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VOL. 41 | NO. 50 | Friday, December 15, 2017

Stuck in the Middle: Midstate drivers see hope in $5.4B proposal

By Hollie Deese

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Wendy Lloyd is frustrated. After 17 years of commuting into Nashville from Smyrna for her Vanderbilt University Medical Center nursing job, she is ready to get out of her car – at least for the extra hours she spends on I-24.

Her 25-mile commute used to take 30 minutes, she says, but can now range anywhere from 45 minutes to 2.5 hours. Going home is the same story, even if she leaves early.

“The HOV lane, that, it’s not even an HOV lane anymore,” Lloyd says. “It’s just a lane that’s needed because there’s so much traffic.”

Lloyd never imagined she’d want to take public transportation, especially when her daughter was young, but she’s 17 now, so mom is open to the idea. But when Lloyd sees the bus from Murfreesboro stuck in the same traffic she’s in, she wonders what the point would even be.

She has stopped getting her hopes up about any proposed transit plan since nothing seems to go anywhere.

For Lloyd, as both a nurse and a mother, the increasing traffic is a worsening safety issue. She is concerned about emergency vehicles unable to reach patients, possibly even resulting in a death. She worries about the danger of driving down the side of the road. She has also seen her fair share of accidents while commuting.

“I hope for my daughter’s sake that when she has to drive to Nashville for jobs after school, that it’s not the same,” Lloyd adds. “It’s just such a hazard. I don’t know anybody that has commuted on I-24 that has not been rear-ended. I’ve been rear-ended twice.”

The solution is expensive.

The transit referendum Mayor Megan Barry announced, which would be voted on in May, would fund transit expansion via four tax increases to last through 2068.

Those taxes consist of:

-- A sales tax surcharge of .5 percent for the first five years, increasing to 1 percent in 2023

-- A hotel/motel tax surcharge of .25 percent for the first five years, increasing to 0.375 percent in 2023

-- A 20 percent surcharge on the business/excise tax; and a 20 percent surcharge on the rental car tax.

The capital cost of the program is estimated to have a present-day value of $5.354 billion, with recurring operations and maintenance costs having a value of $99.5 million the year the improvements are completed.

Non-residents would contribute to the transit plan anytime they pay sales tax on purchases in Davidson County, stay at a hotel or rent a car.

Data driving the project

In October, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce released its annual Vital Signs report, which includes information on health, mobility, economy, education, population and affordability.

In 2017, 78 percent of the respondents representing the region’s population said they experience more traffic now than one year ago, up from 62 percent the previous year.

And even though data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau reports the average travel time to work increased to 24.3 minutes per day in 2016 from 23.3 minutes per day in 2011, you can’t convince the road warriors like Lloyd who are in the traffic trenches every day.

Or maybe it’s just that extra minute that makes all the difference – after all, a minute or two can sometimes determine whether you will get through traffic, or get stuck. Because a big part of the problem for drivers is not just the length of the commute, but the unpredictability of it.

“Five minutes can make a huge difference, it just totally depends on when you leave,” Lloyd points out.

Steve Bland, the chief executive officer of the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Regional Transportation Authority, says the agencies can appeal to single-occupant drivers such as Lloyd and cites the Music City Star as an example: It is not as fast as a free-flowing I-40, but it will get workers into Nashville at the same time every day, no matter what.

He adds MTA is actually working with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, among other partners, on providing an I-24 smart corridor initiative, looking at options to improve the reliability of an I-24 commute, short of spending two billion dollars to add four lanes.

That includes everything from intelligent transportation systems, to mass transit, to smart messaging.

“If you want to see a happy group of people, you go over to Riverfront Station in the morning when the Music City Star is arriving when you’ve heard there’s been an accident on I-40, or there’s bad weather,” Bland explains.

“People are getting off that train, and they’re laughing. Because, not only did they get to work, they feel like they pulled something over on their neighbor.”

So, what’s the plan?

In October Mayor Megan Barry put forth Let’s Move Nashville, a $5.4 billion mass transit and infrastructure investment proposal to be funded by a range of fees, including business, sales and tourism taxes. The plan originated after many years of study and community engagements through the nMotion strategic plan, led by MTA and RTA, including coordination at the state and local level.

The plan includes 28.4 miles of Nashville’s first-ever light rail system, four rapid bus routes, a dramatic increase in the service and frequency of the bus system, and a strategy of service and infrastructure improvements.

After the nMotion process of public input, three parallel scenarios about where to go with transit were put out to the public – a business-as-usual plan, a modest-improvements-over-time plan and the adopted aspirational plan, Let’s Move Nashville.

“People overwhelmingly selected the aspirational plan,” Bland says. “And the recurring comment through that was, ‘Look, it’s going to cost us a lot no matter what to address these issues, so we should spend enough to have meaningful impact.’”

