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VOL. 35 | NO. 18 | Friday, May 6, 2011

West End to Five Points

Is city ready to embrace streetcar, light rail line connecting West, East Nashville via downtown?

By Judy Sarles

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A study is on a fast track to have rapid transit in place within five years along the Broadway/West End Corridor, an eight-mile route from Five Points in East Nashville to the Harding Town Center in the traffic-congested Harding Road/White Bridge Road area.

Parsons Brinckerhoff, a planning and engineering firm, has been hired by the Metropolitan Transit Authority to conduct the study, which seeks to find alternatives to private vehicles in getting people to workplaces and businesses that line the corridor.

Transit suggestions for the corridor include modern urban street cars, light rail or buses. Bike lanes and wide sidewalks to encourage walking have also been recommended as part of the transportation mix.

“Our charge really from the MTA is not just basically doing a planning study but looking at being able to really get something built and implementing it,” says Lynn Purnell, senior supervising planner at Parsons Brinckerhoff, who spoke during a recent corridor workshop.

The total cost of the study is roughly $1.6 million, funded by a competitive federal matching grant (80 percent of the cost) and local tax dollars.

Jim McAteer, MTA’s director of planning, says he isn’t worried possible federal cutbacks might derail the project. Right now the focus is on the study, he says, looking at how the corridor might look. Once completed, the study should help position Nashville to receive additional federal funding to complete the project. But MTA is examining the option of turning to local and private funding if federal dollars fall through.

Mayor Karl Dean is a vocal supporter of transportation alternatives for the Middle Tennessee region, stating mass transit is tied to economic development, tourism and job growth, all of which are essential for Nashville’s continued success as a city.

“We have a lot of strong leadership right now from the mayor and the current administration, as well as the council in support of transit in general,” McAteer says, “and we look for that to continue as we move forward with successful projects and as gas prices increase and as more people realize the benefits of riding transit in terms of not only creating jobs but just being more green.”

Among the study’s objectives is to connect the corridor’s transit, walking, biking and vehicle options with regional services, including the Music City Star commuter rail, which operates from Lebanon to downtown Nashville.

Through workshops, information stations, design charettes, and other methods, MTA and Parsons Brinckerhoff are seeking input from the public on transportation, development, and land-use ideas for the corridor. A website (broadwaywestendstudy.com) and Facebook and Twitter profiles provide information about the study.

“We’re really trying to identify the positive and negative aspects of the current transportation system along Broadway and West End,” Purnell says.

The study will look at accommodating existing growth without creating more traffic congestion. The corridor is home to a huge residential population, and the study is in search of ways to improve the corridor’s livability.

In 2006, there were more than 25,000 people living along the route. The study also encompasses a half-mile stretch beyond the corridor and seeks ways to link the corridor with The Gulch, Music Row, and the city’s health care districts.

Work on the study began in early February. As the work progresses, additional public meetings will be held. Most of the study’s work will be completed by October, and the study is expected to wrap up by the end of the year.

Without a completed study, McAteer cannot offer an estimate of how much the corridor project will cost nor conjecture where the funds will come from to sustain the corridor’s mass transit operations.

The construction cost of mass transit projects across the country has varied. Many projects, including the proposed Broadway/West End Corridor project, contain several other development aspects besides mass transportation, so pinpointing a cost is difficult.

To get an idea of costs, projects in Portland, Ore., and Phoenix might serve as examples. Portland’s 4.6-mile, Phase I street car loop line, which opened in 2001, included seven modern street cars and was constructed for about $12.9 million per track mile, according to Portland’s Bureau of Transportation. The Light Rail Now Project reports that Phoenix’s 20-mile, light rail starter line, which opened in 2008, cost $1.4 billion.

Helen Curnutte, who lives in the West End area and attended a recent workshop, is concerned that the study’s recommendations may increase the amount of traffic going through her neighborhood, but she favors any methods that can solve the traffic congestion along the corridor, especially at the Harding Road/White Bridge Road intersection, which she calls a nightmare.

“If you try to get out on West End at 3 o’clock in the afternoon up through 7, just forget it,” Curnutte says. “You’re not going anywhere. By the time you get the schools cleared out, it’s rush hour.”

Bob Duthie, another West End area neighbor, has lived in Nashville since 1984 but grew up in Toronto where public transportation, including buses and a subway, is the norm. Duthie has an office on West End, but getting to it is a traffic headache for him when driving there from his home.

“It can now take 15 minutes to get to work and it’s less than a mile,” Duthie says. “You can walk it as quick, but you can’t count on the weather. It’s noticeably worse year after year.”

Although the mayor’s office announced in January that there are plans to meet with area businesses to discuss the Broadway/West End Corridor project, it seems business people along West End are currently unaware of the project and how it will affect their businesses.

Kyle Elias, co-owner of Scarlet Begonia, which has been on West End for 29 years, says she knows nothing about the project. She didn’t feel qualified to comment on it without doing some research and giving it some thought.

Doug Hogrefe, owner of Amerigo, a West End restaurant, says he hasn’t heard about the project, but he’s in favor of anything to make it easier for people to be less dependent on their cars. He would prefer light rail along the interstates than along the Broadway/West End Corridor because, in his opinion, there is no rational way West End could be closed for an alternative transportation construction project.

“I’m in favor of anything involving mass transit, especially rail,” Hogrefe says. “However, I don’t see how they could possibly get in a position where they would be closing West End or taking it down to one or two lanes for an extended period of time. It’s basically the main artery for the west side of town.”

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