Unless CSX suddenly changes its mind and allows passenger trips on its rail lines, Middle Tennessee is left grappling with the question: How do we get commuters to and from outlying counties?
In July, we took an in-depth look at the increase traffic volume on Nashville’s interstate system. The 10-year surge is most pronounced along I-65 and I-24 south of Nashville. Traffic has been an issue that’s taken center stage during this mayoral election, and the next mayor will be tasked with tackling the city’s rising traffic woes.
As frustrating as rush-hour delays are for commuters, the problem poses challenges for Nashville’s continued ability to recruit new businesses and talent to the area. It also has an immediate impact on the region’s economy. A newly released report from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute found congestion has cost Nashville more than $1 billion in each of the past three years.
State lawmakers have gone so far as to commission a study for a Murfreesboro-to-Nashville monorail. TDOT has told me such a project is feasible to build, but would be costly – estimated at nearly $2 billion. Building light rail or heavy rail is one consideration, though it also comes with high upfront capital costs.
Perhaps the most realistic option – and one being floated for public input by the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and Regional Transit Authority of Middle Tennessee – is freeway bus rapid-transit.
MTA and RTA already operate several express commuter bus routes on the highways.
As part of its yearlong regional transit study, an MTA reportlooks at ways to expand such service. One benefit of freeway bus service is it’s a low-cost alternative to rail service, the report notes.
One idea is similar to what was pitched with the now defunct Amp project – simply dedicate a portion of the interstate to mass-transit traffic. Buses in HOV lanes seem like a logical idea, but the report also suggests shoulder-running bus traffic, which has been implemented in 12 other states. The MTA report highlights shoulder service implemented in Minnesota, particularly Minneapolis.
The overarching theme with MTA’s regional transit study is developing a system that encourages ridership. To do so, the transit needs to offer current drivers an alternative that is just as quick, or faster, than taking their car. MTA’s report notes: “One of the most time-consuming aspects of freeway bus service can be the time it takes to get off the freeway in order to serve local stops and then get back on again.”
One way to reduce that delay would be construction of freeway bus stops and stations – either along the shoulder, in freeway medians or along interchange ramps.
MTA’s report points to Denver, which is currently upgrading its freeway service with new stations and pedestrian ramps across the freeway at some locations. Others include stops just off interchange ramps, which then connect to local transit service. Seattle is another metro region that has freeway bus stations in the median.
Here’s what MTA’s report says about taking a similar approach along Middle Tennessee’s interstates, particularly I-24 and I-65:
“Bus-on-the-shoulder operations could make these services faster and more reliable, and more competitive with automobile travel. In addition, most of the [current] express routes provide limited service to very limited number of places. The development of stations along freeways could provide the ability to serve more locations with fewer routes, which could mean more service to areas that now receive only very limited service. This approach could also allow consolidation of some MTA and RTA express routes.”
Public input on MTA’s website is largely receptive to this idea.You can read all the comments here, and even offer your own thoughts. A couple commenters even suggest this as a jumping off point for potential rail lines down the road.
One theme: Commuter service on the freeways needs to connect with reliable transit in the urban core. Obviously, commuters are going to be without their cars once they get to downtown.
Another concern: How long the service runs. Here, the concern appears to be the same with an existing Middle Tennessee commuter line: the Music City Star to and from Wilson County. As we previously reported, limited departure times from downtown in evening make the Star a tough option for commuters who often need to work late.