Regional transportation officials were in Robertson County last week to gain public input on the future of mass transit in the greater Nashville area, which is expected to see a large jump in population over the next 20 years.
During a roughly hour-long presentation, local and state officials heard from several speakers, including Steve Bland, the executive director of the Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee.
“We want to hear from you,” Bland told the audience of about 100 gathered for the meeting. “This is about choices. This is about not forcing anyone to do anything. It’s about providing options for people.”
Together, the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and RTA are undertaking a yearlong, long-term planning effort called nMotion, which will examine the future of mass transit.
To date, they’ve received input from about 6,000 people through the nMotion planning process, currently in its regional forums phase, Bland said. He noted that officials will likely surpass their goal of hearing from 10,000 people before moving onto the next phase of the project, slated to begin early next year.
“We plan on coming back out to region to talk about possibilities,” he said. “The idea is to share with the public. Here’s what we might do and what are your thoughts on it?”
Currently, in Robertson County, the RTA offers a Relax and Ride bus service that runs from Springfield to Nashville four times per day, twice in the mornings and twice in the afternoons. The average ridership is about 80 people per day and that ridership is comprised mostly of state and Vanderbilt University employees, officials have said.
During the budgeting process for the 2016 Fiscal Year, there was discussion in Springfield of cutting funding for the service. County commissioners also have concerns about funding a service for only a few.
“We have 80 people riding right now out of 60,000 people in Robertson County,” Commissioner Bob Hogan said after the presentation. “I thought the program was wonderful and it was a great opportunity for us to hear about the growth that’s going on, but where are the people going to come from to ride the bus. We need help with that. It’s going to be hard for us as a county and as a group of commissioners to substitute the funding for that project, especially when you compare that to educating children. If it comes to buying another bus for them or building a new school, I’m going to choose that.
“Right now, I just don’t think we can afford it.”
In Robertson County, the population is expected to grow by another 40,000 people by the year 2040. The Nashville region as a whole is expected to see an even bigger surge in population, bringing in an additional 1 million people during the same time frame, estimates show.
For Bland, regional discussions have centered on improving the existing bus service to make it more competitive with drive times. In Robertson County, it takes riders about twice as long to reach Nashville than it would if they drove their own vehicles, he said. To that end, RTA is working with the Tennessee Department of Transportation to explore alternatives that would make the bus service faster, like using Interstate medians and shoulders as well as taking buses off interstates in favor of using side streets and roads, he said.
There has also been discussion of adding additional light commuter rail to the RTA system, he said.
“The Music City Star is our flagship … Everybody wishes they had it,” he said of the Wilson County-based service. But, the cost and placement of rail in some areas, like Springfield, isn’t very feasible, he said.
“Most of the railroad in Robertson County is owned by CSX Railroad and used for freight transportation,” he said. “In some areas, there have been successful partnerships between CSX and commuter transportation services, but the rail that runs through Robertson County is one of the busiest in their system.”
Because CSX owns the railroad, they have priority over its use, Bland said. For commuters, that means if a CSX priority train needs to get through Springfield, they could spend some time sitting and waiting for that train to pass, which would mean longer commute times.
Commissioner Steve Haley found the idea of light rail intriguing enough, but paying for it was another matter, he said.
“I’m open to suggestions,” he said. “We need more people to brainstorm on it. Personally, I like the beauty of a bus line, and the fact that you can move it. Once you build light rail, you’re stuck with it. It’s always there. But the trick is making the bus have an advantage over a stalled car.
“It has to have an advantage, otherwise you’re stuck in traffic no matter what, and I would rather be in my own car if I’m going to be stuck in traffic.”
Edison Guthrie agreed.
A nearly lifelong resident of Robertson County, Guthrie, 53, of the Springfield area, is a farmer by trade and doesn’t commute to Nashville regularly, but he does see a growing need for more mass transportation options for those who do, he said.
“If you have ever gone into Nashville in the morning, there’s no way you can’t see the need,” he said. “It makes you think there has to be something else, and the cost of not doing anything may be worse than doing something. But the reality is that most of the options we currently have, like the bus, aren’t used much.
“It’s something we need to think about and address.”