Mayor Anderson plans Williamson transit summit

Brentwood Home Page
Jessica Pace

With more than one million new residents predicted on the way to Middle Tennessee in the next 25 years, transportation is on the minds of planners and funders.

Several transportation stakeholders met Thursday in Nashville at the Cumberland Region Tomorrow’s “Power of Ten” summit and discussed how to address the greater Nashville area’s growing transit needs.

Williamson County is a huge part of that conversation as it sees an influx of residents and jobs. Now home to more than 200,000, Williamson is expected to surpass the population of Chattanooga-Hamilton County by 2040.

According to a report released this spring by Williamson Inc., the county is expected to reach 146,260 jobs by 2024. Nearly 55 percent of Williamson’s workforce lives within county boundaries, and about 23,000 local workers commute to Williamson from Davidson County.

There are $6 million worth of projects written into the Nashville Area Metro Planning Organization’s 2035 Regional Transportation Plan, including hundreds of projects addressing both roads and transit, many of which would impact Williamson.

Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson, who attended Thursday’s summit, sits on the MPO board along with leaders from the county’s municipalities. Legislation originated by State House Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin) passed this year to increase Williamson’s representation on the board.

But Anderson wants to have a more localized conversation about county-specific transit problems, and is planning for a Williamson summit sometime in the fall. County and city leaders would attend the conference, which would be held tentatively in September.

“We’ll get together with business leaders and people in the community,” Anderson said.

“Not to say we shouldn’t be a part of the Nashville conversation, but specifically what can we do collectively in this county? How can we move past always saying, ‘We can’t do it because of money, because of Washington, because of Nashville?'”

Toks Omishakin, TDOT deputy commissioner of planning and environment, said at Thursday’s conference that Middle Tennessee is reaching the point where the region won’t be able to keep up with new infrastructure.

“We won’t be able to build new,” he said. “We’ll just be maintaining assets we have. It hurts our ability to compete in the region, in the country and globally.”

Omishakin also said one of the major issues for TDOT are costs for rights-of-way.

“Because the life cycle of the average TDOT project is nine to 10 years, we make predictions about the rights-of-way costs,” he said.

“By the time we get there, the right-of-way cost has doubled or even tripled.”

In May, Congress passed a two-month extension of the highway bill, when lawmakers were unable to agree on a long-term funding plan for transportation. The extension allows the Highway Trust Fund to continue level spending, but no additional funds can be allocated.

TDOT Commissioner John Schroer, former Franklin mayor and still a resident, was skeptical this will be resolved by July 31.

“If Congress passes it, and it just allows level funding with no increase, they’d have to find $100 billion to fund at that level, and without raising taxes,” he said.

“I expect to see more extensions. The best we can see is a longer-term bill starting in spring 2017.”

Steve Bland, CEO of the Regional Transportation Authority-Metro Transit Authority, said a comprehensive, multi-modal bill addressing both transportation infrastructural needs, as well as highway needs, will be a difficult feat.

“A bill that would fix Nashville’s problems assumes too much homogeneity,” he said.

An update to the 2035 plan is in the works, and will combine the MTA-RTA’s “nMotion” plan. Bland said he has heard from about 3,000 Middle Tennesseans so far, though the MTA is shooting for 10,000 respondents.

“Convenience, frequency and dependability – that’s what the resounding want is,” he said.

Bland, former director and CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County-Pittsburgh, said communities should find alternative ways to solve mobility problems, rather than rely on federal and state dollars.

“People ask, ‘What is the best way to pay for transit?’ When I was in Pittsburg, at the end of the day, it turned out to be a 10 percent tax on port alcoholic beverages. No economist will say that’s the right way to pay for transit, but in a city like Pittsburgh, that was absolutely recession-proof.”

Gas taxes aren’t amounting to much in Tennessee, where the state gas tax is 21.4-cents per gallon and the federal gas tax is 18.4-cents per gallon. On average, Tennessee drivers spent about $300 yearly on those taxes.

Williamson Inc. CEO and President Matt Largen reported in March that 58 percent of surveyed business professionals in the community would support a tax increase that would help fund transportation.

Many said there are short-term methods of relieving traffic and transit problems, and a lot of it has to do with a change in mentality.

Jennifer Carlat, special projects director at the Metro Nashville Planning Department, interviewed a panel of local millennials, including Sara Holloway.

“The previous generation might have viewed the car as freedom,” Holloway said.

“My phone is freedom. I want my commute to be short, and I want sidewalks and bike lanes. We need to look out for bikers and pedestrians. We need to have a change in culture, a change in mindset in sharing the use of space.”

Another, 18-year-old Nereida Ortega, said she learned about multiple modes of public transportation at Thursday’s conference. The fact that they were news to her told her they aren’t publicized well enough, she said.

Anderson said this suggestion was a “takeaway” from the summit.

“We’re probably not doing as good a job about educating the public about our options,” he told the Home Pages Friday.

“Are we advertising the Relax and Ride, which runs five days a week? Are we getting to the business community and explaining the tax advantages? Are we getting employees to look at carpool? We have a long ways to go.”

Franklin and Williamson County contribute nearly $32,000 each for the Regional Transit Authority’s Relax and Ride bus service to make stops there, although Route 91X no longer makes a stop in Brentwood after that city decided this year not to fund the route.

MPO Executive Director Michael Skipper said he wanted to see more accountability in the community when it comes to tackling transit issues. Those conversations should take place “at the family kitchen table,” as well as with leadership boards, he said.

Bland also said agencies like RTA-MTA should view private transit services like Uber and Lyft as important partners in solving traffic issues.

Franklin City Mayor Ken Moore, who chairs the Middle Tennessee Mayors Caucus, closed the conference with a call to action.

“We have some great opportunities to be Nashville and not that other city south of us,” he said, in a reference to Atlanta.

“In Franklin, we have huge job growth. We have low-unemployment, high-population growth, and we’re a retiring destination. But our number one complaint is traffic congestion. Eighty-two-point-four percent in our region travel alone. Franklin is ranked number 11 for the most congested communities.”

Like Anderson, Moore agrees vanpooling is an immediate and simple way to alleviate traffic problems, but agrees that it’s easier said than done.

“We’re all creatures of habit,” he told the Home Pages. “But I think the issue is more about planning than funding.”

This year, the RTA is conducting the Northwest Corridor Transit Study to evaluate transit options between Clarksville and Nashville. Stakeholders and the public both have a voice in the process.

In the meantime, Williamson County is making preparations for the fall summit. Anderson said he hired former county Parks and Recreation Director Doug Hood part-time to meet with city leaders, find out what is and isn’t working, and share ideas.

“At the end of the day, the question is always, ‘How are you going to pay for it?'”Anderson said.

“We know it will cost money, and we know we have to find ways to fix traffic issues. All of us are frustrated trying to find a solution.”