Sitting among a row of fellow mayors, Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess pointed to a presentation highlighting Charlotte’s use of transit — nearly triple that of Nashville’s — and asked why the gap was so wide.
The difference comes down to service, which comes down to funds, explained Nashville Area Metro Planning Organization Executive Director Michael Skipper, speaking at the Middle Tennessee Mayors’ Caucus on Tuesday. The presentation highlighted key statistics from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Vital Signs 2015 report.
“There is a strong correlation to the amount of service you put out and the level of ridership that you get in return,” Skipper said. “A lot of the service that we put out there is extremely limited by the level of funding that we have to pay for that service. We are lagging far behind peers with respect to service on transit and the amount of funding we are putting into our system.”
Transportation has caught the attention of the region’s mayors and was among top legislative priorities highlighted at the caucus, along with post-secondary education and affordable housing. While the transportation conversation has been under way for several years, local leaders are hopeful that there is enough momentum to develop substantial plans and get the funding to support them.
“The awareness in the community is growing,” caucus chairman and Franklin Mayor Ken Moore said. “By 2035, if we don’t do anything, we are going to be in gridlock.”
Securing buy-in from lawmakers and residents will be critical to getting additional revenue streams to solve regional transportation problems. Gov. Bill Haslam began a statewide transportation tour this year to gather insights from local leaders and build awareness for the issue, and local leaders have taken an active role in advocating for large-scale solutions.
According to the Vital Signs 2015 report, public support is growing. Among residents surveyed across the region, 45 percent identified transportation as a top priority. That’s up from 29 percent in 2014.
More than 60 percent said they would be willing to pay “slightly more” as a tax or a fee to pay for a significant expansion of mass transit choices. More than 80 percent said they favored a rapid transit system, such as light rail, commuter rail or bus rapid transit.
“We still have a lot of work to do as elected officials to heighten the awareness of the general population of our region as to the importance of why mass transportation is a key component of their future, not only jobs and education,” Goodlettsville Mayor John Coombs said in response to the report.
Nashville area transit riders took 10.5 million trips in a year, compared to 29 million in Charlotte. Local ridership also falls well below that of Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C., which have populations similar to the Nashville area’s 1.2 million. Funding for transportation in the Nashville area is $96.61 per person, compared to $179.88 in Austin and $113.38 in Charlotte. Raleigh’s payment is lower, at $81.92 per capita, according to the report.
Transportation emerged as a key focus at the 2014 Mayors’ Caucus as well, and while no solutions have been outlined a year later, leaders say significant steps forward in research are under way. The Regional Transit Authority and Metro Transit Authority have issued separate reports on the area’s needs, the Metro Planning Organization is developing a 2040 Regional Transportation Plan and the chamber is leading a Moving Forward initiative to build support for a regional solution that addresses roads, walkways and mass transit.
Affordable housing also emerged as a top focus among the research offered by the chamber. The housing price index in the Nashville area has outpaced the median-income-per-capita gains in recent years. The median home price for Cheatham, Davidson, Dickson, Maury, Robertson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties increased by 42 percent in the past four years, to $234,900 from $165,500.
Sixty-four percent of survey respondents said affordable housing options should be expanded, with 49 percent saying governments should work with private developers to accomplish that.