambitious regional plan will flop without its vital counterpart: a roadmap for moving people around downtown once they get there. Visions of speedy buses and light rail will vanish if the city can’t figure out how to smoothly circulate all those riders once they arrive — and get them back to those same transit stops. The big-ticket regional proposal only briefly addresses this point, floating a conceptual sketch of how downtown service may change. On a map detailing the entire regional expansion, all those new transit lines literally disappear into a gray box labeled “Downtown Nashville.”

“It’s crucial. Every time we look at a transit corridor, it feeds into the gray box and it’s like, ‘Now what do we do?’” said Steve Bland, CEO of both the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee.

There are hundreds of thousands of stakeholders who have a lot on the line. Downtown’s residential population is set to leap 50 percent in two years, according to the Nashville Downtown Partnership. There are 11,000 more people working downtown today than in 2008, an increase of 25 percent. Record crowds of downtown tourists generate tax revenue that Metro spreads around the county. And then there are the convention attendees at Music City Center and the commuters who travel through the city to jobs in neighboring counties.

No clear forecast

Traffic congestion was a flashpoint in the debate three months ago about plans for two 40-story towers, which would be next to the Pinnacle at Symphony Place office tower and those three other nearby projects on Demonbreun Street. As it is, a downtown bus averages a paltry speed of 6 miles per hour during afternoon rush hour. Traffic now poses a new obstacle to convincing CEOs to move their headquarters to Nashville. Mayor Megan Barry recalled a recent meeting with one such prospect: “One of their questions, very specifically, was that if we locate downtown, how will we get our people in and out effectively?”

There’s no way to answer that question with any clarity. Metro’s zoning code exempts all developments within the downtown interstate loop from having to complete a traffic impact study. The thinking is that Metro can’t really do anything in response to those individual forecasts, since there’s no room to widen roads downtown, and there’s already transit there. But in the context of today’s development boom, it means it’s impossible to assess the total impact of our surge of construction. While Metro does examine how loading zones, valet lanes and parking garages affect traffic flow, planning officials say they’re evaluating new rules that would require developers to do a broader analysis.

That’s not the only thing that needs refreshing. Two years ago this month, Metro unveiled a study on downtown mobility. The study, which was not meant to dive deep into transit, sought to account for every project that had been publicly announced, even if those projects were not under construction and didn’t have a firm timeline.

“There’s been a lot more that has happened than we could have even anticipated,” said Bob Murphy, whose Nashville-based RPM Transportation Consultants LLC was hired by Metro to conduct the study. “I’ve never had it happen where a study became outdated so fast, in my 30 years in business.”

More studies ahead

Bland said it’s not an oversight that downtown’s transit future remains such an unknown. Instead, it’s a reaction to former Mayor Karl Dean’s failed attempt in 2013-14 to create the Amp, a rapid bus line that would have run from Belle Meade through downtown and into East Nashville. Bland said he’s taking the opposite approach: focusing first on the regional picture, and then determining what to do in the center of the city.

The mayor’s office has hired Murphy’s company once more. This time, Murphy’s mission is to account for the scope of the city’s development boom — and assess a preliminary concept that would radically simplify downtown’s transit routes.

The idea would limit buses to four roads: Broadway up to the fork with West End Avenue, Charlotte Avenue, Fourth Avenue and Fifth Avenue. The buses would have their own lanes, so they could go faster than cars, making them an attractive alternative to driving.

“They’re going to take this as the starting point and test it to see if they can make that work,” said Mark Sturtevant, the mayor’s director of infrastructure.

Metro expects to finish the first part of that study early next year, Sturtevant said. He emphasized that major changes — such as devoting lanes to fast buses — are years away from happening.

The proposed $6 billion regionwide vision for expanded transit would unfold over the next two dozen years. By that point, demographers project Middle Tennessee will have gained another 1 million residents, a 55 percent increase.

“Downtown is not built today for all the development we’ve had,” said Pete Wooten, a banker and vice chairman of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s renewed push for more mass transit. “We need to respond.”

On the drawing board: $6B plan

Next month, the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee are poised to officially adopt a $6 billion plan to expand mass transit region-wide. Here are highlights of the proposed expansion:

  • 2040: year it would be finished
  • 55 percent: projected population increase in Middle Tennessee by that time
  • 20: potential miles of city roads reserved just for bus rapid-transit
  • 41 percent: service running at least every 15 minutes, double the current ratio
  • 1.55 million: jobs located within a half-mile of the expanded network, triple the current figure
  • $338 million: annual operating costs, quadruple the current system

Adam covers commercial real estate and manufacturing.


  1. mary crespo says

    the 72 connector (working with the 52A and 52B Nolensville road lite bus (limited stops)…the 72 does not make good connections with these bus…everytime we get there by Mcdonald’s (last stop going south)…the buses schedule for 72 leaves at 5:24pm…and the 52a gets there late sometimes…a difference of 10 minutes…so we always miss the 72 bus..and have to walk home…
    it doesn’t pay to have a connector if it doesn’t pick up people?…does that make sense?…