For Nashville, is bus rapid transit ideal or idealistic?

The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee)
June 10, 2012 Sunday

By Bobby Allyn 

Mayor Karl Dean hopes that in three years Nashville travelers will course down congested West End Avenue, through downtown and across the Cumberland River on a sophisticated $175 million bus network unlike anything the city has seen.

Hybrid buses will arrive every 10 minutes at stations a half-mile apart. They will glide through intersections in bus-only lanes, which will be coordinated with traffic signals.

Travelers board at passenger shelters built in the middle of the roadway, prepay fares at stations and load on the bus from multiple wide doors. The system is designed to save time.

But in a city that has long neglected public mass transit in favor of interstate highways, critics wonder if the project will be a hard sell to commuters who may prefer to drive their own cars rather than ride express buses.

Dean is already practicing his sales pitch and planning public meetings for later this summer to argue for mass transit as a crucial step the city must take to create jobs, trigger economic development and turn Nashville into a more livable city.

Yet detractors question whether enough people will pay to ride the system no matter how modern and fast it turns out to be.

Cities such as Chicago and Charlotte are in advanced planning stages for bus rapid transit – known as BRT for short – and others are already operating. In Cleveland, Ohio, a rapid bus network has reportedly spurred more than $4 billion in economic development along the route.

In Orlando, Fla., daily ridership is expected to climb 15 percent by next year to nearly 5,000 riders a day. Nashville transit planners foresee Nashville’s BRT drawing about 4,500 riders a day initially and expanding to 7,500 daily riders after 20 years.

Today, city planners are working through the second of three phases of an estimated $175 million bus route to link East Nashville’s Five Points neighborhood with West Nashville’s White Bridge Road. The bus-only lanes (one heading east, one west) will run along an eight-mile route dotted with boarding stations.

During a trip last month to study rapid transit in Eugene, Ore., the mayor said he envisions Nashville as more of a “one-car family” town that gives residents commuting choices, later adding: “I’m not satisfied with where we are on (mass) transit. This is our chance to do something big, do something important.”

Is Nashville ready?

Developing a BRT corridor would be “a paradigm shift” for Nashville, said Michael Skipper, who heads the Nashville Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Local bus ridership among all routes in Nashville grew almost 7 percent in the past year, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s latest numbers, which translates into roughly 25,000 passenger trips a day, mostly commuters going to and from work.

Planners say Nashville’s proposed BRT line – which is expected to cost the same as regular bus service, or about $1.70 per trip – is supposed to ferry some first-time riders, including students, tourists and suburban dwellers, in addition to people who already use a city bus.

Exactly how many new customers will ride is unclear.

“We don’t have any examples of what mass transit can be beyond regular bus service,” Skipper said. “This first corridor will show what mass transit can do to support community development.”

Tom Schwetz, a Eugene planner, said Nashville can benefit from the fact that several other cities have shown BRT to be a worthwhile investment. Still, there can be steep hurdles.

“If the negative gets to a place where it’s controlling the narrative, you guys are going to have a hard time keeping your timeline,” he said.

How to fund it

Starting next month, transportation planners will begin public meetings to take its BRT message to business owners and the community along the corridor. Questions about the project’s cost are expected to emerge.

One pivotal source of funding is a $68 million federal grant city leaders hope to land after applying for it this fall. A decision on whether it’s secured will be made by year’s end, officials say. That would leave $107 million – or about 60 percent of the cost – to be publicly financed.

The mayor’s office has been tight-lipped about how it intends to raise money for the city’s share, although some hints have surfaced, and Dean calls one idea a “very strong candidate.”

It involves the city subsidizing the project with property taxes to be raised by creating a special taxing district along the bus route. The city would issue bonds to pay for its $100 million-plus portion and pay off the debt over several years.

Money to retire the bonds would come from increased property tax revenue as more shops, apartments and offices are drawn to the bus corridor because of the BRT line’s presumed popularity with residents, visitors and commuters.

To encourage new investment in the taxing district, the city will pour about $40 million into streetscape improvements to make the environment around the bus line more attractive for riders, homeowners and shoppers.

“It’s not a zero financial risk to the city. But I am absolutely convinced that ridership on BRT, when it opens, will surprise everybody,” said Ed Cole of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee.

Funding possibilities have drawn mixed reviews, though one Metro Council member said the city could have found money for a mass project years ago.

Councilman Jason Holleman, a transit supporter, said part of the reason he opposed building the Music City Center, which will cost more than three times the amount of the BRT corridor, was that he wanted the tourism-related sales tax dollars that are paying for the $585 million convention center to instead go for improved public transportation.

“If you look at economic models, the rate of return on mass transit is typically significantly higher than the rate of return on things like convention centers,” Holleman argues.

Others remain skeptical that there is any way the city can come up with more than $100 million in the near future.

But transit advocates argue the historic low interest rates in the U.S. bond market make it an opportune time for the city to take on debt for this project. Still, neither the city nor the Metropolitan Transit Authority has committed any money to the project.

Just one piece of a larger puzzle

Nashville already has conventional bus lines, as well as routes along Gallatin Pike – and soon Murfreesboro Pike – that look similar to bus rapid transit, with passenger shelters and other modern features.

But the new rapid east-west connector is being hailed as the first true mass transit initiative in the state.

In Middle Tennessee, it could help support a population expected to grow to 2.6 million over the next two decades.

The project also represents a piece of a much larger transit puzzle that area planners say will represent a $6 billion investment in regional transportation across 10 counties over the next 25 years.

But will the city’s early steps win the favor of riders?

