Commuter rail's future: Might be a long wait for the next train

Friday, December 2, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 48
By Joe Morris

Getting from here to there in Middle Tennessee has never been more time-consuming. And there’s no single solution in sight to change that.

The problem is as varied as the communities affected:

Franklin drivers have some of the longest commute-wait times in the nation. To ease that, local officials are working on a rapid-transit plan that involves both light rail and bus lines.

In Gallatin, growing congestion also has spurred investigation into rail and bus lines, with new routes for each being mapped out in a transportation master plan.

But in Wilson County, where light-rail service already exists via the Music City Star, leaders have balked at paying more for the service even as it’s seeing record ridership.

The problem of congested roadways and lengthening commutes has led to a growing chorus of advocates for rapid transit. But even the most gung-ho officials are up against tight budgets and a public that’s wary of any kind of tax increase for such services.

So while baby steps are being taken in the planning and development arenas, anything resembling a cohesive mass-transit strategy for Middle Tennessee is years – if not decades – away.

Light Rail: Reality Check

Part of the problem is perception. For most people, mass or rapid transit has become synonymous with light (commuter) rail. Some argue it’s been tried here with the Music City Star and hasn’t lived up to expectations. And so, they say, there’s not enough interest to continue.

Some, such as professor and author Joel Kotkin, say that augmented van or bus lines that carry people to downtown and other office parks would better – and more economically – serve Middle Tennessee. Light rail backers, Kotkin says, are often real estate speculators who want to develop mixed-use community hubs around stops along new or extended routes. He and others charge that actual need is a secondary consideration for some of these developments, and so they never fully realize their promise.

But whatever its motivation, the Regional Transportation Authority, which operates the Music City Star light rail line as well as commuter-bus service via the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority, has ambitious plans to take rail service further west and northwest, as well as add nonstop commuter bus lines north to Gallatin and Hendersonville and south to Franklin.

And while its operators are quick to say there’s no set timeframe for implementing these plans, early planning is key.

“One out of three Middle Tennessee commuters works outside their home county,” says Michael Skipper, executive director of the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which advocates heavily for mass transit in its 2035 regional plan.

“That number grows to almost one of two when you look at residents outside Davidson County and Montgomery County. Those patterns show why regional coordination is crucial to economic development and the long-term success of individual communities.”

Cost-Effective Solutions Sought

And while the MPO’s plans may be more wish than reality, that hasn’t stopped the organization from laying out some appealing options for municipalities in every direction.

“Local government doesn’t have an unlimited checkbook, but they have to do something to eventually arrive at a final result,” Skipper adds. “In the northeast corridor, they want light rail. We think that track could be laid along Ellington Parkway and Vietnam Veterans to pull that off.

“They could start with managed lanes of buses that could be converted over time. Going northwest, studies show that rail is the right fit for the Nashville-Clarksville corridor. There’s existing rail, so the two largest metro areas in the region probably should be connected that way.”

For Franklin and areas south towards Murfreesboro, Skipper says BRT (bus rapid transit), light rail or a hybrid of the two all are on the table, but much more research needs to be done before the best fit can be identified.

Some communities are willing to look at light rail, but in the meantime they are finding success with high-speed bus service, which utilizes larger buses on a nonstop, two-way route throughout the day and can run on existing interstate and surface roads.

In Gallatin and Hendersonville for example, high-speed bus service connects riders directly with the Music City Central bus depot downtown. The movement is around a master plan.

“A priority issue for the Middle Tennessee Mayors Caucus is to evaluate mass transit and see if we can implement a system,” says Gallatin Mayor Joanne Graves, who also chairs the RTA board of directors.

“Within the Music City Star plans, we have several spokes: East to west, and then southeast to Williamson County, northeast to Gallatin, further west to Dickson and even a corridor going to Clarksville. What we’re doing now is working with the cities to put their coordinates into a land-use plan, identify those corridors and put the stops on a map, as Gallatin has done, and then start planning from there.”

Graves says a Vol State Community College stop is a high priority, but must be factored into a multi-year plan rather than just carved out on its own.

“You can’t talk about the affordability of these plans in just one budget year,” she adds. “A mass-transit system is a multiyear project. There are capital expenses, and there is an operating budget. None of us are operating in a vacuum, and we’ve all got to look at where we want to be over the next 10 to 20 years.

“We have to look at not only what it will take to implement these systems, but also to support them. That’s why we’re now talking about prioritizing routes, looking at traffic flow and making sure we have the resources to support the system’s growth.”

At the other end of the north-south corridor, Franklin is connecting to Nashville via a limited BRT line. It would love more, but Mayor Ken Moore also recognizes the fiscal limitations.

