Nashville chamber backs robust, costly regional transit plan

The Tennessean
Joey Garrison

Commutes in Middle Tennessee continue to get longer as traffic congestion worsens, and the region is expected to grow by another 1 million people over the next 25 years.

That forecast is recited routinely by Nashville’s political leaders — and yet finding a mass transit solution has remained as elusive today as two decades ago.

Now, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce officials and other business leaders say the delay can’t continue as they make their most direct call yet for bold action on transit and a comprehensive regional solution to the growing problem.

In a new report from the chamber’s Moving Forward effort released Wednesday, the chamber has recommended that “a starting point” for a future regional plan be the most far reaching of three transit scenarios recently outlined by Metro Transit Authority through its nMotion strategic planning process. This tops 10 transit recommendations made in the new chamber report, which was led by volunteers.

The chamber’s position is an endorsement of a regional transit system unveiled earlier this year by MTA consultants. It’s a system that would take decades to build and consist of the full gamut of options: light rail, street cars and bus rapid transit on major corridors to connect Nashville neighborhoods and commuter rail and buses running on the shoulders of interstates to improve access from Nashville to outlying communities.

It also would come with a steep cost: an estimated $5.4 billion through 2040.

Chamber leaders and supporters, though, say the cost of not doing something outweighs that price tag.

“Either we not do anything and we end up losing jobs and pushing people out, and people end up not being able to afford to live in Nashville, or we can go with nMotion’s No. 1 scenario,” said Judy Cummings, pastor of New Covenant Christian Church in North Nashville, who co-chaired a committee for the report that looked at routes and modes of transit.

MTA’s board is expected to adopt a transit plan during the late summer. The chamber has outlined a goal of breaking ground on the first installment of a transit system by 2020.

Moving Forward, which included participation from more than 100 Middle Tennessee businesses and business leaders, launched after last year’s demise of the Amp, the bus rapid transit proposal pushed by former Mayor Karl Dean that would have run along West End Avenue, Broadway and into East Nashville. Dean retreated from those plans after facing sharp resistance locally over the Amp and later in the state legislature.

But the chamber’s new push goes beyond what MTA is calling for through its nMotion process. Those chamber recommendations include:

  • Urge Mayor Megan Barry’s administration to develop a plan for downtown transit access by the end of this year;
  • Design transit projects between Nashville and surrounding communities that can be upgraded in the future to high-capacity transit such as rail. Areas identified include Franklin, Clarksville, Murfreesboro, Gallatin and Lebanon.
  • Urge the state and other stakeholders to explore relocating the CSX-owned Radnor Yard rail facility near 100 Oaks to open up the city’s existing rail lines for commuter use;
  • Ensure that a direct, light rail connection go from downtown Nashville to the Nashville International Airport;
  • Recommend that MTA and the Regional Transit Authority include strategies for incorporating autonomous vehicles in the overall regional transit system.

There’s also a recommendation for the state of Tennessee to create an Office of Public-Private Partnerships. This is meant to build off bipartisan state legislation approved in the Tennessee General Assembly that authorizes public-private partnerships to help oversee and pay for transit projects.

Chamber leaders say the inspiration for the Moving Forward efforts came from what they witnessed first-hand while in Salt Lake City last spring for a chamber-led study trip to Utah. Helping lead Moving Forward has been Gary Garfield, president and CEO of Bridgestone Americas, who served as the coordinating committee chairman.

Over the past year, the chamber held forums, meetings and solicited feedback. The group divided participants into three broad teams that reviewed routes and transit options, public engagement and revenue and finance.

But one area the report does not touch on — how to pay for a transit system.

Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Ralph Schulz said the chamber plans to review a possible funding mechanism next. First, though, he said the emphasis needs to be one what transit should look like for the region.

“We felt this first year needed to be devoted to what do people want,” Schulz said. “If you go back to the Amp, to some extent the people of the region never got the picture. So, the next phase is really funding.”

Selling the region on an endeavor that could be Middle Tennessee’s costliest ever probably will be politically challenging, but Schulz said the chamber’s business members see transit as an “access issue” for their workers and customers.

“They see this as infrastructure,” he said. “They see it as fundamental to their businesses growing and expanding, and in some cases their businesses even being able to stay in existence.”

Pete Wooten, executive vice president at Avenue Bank, who served as vice chairman for the Moving Forward effort, said the business sector sees transit as a “defensive and offensive game.”

“It’s really about mobility and preserving quality of life — it’s a defensive game,” Wooten said. “The offensive game is what transit can do from an investment standpoint. It can really open up tremendous value because it connects employees to employers. It provides new corridors for business.”

The chamber’s backing of the top-tier scenario put forward by MTA comes as Barry also has called for “big and bold” action on transit. She’s also pointed to next year as the deadline to identify a transit funding source.

In a sign of possible public support in Davidson County, MTA has said its findings from recently conducted surveys of Nashvillians have found widespread support for the most ambitious transit plan.

But while much of the focus of the chamber’s report is on the long-term vision, there also are some steps that can be taken sooner, according to developer Bert Mathews, president of Mathews Co., who also co-chaired one of the report’s committees. This includes creating bus lanes on interstate shoulders to increase speed and efficiency and updating mobilization of traffic lights.

“There are a variety of short-term pieces that can be done and need to be started right now,” Mathews said.

In launching the Moving Forward initiative last year, the chamber created a five-point timeline that would begin this year with the creation of the upcoming strategic transit plan.

The chamber’s goal is for the passage of state and federal revenue for transit by the end of 2017, and to identify a local dedicated funding source for transit by the end of 2018. Two years later the hope is for some sort of transit groundbreaking on a piece of the system.

Jennifer Carlat, the chamber’s vice president of Metropolitan policy, said the chamber plans to release a scorecard on the timeline in January that it will update each year.

The idea: track the progress, or lack thereof.

“It will be an annual event of where we are on those goals,” Carlat said. “The setting a baseline and the accountability piece is a big component for us.”

Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8263 and on Twitter @joeygarrison.

Top 10 recommendations

1. Use the most comprehensive and far reaching of the three scenarios in nMotion’s strategic transit plan as a starting point for developing a bold, regional plan.

2. Design transit projects between Nashville and surrounding communities such as Clarksville, Franklin, Gallatin, Lebanon and Murfreesboro so that they can be upgraded to high-capacity transit, such as rail, in the future. This probably would mean dedicated lanes on major corridors.

3. Urge Mayor Megan Barry’s office to develop a plan for downtown transit access by the end of 2016 that includes all modes of mobility.

4. Recommend that public agencies prioritize transit projects based on community’s projected density and land-use policies.

5. Include a direct, light rail connection between downtown Nashville and the Nashville International Airport.

6. Encourage the state of Tennessee, Middle Tennessee’s mayors and other stakeholders to continue exploring the relocation of the Radnor Yard rail facility located near the 100 Oaks Mall area and owned by CSX.

7. Request the state of Tennessee create an Office of Public-Private Partnerships.

8. Ask the Regional Transit Authority and the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee to hold public discussion of transit planning in each county surrounding Nashville at least twice per year.

9. Request that the upcoming Nashville Metropolitan Planning Organization regional technology study identify the capital and operational costs of installing an “intelligent transportation system” in each city and county in the region.

10. Recommend Metro Transit Authority/Regional Transit Authority include strategies for incorporating autonomous vehicles into the nMotion plan, including in each city and county in the transit system.