MURFREESBORO — Felix Castrodad, director of planning at the Metro Transportation Authority, was set to speak at a discussion on regional mass transit at the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday afternoon.
But when he got onto Interstate 24 East, saddled with rush hour traffic and closures from a vice presidential visit, he called his staff concerned he wasn’t going to make it from Nashville to Murfreesboro on time.
“It exemplifies why we need to talk about mass transit and how this could play a big issue in what we’re doing,” Castrodad said after making it to the event on time.
Dozens attended the transportation discussion sponsored by the Cumberland Region Tomorrow, Regional Transportation Authority and the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, including several city, county and state officials.
Castrodad outlined during his remarks how those organizations were reaching out to all of the counties around Nashville to gauge their transportation needs and the types of mass-transit projects that local officials believe could be effective.
Options mentioned during the session ranged from allowing buses to drive on the shoulder of a crowded road to installing bus rapid transit or rail lines with dedicated lanes other vehicles could not drive in.
“We’re not saying transportation is the super bullet to solve all of the issues, but it can be a key factor in what we’re planning for,” Castrodad said.
Transportation officials are expected to return to the different communities in early 2016 with different transit options and the feasibility and costs that accompany them.
Some expansions would require road expansions or agreements with companies like CSX, which already uses most existing rail lines in Middle Tennessee.
Those solutions, said former Murfreesboro Mayor Tommy Bragg, will likely start with improvements to existing transit systems.
“Initially, we have to develop the systems that we have to make it more rideable,” Bragg, now the chair of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, said. “That includes RTA and MTA.”
Castrodad also outlined the issues that existing RTA bus riders believe should be improved, including expanded service and schedules, quicker express line trips and more convenient parking lots near bus stops. Three RTA express lines move through La Vergne, Smyrna and Murfreesboro on weekdays.
After the presentation, people made points and asked questions about the transportation status quo. Many centered on trying to manage the Interstate 24 corridor that swarms with commuter traffic many weekdays.
Jared Barrett, a Murfreesboro City School Board member who commutes to his job near Nashville International Airport, said mass-transit solutions would have to go beyond the region’s main roadways to be effective for many.
“I would be fine with using transit, but it’s that last mile getting home and that first mile getting there,” Barrett said after the meeting.
When asked if there was a timeline of when Middle Tennessee roads would reach a “gridlock” stage where additional cars could not fit onto current roads, Castrodad gave a warning without an exact date.
“It’s going to be sooner than we think, given the growth we’re experiencing,” he said.
While transportation officials are still examining possible solutions, local and regional leaders believe this is the moment when changes could start.
“We hope this is a really good point to get some real traction and get some real changes made,” said Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess at the meeting.