Transportation leaders: If plan is right, funds follow

The Tennessean
Jamie McGee

When it comes to solving regional transportation problems, the biggest obstacle is, no doubt, funding.

But what transportation leaders — locally and nationally — urged at Cumberland Region Tomorrow’s Power of Ten Summit on transportation Thursday was to first focus on a well-developed, comprehensive plan. If it is a strong enough blueprint and the public is behind it, the funding will follow.

“Everybody knows we have mobility challenges,” said Metro Transit Authority and Regional Transportation Authority CEO Steve Bland. “If you can build a compelling vision, if you show that we are working together, if you show that it’s efficient, if you show it can be delivered, people will figure out how to pay for it.”

The summit was organized to advance discussions on transportation that have been underway as population rates in Middle Tennessee climb at a rapid pace. One million people are expected to move to the area in the next 25 years, growth that will make existing congestion problems far worse.

As gas tax revenues for state highway projects have dwindled in recent years and gridlock in Washington has held back nearly $6 billion in Tennessee highway investments, transportation funding is top of mind for local officials.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation could be shifting into a maintenance role, rather than building new projects, if the federal government continues to delay approval for funding, TDOT Deputy Commissioner Toks Omishakin said.

“We are going to end up in a place where we are just maintaining the assets we have, where we can’t make additional investments at all in our transit system,” Omishakin said. “It hurts us. It decreases our ability to compete across the region, compete in this country, compete even globally as well. It has to be addressed.”

While federal funds should be part of the equation for local transportation projects, officials said Middle Tennessee needs to also look internally.

“Let’s figure out what we need to do and what the best way is to pay for that at whatever level we think we can allocate resources,” Bland said. “We should probably try to be less reliant on those federal and, frankly, even those state sources.”

Since 2010, Nashville Area Metro Planning Organization, led by Executive Director Michael Skipper, has been working on a 25-year transportation plan called the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. It is a $6 billion plan that tackles mass transit, walking and bike paths and roadways, and the MPO is working on an updated version to incorporate MTA/RTA’s nMotion plan.

Through nMotion, the MTA is looking for input from more than 10,000 Middle Tennessee residents as it develops its plan. It’s up to 3,000 so far, with people emphasizing convenience, frequency and dependability as top priorities, Bland said.

Community buy-in was emphasized by Al Biehler, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and former secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. He has studied transportation in cities across the U.S. and said the regions that have had greater input from residents have had the most success with passing large-scale plans.

“You have to talk to people who have to pull the lever to vote for some kind of legislation,” Biehler said. “You want the situation so that there is such a groundswell that they say, ‘Yes, we want to do this thing and we believe in it and are going to commit to it.’ It really takes time and you’ve got to have really devoted efforts to do that.”

Skipper was among panelists and speakers urging the crowd of 600 people to become active players in the conversation on transportation and help rally support for action.

“We have to do a better job of illustrating the vision of what we mean when we say we want to improve your mobility experience,” he said. “As soon as we move that conversation to the family kitchen table from the boardroom table of the MPO, the closer we will be to solving problem.”

Several speakers emphasized that the private sector also has a role to play in the transportation plan. Autonomous cars, Uber, Lyft and Car2Go were mentioned throughout the session. Joseph Kopser, co-founder of RideScout, an app that offers real-time information on ground transportation, shared his insights on how technology can help address transit obstacles.

“The private sector is pouring billions of dollars into mobility,” Kopser said. “They, from a Wall Street perspective, are figuring this out.”