Regional transit solutions topic of 10-county summit

The Tennessean
Jamie McGee and Jill Cowan

The need for transportation solutions has become a top priority for Nashville, and local nonprofit Cumberland Region Tomorrow is seeking to advance the conversation with a one-day summit focused on the issue.

The Power of Ten Summit, set for Thursday, gathers leaders from 10 Middle Tennessee counties — Cheatham, Davidson, Dickson, Maury, Montgomery, Robertson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson. The event will include experts from national think tanks and companies, as well as local transportation and planning officials.

“We want the leaders to leave with real-world ideas that can make Middle Tennessee the most connected region in the nation,” Cumberland Region Tomorrow Executive Director Bridget Jones said. “It’s an afternoon discussion of where we are now, what has yet to be done in developing and funding and building out coordinated transportation system plans that will meet our rapidly growing and prosperous region’s need.”

Government and business leaders have emphasized the importance of long-term transportation planning, and more recently the issue has reverberated throughout the Nashville mayoral campaign as population growth estimates have served as a wake-up call for city leaders.

By 2035, Nashville is expected to grow by close to 1 million people, making the region larger in size than the Denver area today.

Steve Bland, CEO of the Metro Transit Authority and Regional Transportation Authority, said people will ask about whether options such as light rail or commuter rail are appropriate for Nashville.

“Twenty years ago you would have said, ‘No, we don’t have the density, it’s too sprawling,’ ” Bland said. “That condition, you don’t have to look further than out the window to see that condition is changing pretty quickly.”

The MTA and RTA are developing a plan for moving the issue forward and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce is also working on an initiative to involve business leaders on supporting the development of a regional multimodal transportation plan.

Among the takeaways from the Amp experience, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean’s proposed bus rapit transit line that ultimately failed, was the lack of community involvement and buy-in in the early phases of the project’s planning.

Part of Cumberland Region Tomorrow’s goal and that of other groups is to communicate transportation needs and options to the public early on and involve them in the planning process.

Michael Skipper, executive director of the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which helps plan and prioritize federal transportation funding, said he hopes to help raise awareness about the importance of investing in public transit if Nashville wants to keep up with its economic competitors.

Regional coordination is key, he said.

“It’s the only way you can really address the issue of transit in general,” he said. “More than half of our region’s population works in a different county.”

Along Interstate 65 between Nashville and Williamson County seems to be a particular hot spot for development, meaning that’s where his agency hears from most frequently, he said.

“We’re getting a lot of pressure from business and elected leaders in Williamson County to go faster,” he said.

Franklin Mayor Ken Moore, who is also speaking at the summit, said that his panel will focus on “a call to action” to find a dedicated funding source for transit. He emphasized that communities should keep transit in mind as they plan land use.

“Multimodal (transportation) is key— it isn’t just one option — and it starts with design,” he said. “We need to make sure our communities are being designed for the future.”

Transportation has been a topic of importance for a number of years, but as a new sense of urgency is brought to the issue, leaders are hopeful progress will be made this time. Developing the right plan takes time, though, and residents will need to be patient, Skipper said.

“It’s difficult because most people you talk with, they’re more interested in what’s happening in the next six months or the next year, and it’s hard to get them to recognize the need for long-term planning,” he said. “People are beginning to understand how long it takes to implement major capital projects.”