“This stuff takes forever to do.”
Perhaps that’s an unsettling comment for Nashvillians, particularly those sitting in rush-hour traffic. Al Biehler, the former head of Pennsylvania’s transportation department and now a professor of transportation policy at Carnegie Mellon University, offered them Thursday afternoon to an audience of elected officials, business leaders and folks throughout Middle Tennessee.
The “stuff” Biehler was talking about: developing a regional transportation network that includes mass-transit options and also has a viable funding source.
Biehler spoke Thursday at the Cumberland Region Tomorrow’s Power of Ten annual summit in downtown Nashville, which focused exclusively on transportation infrastructure in the 10-county Middle Tennessee region.
If you’ve followed Nashville’s mayoral debate, or the continued conversation surrounding mass transit since the demise of the contentious Amp project along West End Avenue, the phrase, “We need a regional plan,” has been repeated nearly as much as its companion, “We don’t want to be Atlanta.” Both have been uttered so many times that such observations don’t really move the transportation and traffic conversation forward.
Insert Biehler, who led PennDOT for eight years in the 2000s. He didn’t outline specific projects Nashville should pursue (I’m sure that’s what everyone is clamoring to know, and rest assured, the Nashville MTA is working on a regional transit study and seeking public input on what the best options are and where).
But Biehler did outline three keys for developing a full-fledged regional transportation system. These are all more 30,000-foot-view suggestions, not nitty-gritty, project specific details.
Biehler’s first one is actually four parts, what he calls the pillars of a sustainable transportation network. They include effective management of land use and transportation corridors; stable long-term funding; strategic infrastructure investments to “turn [planning] into real action;” and a real understanding of how neighborhoods and communities live, work and play.
On funding, which was always in doubt during the debate over the $174 million Amp proposal, Biehler said: “If you can’t properly finance [a project], you ought not to start.”
Biehler said planning should come before funding. But he offered an example of Minneapolis-St. Paul, which had multiple counties pitch into a regional transportation funding pool, which was then jointly managed to allocate resources for projects.
“This is the kind of effort you need to think about,” Biehler said.
The second: “Think of it as a single system,” Biehler said, meaning the highways, roadways, bike lanes, sidewalks and transit lines are all considered as part of a collective whole.
“All transportation systems are fragmented in some part,” Biehler said, adding the goal should be to have a “fully integrated and multi-modal” system.
Biehler’s final point – long-term collaboration among different governments, stakeholders and residents – goes back to the type of funding mechanism the Minneapolis-St. Paul region implemented.
“It’s the toughest thing to do,” Biehler said.
“The eventual solution will probably be something you hadn’t thought about before,” he added. “But the prize is sure worth it with an area as dynamic as yours.”