Metro consultants and Metro Transit Authority CEO Steve Bland unveiled a trio of transit scenario alternatives Thursday, ranging from a comprehensive regional plan filled with light rail and streetcars to a less cost-intensive proposal to make “modest improvements” to the city’s existing bus network.
The most ambitious of the three plans, roughly estimated to cost approximately $5.4 billion to build over the next 25 years, suggests a slate of transit investments — varying from the aforementioned light rail (along possible corridors like Charlotte Avenue, Nolensville Pike, Murfreesboro Road and Gallatin Pike) and possible streetcar routes on West End Avenue as well as north into Germantown.
Alongside those possible light rail and streetcar lines, this scenario (pictured with this story) also calls for a commuter rail from Clarksville and express bus service along the increasingly congested I-65 and I-24 interstates running south to Franklin and Murfreesboro, respectively. It would also introduce 11 new crosstown bus routes in Davidson County. The estimated operating costs for such a plan would be more than $310 million annually, or nearly four times MTA and RTA’s current operating costs this fiscal year ($83.2 million). Bland, the head of Nashville’s MTA and Regional Transit Authority of Middle Tennessee, projected the comprehensive system, with all of its bells and whistles, would boost regional ridership five to six times current levels.
The third option essentially looks at making MTA’s existing service more robust, by adding more service with greater frequency across the region. Such a move wouldn’t have as great of a shift of drivers to transit than the other two proposals, Bland said. Ultimately, all three proposals call for establishing transit hubs throughout Davidson County to provide connections for the myriad of services.
The draft scenarios are the culmination of nearly a year of public dialogue and outreach initiated by Bland and MTA after he pulled the plug on the contentious Amp bus rapid-transit project last January. Now, Bland and MTA will go back to soliciting the public over the next several months. The goal is to have a recommendation for MTA’s board by late spring, early summer of this year, Bland said.
Nashville’s considerable influx of residents has resulted in a surge of traffic counts on the region’s roads, particularly the interstate system south of Davidson County, as we reported last summer. Mounting traffic congestion stands to threaten a critical piece in Nashville employers’ “lower-cost-of-living” pitch to employees — not to mention economic development efforts to lure new corporate relocations and businesses to the area. Developing a transit alternative has jumped to the forefront as a key issue for the business community as a way to ensure employees can get to work in a timely fashion and make sure companies can ship products on the interstate without costly delays. However, it is worth noting that transit officials and regional planners see transit as a way to allow Greater Nashville’s economy to continue to grow in spite of heavy traffic volumes, not as a silver bullet to rid us of congestion headaches entirely.
When talking with reporters Thursday, Bland sounded partial to a bolder, more comprehensive plan — akin to the first scenario he and Nelson\Nygaard consultants presented to the MTA’s board Thursday.
“I honestly think Nashville is at the point where we need to as a region say, ‘We need to bite the bullet and make some investments in our infrastructure so we can continue to support growth,’” Bland said. “One common theme [MTA has heard from the public] is we don’t want to become Atlanta and we don’t want to be tied up in our own traffic. The honest truth is if we don’t do something significant with our mobility infrastructure, we will become Atlanta at a much lower population threshold.”
However, Bland stressed that these three scenarios are not set in stone — and are very likely to change. He explained that MTA’s final transit recommendations will likely incorporate elements from all three of the plans, rather than a thumbs-up recommendation to do one plan in its totality. (For example, a final recommendation could sub out light rail proposed in one corridor for bus rapid transit or another mode of transit.)
“We’re not asking people to vote for scenario one or scenario two or scenario three,” Bland said, adding that residents should take a “Chinese menu approach” and pick and choose what options they prefer in each.
If Nashville were to move ahead with a comprehensive plan, as envisioned by the first scenario, Bland and consultants said the potentially steep price tag would require dedicated sources of funding, adding that the Nashville more than likely will need to take on debt to finance such large-scale investments.
One notable point, MTA’s mock proposal don’t factor in using CSX’s freight lines for commuter rail traffic. Bland said his agency has had conversations with the railroad, but he has determined it wouldn’t necessarily be a reliable option — due in large part to possible disruptions in regular service due to freight use of the CSX lines.