Without better roads in Nashville, transit options will fail

The Tennessean
Frank Daniels III

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media theorist and futurist who concluded, “The medium is the message” also observed, “Mass transportation is doomed to failure in North America because a person’s car is the only place where he can be alone and think.”

Though I only recently encountered McLuhan’s rationale, I have been a practitioner most of my adult life, and over the past several weeks I have used commute time — well, at least the time that I am not stewing over rubberneck backups and folks who drive the speed limit in the left lane — thinking about the deepening conversation around what we should do about transit.

And while I, like many of you, really like the idea of an effective and efficient mass transit system in our city and region, I, like many of you, want everybody else to use it, so that I can enjoy being alone in my truck.

Nashville has benefited from the fact that all roads led to it, but it also suffers from that Oz-like design. Getting from one part of the region to another means that we all have to go through Nashville, and not around it, to get where we want to be.

One of McLuhan’s predicted mass transit failures, Mayor Karl Dean’s proposal to build a dedicated bus rapid transit route, the Amp, to create a transit corridor from East Nashville to West End, has become a catalyst in the transit conversation.

And there are a lot of conversations happening in Nashville and Middle Tennessee, across the state and around the nation.

On Thursday, about 600 local government and business leaders from Cheatham, Davidson, Dickson, Maury, Montgomery, Robertson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties are gathering for the annual Power of Ten Regional Summit, 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Tennessee Performing Arts Center, to “discuss real-world ideas for making Middle Tennessee the most connected region in the world.”

The Metro Transit Authority and the Regional Transit Authority have begun a yearlong intense review and strategic planning process on transit options.

The Nashville mayoral candidates enjoy talking around transit, though not about how to pay for it.

Gov. Bill Haslam says he will be touring the state later this summer to talk with Tennesseans about the state’s need to invest in roads, and gauge our willingness to raise the state’s gas tax, currently at the 21.4 cents a gallon, a rate passed by the legislature in 1988. Andrew Ogles, director of the Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee, has vowed a counter-tour in opposition to any new taxes or fees to pay for roads.

Tennessee has between $6 billion and $8 billion of road projects that are unfunded and on hold, and the $660 million or so the state receives from our gas tax barely covers the cost of maintaining our roads and bridges.

The push to build the Amp was fueled by the mayor’s recognition that federal funding was going to dry up for mass transit projects, and Congress failed again last month to pass a highway and transportation bill to fund the Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by the federal 18.4 cents-per- gallon gas tax and is running on fumes.

According to a news story in the Kingsport Times-News, John Schroer, who is commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said, “We’re quickly moving into a (highway) maintenance only situation. It’s not a crisis today, but it’s going to get worse as we go forward.”

The Amp debate elevated our awareness that we must address transit issues.

Good transit options are essential to any attainable affordable housing solution; to accommodating the continuing influx of new companies, jobs and Nashvillians; and to make Nashville easier for visitors to navigate. But no transit solution can be implemented without a strategy that also improves and expands roads.

It is fun to envision smart new buses, expanded Music City Star schedules or perhaps a light rail system, but it is additional lanes and more roads that our region needs.

And we must figure out ways to pay for our roads that don’t rely on the legislature or Congress increasing gas taxes.