If predictions of population and job growth for Middle Tennessee are accurate, the region’s current transportation network is lagging far behind the increasing demand for services, concludes a new report from the Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee.
The question community leaders are now pondering is how and when the massive overhaul should begin.
Stephen Bland, executive officer of the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee, said when more people move to a city it is always a good problem to have.
“But you have to ask yourself, ‘Will you wait to let yourself become an Atlanta or similar city before making these changes, or do you want to make sure you attack the problem as a quality-of-life issue that you want to deal with along the way’?” he said.
The RTA provides commuter service on the Music City Star train and a network of express bus routes, park-and-ride lots and other resources. The recent state of the system report outlines a 25-year plan to deal with the region’s projected growth.
The report found that services are limited and not suited for “typical” commuters, express buses aren’t fast enough and park-and-ride lots are inconveniently located and hard to find.
The report suggests adding more buses and trains, adding more stations and even adding additional lanes on area freeways exclusive for RTA buses.
The driving force
The report cites predictions that indicate populations in the 10-county region of Davidson, Cheatham, Dickson, Maury, Montgomery, Robertson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties will grow by 80 percent, from 1.7 million residents in 2010 to 3.1 million in 2040.
Employment in the region is also projected to grow, from 796,000 jobs in 2010 to over 1.8 million jobs in 2040.
These increases are expected to drive the demand for services that help workers commuting to Nashville and for more connector stations across the region.
“These predictions are the driver, and people take them very seriously,” Bland said.
Officials have tried to gauge where the region’s traffic problems fall between inconvenience and crisis. Bland said that although commutes have gotten longer along many of the prominent routes in Middle Tennessee, the area has seen nothing compared to the kind of logjam commuters see around cities like Boston.
“But if you are commuting to and from Nashville along I-24 everyday, then yeah, maybe its getting close to a crisis,” he said.
Friday afternoon Terrie Simmons exited an RTA bus at the North Boulevard Church of Christ in Murfreesboro, along with Lou Goins, both commuters to and from Nashville who loathe the traffic enough to forgo driving altogether.
“It beats (Interstate) 24 traffic,” Simmons said. “(It) is very challenging during rush hour, so letting someone else do the driving is truly a blessing.”
Goins said he hates the drive enough that he has taken the bus for seven years.
A brighter future
In mid-June, leaders from the 10 Middle Tennessee counties and Gov. Bill Haslam attended a summit in Williamson County that brought in experts from national think tanks as well as local transportation and planning officials.
“We looked at population trends and funding mechanisms,” Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson said last week. “As we look down the road and kick the can, it’s not just about throwing money at the problem, but it’s about making the community a better place to work and live.”
As Williamson County has seen continued population growth and has continually been ranked one of the top places to live in the country, Anderson said local community members are starting to become concerned as Interstate 65’s rush hour backup grows longer and pours onto side streets.
“I wouldn’t use the word, crisis, but it’s a concerning situation,” he said.
In Montgomery County, Clarksville has not seen the same kind of long commutes as Williamson County, but the area is also seeing an increase in commuters driving to Nashville and commuting into Clarksville from other areas of the state.
Clarksville Mayor Kim McMillan, the current RTA chairman, is hopeful about what improved transit can do for the state’s fifth-largest city and what the increased traffic means for the area: “phenomenal job growth” and “economic opportunities.”
“We have seen the development and implementation of a thriving express bus service between Clarksville and Nashville, which has grown to three trips twice a day with a fourth trip starting soon,” McMillan said. “The RTA is also funding a comprehensive feasibility study in the northwest corridor to look at the possibility of a commuter rail line between Clarksville and Nashville.”
The Rev. Ron Burgess of Dover, which is about 30 miles west of Clarksville, is hosting a Russian exchange student who travels back and forth from Dover to Nashville every day to attend Vanderbilt University Law School.
Burgess rises every morning before 5 a.m. so they can catch the RTA bus to Nashville.
“Not only would I like to see RTA add more buses to its schedule between Clarksville and Nashville and expand routes, but for people like us, there is even justification for an RTA bus from Dover to Nashville,” he said. “I can see that the need is there.”
Bland and others say updating the area’s traffic infrastructure is a multi-faceted problem that will require multiple agencies and public and private entities working together
Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman Heather Jensen said in an email Friday that congestion is not merely a symptom of population growth.
She said studies indicate that more than half (60 percent) of congestion is caused by such non-recurring issues such as traffic incidents, work zones, special events, bad weather and traffic signal timing, all of which can be exacerbated by more people on the roads.
She said the department relies on metro and regional planning offices to identify projects for easing congestion on heavily-traveled, state-owned routes. But she said there is also a transportation funding crisis nationwide.
“Tennessee is a pay-as-you-go state, which means if we can’t fund it, we don’t build it,” she said. “Federal dollars fund a large percentage of every project. With the uncertainty of future funding, any proposed projects are facing greater scrutiny.”
RTA has set up spots online where people can offer their suggestions, workers have gone to fairs, festivals and community gatherings all trying to get feedback on what people feel like the area needs most and what would be helpful.
“We’ve been trying to get a sense of what the regional perspective is,” Bland said. “We are listening to people and what they are saying is that, ‘If there was a competitive choice that is faster than my car, I would choose it.'”