The plan includes just about every option available for getting around Davidson County, including rapid-bus service along West End Avenue, Dickerson Pike, Hillsboro Road and Bordeaux. Instead of dedicated bus lanes (except during peak times), there would instead be options like line jumps for buses and signal prioritization. Existing bus service would be upgraded with new electric buses and more routes and expanded hours.

The implementation of light rail would begin along Gallatin Pike, Nolensville Pike, Charlotte Avenue and Murfreesboro Pike, with a line to the airport. An underground tunnel would run north-south from Music City Central to SoBro for downtown use. More than two dozen transit centers would be constructed in the area for easy transfers, and there would be areas for bike- and car-share programs.

The Music City Star is also looking at expanded hours and updated coach cars.

Barry says there are a still few misconceptions about the proposed plan, starting with the idea we shouldn’t do anything at all while we wait for technology to shift.

“This plan allows for technology,” she points out. “In fact, it actually includes components right now for autonomous vehicles. But, they’re not going to solve our transit problems.”

She says that while recent MTA ridership numbers are down it’s because it has been unreliable for riders in the past. She says she doesn’t think Nashville can wait for all of the proposed newcomers to get here before a more robust transit system will become useful.

“The reality is, we’re growing, we’re going to be dense,” Barry adds. “We’d sure hate to be dense without a transit.”

Worth the cost?

With a price tag in the billions and a timeline of completion decades away, it might be hard to convince voters to increases for taxes, including the sales tax in May, to pay for it.

“I was at the Mayors Caucus (a coalition of regional mayors advocating for mass-transit funding) two days ago, and we were talking about the fact that 10 years ago at the Mayors Caucus, we were sitting around the table just talking about it,” Barry says of mass transit for Nashville. “Now, we’re at a point where we can actually take action. I don’t want to be sitting around a table in 10 years talking about it again, with no action.”

Drivers like Lloyd are ready to pay additional taxes to get a transit plan in place, even with such an extensive timeline of completion and usability. While she isn’t willing to move from Smyrna, she says she is willing to take a pay cut for a job closer to home that gets her off of I-24 every morning, within reason.

“We have to do something to make things better,” Lloyd adds. “We have to make a move. Doing nothing is crazy to me. We’re getting more and more businesses and more and more people. I think that the businesses should pay for it in some roundabout way, but regardless, we have to do something. We’re behind.”

Bland says the area is programed to pay $8.5 billion in our region over the next 25 years just to keep the current system we have in place, including upkeep of roads, various bridges and current mass transit.

It is natural to focus on the dollar signs, Bland adds, especially on the big public works projects part of the plan. But he also encourages people to look at the nitty gritty, too, and how the plan has factored in autonomous vehicles, ride share services, parking and improved pedestrian infrastructure for walking and biking.

Earlier this week, Mayor Barry announced the filing of the ordinance necessary to place Metro’s transit improvement program on the May 1 ballot, one of probably hundreds of council actions before the project is complete. But that doesn’t mean everything about the plan is set in stone.

“I think there’s a misconception that once this thing is approved in May, there’s going to be no opportunity to adjust,” Bland says. “When the funding source is approved, then we’ll actually go into the very detailed plans. There’s still a huge amount of elements for there to be extensive neighborhood collaboration, and public input.”

Regional connectivity

What is being proposed now lays the groundwork for communities outside the area to connect to Nashville, eventually. But this first part needs to be approved and funded first, and it could be a hard tax plan to swallow for a project that will take 15 years, especially for those outside the Davidson core.

“I don’t think there’s a transit system anywhere that isn’t subsidized by the taxpayers,” Gallatin Mayor Paige Brown says. “Is that important enough to our residents, that they’re willing to supplement a transit system, even if they’ll never use it, so that they can drive their car more freely?”

This first piece of the puzzle is needed, Lloyd says, because as it is now, even if you take the bus into the city, there is no easy, reliable way to get around once you are there.

“It’s going to connect all the dots that we need connected,” Lloyd adds. “This mass transit is good for the city because so many more people could come in on weekends for shopping and events. I think it’s only good for the Nashville area.”

Mayor Barry says the intention is that all of this will grow over time, and have the ability to connect on down into on these corridors, especially down into the surrounding counties. “But, Nashville has to go first, and lead on that,” Barry acknowledges. “And then I believe our surrounding counties will also help us meet that, and that’s going to be important.”

Barry says the Mayors Caucus was in support of the Improve Act that gave surrounding counties, and Davidson County, the opportunity to go to the voters.

“Yes, this is specifically for Davidson County and Nashville, but it’s basically building from the center out, the regional plan that was represented in nMotion on a 10-county level, and that you’ve got a significant amount of interest in most of the outer counties in tying into that system, including Sumner County,” Bland says.

Gallatin’s Brown worries by the time funding is in place the technology is going to shift significantly and wonders if light rail will even still be relevant. It puts regional communities in a wait-and-see mode while Metro Nashville builds up the city’s inner transit for other cities to eventually connect into.