According to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which published a national study about bus rapid transit last year, some members of the public remain skeptical about riding buses, seeing them as “dirty, slow and for people who cannot afford a car.”

Buses will be “difficult to sell, to put it mildly,” said Malcolm Getz, an urban economist at Vanderbilt University. “Once concrete gets poured, we will be stuck with it for a long time no matter how badly it performs.”

Even so, Brittany Lafferty, 24, who works at a downtown law office, counts herself among BRT fans. With parking scarce and traffic generally clogged at lunch time, Lafferty’s midday dining options are limited to within walking distance of her office.

If there was a BRT line, however, Lafferty says she’d ride several times a week to eateries in the Gulch or Hillsboro Village.

Another enthusiast is James Rickman, 41, who moved to Nashville from Seattle. He says the city sorely needs mass transit.

“It seems like people here are scared of buses,” said Rickman, who lives in West End and often rides the bus to Tennessee Titans football games or to Lower Broadway. “I’d use it every day.”

And on the east side of the Cumberland River, business owners such as Matt Charette, who runs local food and beer purveyors Batter’d and Fried, Beyond the Edge, Drifters and Watanabe, said the bus corridor could lend a measurable boost to business.

“It would give tourists and office people easy access,” Charette said. “Right now, we’re 10 blocks from downtown, but we might as well be in a different world. Mass transit would be a big win.”

And officials at Baptist and Saint Thomas hospitals, both of which are on or near the proposed corridor, are eagerly awaiting BRT. They hope it gives employees, hospital patients and visitors better access.

“For those who currently commute into our hospitals via car, this could be another option that would cut down on the cost of gas and time wasted in traffic,” said Kristi Gooden, a spokeswoman at Saint Thomas Health.

But Clarksville, Tenn., resident Ellen Crowson, 54, who travels to Nashville a few times a month, said the new buses wouldn’t add convenience to her life.

“I come to town for specific purposes,” Crowson said. “How would this help people who don’t live in Nashville?”

How big is the need?

Along the already-jammed corridor of Broadway and West End, traffic is projected to double over the next two decades, adding at least eight minutes to the average commute time, according to the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Whether BRT will alleviate gridlock traffic is debatable.

The BRT plan may remove a travel lane along the bus corridor. The project also may eliminate some curbside parking and reduce lane widths across entire streets. Some argue that such moves would only worsen traffic.

Every motorist wants to untangle Nashville’s traffic knots, but some observers are not convinced BRT is the answer.

Some studies examining whether BRT lessened traffic congestion in other cities showed a positive impact, but at other times, the evidence was inconclusive.

In Los Angeles, traffic flow during morning peak hours improved roughly 7 percent and congestion started 11 minutes later on U.S. 101 after BRT’s first year of service there, according to a 2005 study by the Breakthrough Technologies Institute, based in Washington, D.C.

Rapid buses will not cure all traffic congestion, said transit consultant Jarrett Walker, although they could shorten commuting times for many residents if more people give up driving cars to use the bus system.

In the Breakthrough Institute survey, most BRT riders in Los Angeles said they had taken buses before that rapid transit system started.

And about one in five said they had switched to the bus from driving their own car.

Nashville planners hope for a similar result.

“If we only invest in networks that cars can drive on, we’re not going to get any cars off the road,” said Jim McAteer, MTA’s planning director. “If we don’t do anything, it’s not going to get any better.”

Who rides; how many?

Ridership levels, which were analyzed in a 2011 study by the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, rose significantly in every city the group examined with a BRT network.

Notably, Eugene’s ridership had jumped almost 75 percent since 2007, and Cleveland’s ridership grew 60 percent from 2008.

In Nashville, there are about 25,000 residents living along the proposed bus corridor and about 170,000 employees working in the area. Over 20 years, the percentage of people working along the corridor is projected to increase 10 percent and the residential count may spike by almost 25 percent, a planning study suggests.

Although some parts of the corridor – in particular, along West End and Broadway – are already heavily commercialized, the mayor’s office hopes nearly $40 million in streetscape improvements on top of zoning changes to allow more density will spur additional growth.

Other cities with BRT have seen promising economic results.

In Boston, for instance, the Silver Line that opened in 2004 triggered $250 million in new construction, $93 million in renovations and 1,700 new or rehabbed housing units, according to a 2010 study by the New York consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.

And Los Angeles has seen 438 new apartments, 200 condos and 60,000 square feet of new retail space open up near BRT stations since 2005, according to Parsons.

Since Cleveland’s HealthLine launched in 2008, about $4.3 billion has been invested along that route, according to project planners.

Among the gains were Cleveland Clinic’s $868 million worth of projects, including a major heart center; a $560 million redevelopment of the University Hospital’s Case Medical Center; and the Cleveland Museum of Art’s $258 million expansion.

Companies seek ease for workers

Mayor Dean said other cities have taught Nashville planners that “areas surrounding transit stations often become desirable locations for companies seeking an easy commute for their workers and for businesses that thrive on a regular influx of visitors and customers.”

Dean hopes BRT will fuel residential living above commercial businesses, spark new restaurants and attract hotels and retail. All the new business is expected to be triggered by bolstered foot traffic and new employees moving to Nashville.

Middle Tennessee developers say an improved mass transit system is one cornerstone of becoming a modern city that can attract talented residents from major metropolitan areas around the country.

“All the generations that follow the current one are going to be moving from cities that already have mass transit. In order to compete, our dense corridors are going to need mass transit,” said Walker Mathews of R.C. Mathews Contractor. “It’s not going to be an automatic switch, but it will eventually spur more development.”

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