“We lag far behind,” one Nashvillian wrote.
The author then rattled off a list of cities: Austin, Kansas City, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Cleveland, Tampa, St. Louis, Seattle, Eugene, Portland.
“Must address congestion now!”
That was one sticky note pegged to a grease board map of one of the three transit scenarios unveiled by Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and Regional Transportation Authority officials earlier this year.
Another was more direct: “We need light rail.”
On Friday, local transit officials kicked off their latest wave of public engagement for a new regional plan aimed at mitigating mounting traffic congestion in Greater Nashville. I dropped in to one lunch-hour meeting at downtown’s public library, where residents had the chance to tell officials what they liked (and didn’t like) about the three scenarios, which range from full-fledged multi-billion dollar investments in light rail to more modest improvements to the existing network of buses.
As we’ve reported, the region’s surging population totals have triggered an astounding leap in vehicles on the region’s highways. Congestion is the cost of Nashville’s recent economic boom — and arguably the biggest threat to the region’s continued momentum. For employers, there’s the lost economic output from congestion. But perhaps most importantly, there are the intangible costs of lost opportunities for recruitment of new businesses and workers to the region.
The last transit project Metro attempted — West End Avenue’s Amp bus rapid-transit project — failed largely because stakeholders along the route, both businesses and residents, loudly voiced their concerns with the transit line.
We’re still a long way from MTA pitching another project such as the Amp. And MTA chief Steve Bland has cautioned those in attendance Friday that future projects “will be fraught with controversy.” Bland reiterated a point we’ve explored in depth: Transit alone won’t rid the region of its traffic congestion, especially with the population growth forecasted for the region.
“Your commute today … is as good as it’s going to get for the foreseeable future,” Bland said. “If all we do is shave 10 minutes off your commute, we’ve fallen far short of our goal.”
Felix Castrodad, MTA’s director of planning, added that “having some good transit lines won’t make congestion go away,” pointing to Metro regions like Washington, D.C., and others that have significant transit networks, but also incredibly congested highways. An unscientific NBJ poll shows that more thanseven out of 10 respondents favor investing in mass transit, even if it doesn’t cure congestion woes.
Generally speaking, it appeared that many of the nearly 100 residents in attendance Friday were in favor of making moderate to major investments to improve the region’s transit network (which MTA last year noted was lagging considerably to the needs of Nashville’s expanding population). It appears many favor the all-in approach outlined in MTA’s first scenario, or some middle ground between that proposal and the bus-focused expansion presented in scenario two.
To be sure, this is just a snapshot of folks in downtown, but it’s worth taking stock of the mood of the room given the way the Amp spiraled into such a contentious debate.
Several in attendance did raise concerns about the costs of MTA’s most capital intensive project — which is ball parked at costing about $5.5 billion to build in the next 25 years. A couple of residents said they favored making investments in less costly transit projects (bus rapid-transit instead of light rail, for instance).
Additionally, it appears that MTA and RTA will need to make considerable improvements in last-mile connections. Bland said his office has repeatedly gotten input over safety concerns — mainly, residents don’t feel safe getting to bus stops because there’s currently a lack of sidewalks and it’s difficult to access existing service.
Such a view popped up Friday, with several residents saying they worry about being “hit by cars just getting to a bus stop.”