“Right now, connectivity to Nashville is meaningless, because when you get there, how do you get around?” Brown asks. “Once they get that inner connectivity plan happening, then I think Sumner County will start to look at how to connect to Nashville.”

That is why it is important to her that there be a dedicated route for commuters now, though there are currently more people coming into Gallatin to work every day, 17,745, than are leaving, 10,384.

“Some people are still very put off by the idea of public transit,” Brown says. “I love that ultimately it’s going to come to the citizens to make a decision as to whether or not they want it or they don’t. Because, I hear frequently, people begging for it, and people vehemently against it.

“They’ll have an opportunity to state what they want, and we’ll either, at some point, raise funds to be able to build some connector to those lines, or our citizens will choose not to do that.”

Brown adds she does hear more ‘for’ than ‘against,’ but the ‘against’ crowd may not be very vocal yet because they haven’t felt a plan is imminent. For now, Gallatin is focusing on their own, local transit projects like the upper Gallatin extension that will connect to Long Hollow Pike, creating a Northern bypass in the city.

“We’re starting to look at some other connectors that will all make sense,” Brown explains. “I think Gallatin has a fairly good traffic system, and plans for improvements to our traffic system as time goes by. You don’t get stuck in Gallatin a lot. You can always go around some other way, if you need to. People before us planned well, and for that we have benefited.”

Charlotte’s expansion

When the transit plan was first announced, light rail on Charlotte Avenue ended at I-440 near 31st Avenue, The Nations and Sylvan Park, areas many people felt really needed that new transit option. So just before Thanksgiving, Mayor Barry announced that the rail would be extended to White Bridge Avenue, providing greater coverage for the West Nashville community.

“What we also then have the ability to do is, to create housing along those transit lines, and those corridors, because that’s the other piece,” Barry says. “Transit and housing.”

Charlotte is one of the most densely developed corridors of the five light-rail routes, with the largest concentration of jobs per acre and mixed-use developments west of I-440 that can be effectively served by reliable transit. With this addition, the Charlotte corridor will have 5.2 miles of rail at a total cost of just under $700 million.

Resources for the additional segment of the Charlotte corridor were identified during further reviews of the financing plan being prepared for an independent audit, the mayor’s office said in a press release. Sales taxes generated at certain facilities such as the Music City Center and First Tennessee Park are currently redirected towards the bonds on those facilities.

Initial revenue forecasts were based on local option sales taxes that are used for the operating budget, and therefore did not account for surcharges that would be generated at those facilities. When recalculated with those facilities and areas currently utilizing a sales tax redirect, additional funds were realized in the financing plan that would allow for the expansion of the transit network.

Phase One of the I-440 Greenway is under construction from West End to Centennial Park, and it will eventually cross Charlotte to connect with Tennessee State University’s campus. Along with other transit-supportive infrastructure such as the “complete street’’ on 51st Avenue [a way to support growth] and the 28th/31st Avenue Connector, the 440 Greenway is envisioned as a major first- and last-mile bike and pedestrian connection to high-capacity transit.

What it means for business

Barry says it doesn’t matter if Amazon chooses to bring its second headquarters to Nashville – the company is planning to spend $5 billion and create 50,000 jobs somewhere in the U.S. – the city needs to figure out how to get the people currently living and working here a better option.

“If Amazon were to come here, which would be great, Amazon is going to be looking for a place that is either committed to building a transit, or is on their way to transit,” Barry explains. “We have to be on that transit component, and that’s our focus at the moment, making sure that Nashvillians can get around.”

But you don’t have to be Amazon to be concerned about what the new transit plan will bring.

Amanda Micheletto-Blouin is the manager of Jerry’s Artarama, which recently moved to East Nashville from Antioch after 10 years in business to be closer to the artistic community that is services.

In general, she thinks the proposed light rail that would run in front of her business is a good thing, but she is concerned what will happen to some of the 20 spots she currently has for parking after she learned losing some of them might be a possibility – if the plan is to widen the road to accommodate a center-lane rail system.

“It would benefit a lot of people to not have to drive into town and fight that traffic,” Micheletto-Blouin, a Mt. Juliet native, adds. “But I think it would impact my business. And when we signed the lease here, we didn’t know about this transit going in. But I just think that something has to happen in Nashville. The influx of people has been tremendous in the last five years.”

Mayor Barry agrees and is very clear that there is no alternative when it comes to the need to pass this transit plan in May.

“This is the plan,” Barry says. “The plan is an ambitious, bold plan based on all of the input that Davidson County, and Nashvillian residents, have provided through nMotion, and different outlets. What this does, is it actually backs up how we said we want to grow, which is density along these corridors and pikes, so that we can keep the density out of neighborhoods.

“We have so much traffic at the moment, and if we don’t get our arms around this, it’s not going to get better.”

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