Whoever is elected the next mayor of Nashville will have tremendous influence over a transit and transportation funding conversation for Middle Tennessee.
There is no other choice because traffic jams are no longer just rush hour events – they happen constantly – and get worse when there are collisions, such as Wednesday’s multiple-car crash on I-440 or Thursday night’s multi-vehicle crash on I-24 west. Both closed roads for hours.
That’s why all Middle Tennesseans have a stake in the Nashville mayoral election. Whether they live in Davidson County, work here or seek entertainment in Nashville, quality of life is severely downgraded when a person’s commute becomes a nightmare.
Remember that the region is estimated to grow by 1.2 million people over the next 25 years, so without investing in our infrastructure and transportation options, the problem will only get worse.
On top of that, federal and state transportation funds have fallen with a gas tax that has stayed stagnant for two and nearly three decades, respectively. No long-term federal highway transportation bill has been passed in a decade, which means big roads and transit projects are severely underfunded. There are $6 billion to $8 billion in underfunded road projects in Tennessee alone.
Last Monday I took my first ride on the Music City Star train, a six-stop, 32-mile trek from Lebanon to downtown Nashville and back – it was a symbolic trip to hold an important conversation about regional transit.
The group I rode with consisted of officials and advocates from Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Middle Tennessee Regional Transportation officials, Cumberland Region Tomorrow, Moving Forward and the City of Lebanon, including Mayor Philip Craighead, whom I interviewed for a podcast for tennessean.com. You can read a transcript of our conversation in this article.
The ride helped generate a discussion about transit solutions and the need to expand options for commuters in Nashville and the surrounding counties.
The MTA and RTA are in the midst of a yearlong strategic planning process called nMotion to create new solutions, and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce founded the “Moving Forward” initiative to develop new transit options for our citizens.
The Music City Star has been operating since 2006, and Craighead estimates there are some 1,100 to 1,200 rides per day on the 32-mile track.
There have been numerous financial challenges, from the effects of the 2010 flood to alawsuit filed by large railroad companies against the state of Tennessee over how they are taxed on diesel fuel – a funding source which helps pay for short-line rail service like the Music City Star.
The Music City Star has six stops: Riverfront (downtown Nashville), Donelson, Hermitage, Mt. Juliet, Martha and Lebanon. A commuter-oriented community called Hamilton Springs near Lebanon could one day have as many as three stops, Craighead said.
That morning we left at 6:40 a.m. from the Lebanon station and arrived at Riverfront Park at 7:30 a.m. The ride back from Nashville to Lebanon went from 7:45 a.m. to 8:40 a.m.
No traffic. On-time stops. The train received the most riders at Mt. Juliet and Donelson and became pretty full by the time it arrived in downtown.
Unlike my experiences on the bus, there doesn’t appear to be the perception by potential riders that it is unsafe or unreliable. The seats are comfortable and the experiences reminded me of my days taking the train to high school in Chicago. In fact, these trains were purchased from Chicago’s Metra system.
The cost is $5 per ticket, but frequency is still an issue as on most days there are only six trips out of Nashville and four trips out of Lebanon, with an additional evening route on Fridays.
At the end of the train ride, I walked to my car parked at the Lebanon station and started my drive to The Tennessean at 1100 Broadway in downtown Nashville. Google Maps directed me to Interstate 40.
As far as I could tell, there were no accidents, but traffic was bumper-to-bumper most of the way.
It took me nearly an hour to get to work.