Move Nashville area transit debate forward

The Tennessean
David Plazas

Momentum is building for a better transit and transportation system in Middle Tennessee.

Regional political and private sector leaders, grassroots organizations and average citizens are sending messages that a bold vision must be developed and acted upon soon in order to allow our fast-growing, increasingly popular communities to prosper now and into the future.

There are 1 million people projected to move to our region by 2040 and they are coming to an exciting, dynamic place … without the roads, infrastructure or transit system to sustain them.

This region, which is producing the majority of the job growth in Tennessee, is at a point where it could jeopardize its economic progress if it doesn’t act soon.

And the nation has taken notice. At the March 21 TedX Nashville, for example, NASA Space Launch System manager Chris Crumbly told the audience, “If we can build a rocket to Mars, we can expand mass transit in Nashville.”

Ten days later at the Williamson Regional Outlook, panelist Janet Miller said: “We don’t need an incremental solution. We need a big, bold vision.”

That vision is not just about building or enhancing rail lines and buses, though that is important; it’s also about creating communities connected with sidewalks, bike paths and alternatives to having to drive one’s own car.

Consider the heavy activity of late involving transit and transportation:

  • This past week 120 leaders, organized by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, visited Salt Lake City to study that region’s impressive mass transit and transportation system.
  • The NashvilleNext community process and report, which has a hefty public transit component, ended its public comment period on April 30. The report, which is set to be the road map for growth in Nashville over the next 25 years, will be going to the Metro Planning Commission for a vote in June.
  • Last month was the kickoff of nMotion 2015, the strategic planning process of the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and Middle Tennessee Regional Transportation Authority, which seeks to involve the community in designing the transit system of the future. It’s a serious effort to develop some new solutions after the failure of the Amp, which would have connected the West End with East Nashville in a dedicated bus rapid transit line.
  • The private nonprofit Cumberland Region Tomorrow selected regional transportation as its signature issue for its 2015 POWER OF TEN Regional Summit.
  • Civic and grassroots groups like Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, Leadership Middle Tennessee and Transit Now Nashville have been leading community education and engagement efforts.

Other important groups to mention are the Middle Tennessee Mayors Caucus, the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the Tennessee Department of Transportation, which have been working to plan for growth and coordinate strategic planning with very limited resources.

All these efforts are important to note because it shows that this is not a fringe issue; it’s one that affects us all and requires a bold vision and bold execution.

“It would be fair to say that the development of multimodal regional transportation is one of top needs in the rapidly growing Middle Tennessee region,” said Bridget Jones, executive director of Cumberland Region Tomorrow.

“Growth requires infrastructure and infrastructure is expensive so we must be strategic in identifying our needs and making strategic infrastructure investments to support our progress,” Jones added.

How much and how soon we Tennesseans are willing to spend is critical.

Taxpayers and citizens should get involved in efforts underway to understand the regional needs, participate in local planning efforts and be willing to invest in what it takes to meet the needs of this and future generations.

They should urge their legislators, mayors, city and county commissioners or councilors to develop appropriate financing solutions.

So far there has been little progress on the funding aspect.

While the NashvilleNext process identified the cost of an optimal regional transit system at $7 billion, the region will have to decide how and if it wants to pay for it.

Discussions about gas tax increases in the General Assembly were tabled for at least another year.

The last state gas tax increase was in 1989 and a proposal to allow municipalities to raise a local option gas tax to fund transit was also postponed to 2016.

The federal government so far has not come up with a bold approach on transportation and dedicated funding.

The ability to raise revenues in this state is limited and involves property, sales and gas taxes.

The foundation for a regional transportation system is funding, and that means Tennesseans must understand the costs of what it takes to build the system — and, more importantly, the costs of doing nothing at all.

Opinion Engagement Editor David Plazas wrote this editorial on behalf of The Tennessean Editorial Board. Call him at (615) 259-8063, email him at or tweet to him at @davidplazas.

Ways to get involved

2015 POWER OF TEN Regional Summit Agenda

Who: Cumberland Region Tomorrow. or call (615) 986-2698.

nMotion Strategic Planning Process

Who: Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and Middle Tennessee Regional Transportation Authority.

You can submit ideas, get updates and eventually design a transit system.

NashvilleNext process

Who: Metro Nashville.

While the public comment period is over, read the report and find key dates for enactment.

Letters to the editor

Submit your letters to the editor on your ideas for a better transit and transportation system to The Tennessean: Please keep your letters to 250 words or less, include your name, address and phone number; we will only publish your name, city and ZIP code.