Quoting MPO data that states his city’s wait time in commuter traffic is some of the longest in the country, Moore also points out that this issue will remain front and center when it comes to infrastructure planning for Franklin and Williamson County as both continue to grow rapidly.

“With increased transit options, we can decrease congestion and improve air quality simultaneously,” he says. “New transit options will encourage development of communities that are denser, more walkable and more livable. More transit-oriented developments will start to pop us such as the proposed one in Lebanon and the successful model we see in Portland, Ore.”

While more than half of Franklin’s residents commute to work every day, rail isn’t an option unless new tracks are laid. The Music City Star was launched on existing Nashville & Eastern Railroad lines, and its potential west/northwest expansion would utilize additional already-in tracks.

“We will not be able to tie in with the Music City Star but can learn from their positive and negative experiences to determine how the southern corridor will work,” Moore says. “Rail is not the only option that needs to be explored. As we move toward mass transit, I expect it will be a series of small steps over a number of years until the capacity grows for the service.”

Communities Must Tailor Options

The very nature of Middle Tennessee may mean unique, localized solutions rather than a broad-brush approach, at least for now, says Ed Cole, executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, a non-profit organization that covers a 10-county Midstate region.The alliance recently graduated 32 mayors and other local leaders from its inaugural Transit Citizen Leadership Academy. Its goal is to get people talking about mass transit.

“Mass transit for this area means a range of choices,” he says. “It’s easy to romantically look at light rail, or something along those lines, and think that’s the only kind of mass transit out there. It’s fast, it’s frequent and it’s a train. Around here, we need much more.”

Cole predicts that the Music City Star will continue to post steady growth until such time as more trains are added, as well as mid-day and weekend service. In the meantime, high gas prices and strong consumer interest give local leaders impetus to try what they can, where they can.

“We have express, bus-type services that are growing rapidly, and we’ll just keep seeing those numbers go up,” Cole says. “Springfield just started having MTA buses come in through the RTA. That’s the basic starting point. The more people that try those buses, the more people that tend to stay on them.”

To that end, Cole says bus rapid transit will continue to grow along interstate corridors to outlying counties from a downtown Nashville hub, as well as along busy surface streets such as the Broadway-West End corridor where the MTA is currently studying adding such an express line.

“It’s an urban streetcar, really,” Cole said. “You have stations just like light rail, and you have a bus every 10 minutes. An MTA study or that corridor is in its final phases, and they are looking at BRT very closely. A key factor will be dedicated roadway, because if the express bus is just sitting in traffic, then there’s not a lot of interest. If they dedicate a lane to that service, then they’ll have improved times and ridership will expand tremendously.”

Moore says there are now nearly 100 van pools running between the Franklin area and Metro Nashville, and those have been designed to give riders a great deal of flexibility.

“There are special provisions for people that experience a need to get home sooner in cases of emergencies,” he says. “The other option that has proven to be very popular is the express bus that starts south of Franklin and travels to Nashville. We continue to see increased ridership and increased satisfaction with this option.”

Developers always keep an eye out for trends, Cole says, adding land-use regulations by communities continuing to get tighter because of service issues.

“Middle Tennessee has been broadly developed, with very low-density communities,” he says. “We’ve been able to service that with water, sewer, schools and other amenities. But that ability is becoming more constrained. There’s no doubt that unless you’re an older city, like New York, Chicago or Atlanta, those investments are not going to continue.

“If we have accessible transit nodes, and those are serviced in a permanent way, then you will see a land-use pattern that follows those nodes,” Cole says. “You see that with the Hamilton Springs development that’s happening in Wilson County, where they are building a terminal to help make that happen. You see it in Greensboro North, out in Gallatin, which is being built as a transit-ready development based on the planned transit stop at Volunteer State Community College.

“Developers are interested in transit, and local governments are interested in developers. These two things have, and always will, work together.”

Like Hamilton Springs, the 150-acre Greensboro North mixed-use development would operate around a transit hub, in this case a proposed mass-transit station on GreenLea Boulevard.

“We don’t have a ‘one size fits all’ transportation situation in Middle Tennessee,” Skipper says. “We can lay out a vision of what we’re trying to accomplish, and what we think will get us there, but ultimately what happens, and in what order, will be worked out by the cities, counties and private sector. We hope to facilitate that process, because we know we can’t dictate it.”

Even in the areas where it has strong support, mass transit’s best hope lies in economic development. As communities grow outward, better ways to get to and from urban cores will dictate transportation planning, he adds.

“In the short term, you’re seeing communities just trying to improve conditions,” Skipper says. “Long term, they will see that transportation creates opportunities for economic development in ways they otherwise might not have. They can meet a dual objective; provide a service for those who want and need it, and have something in place that helps business and housing to grow alongside it.”

Like Graves, he advocates an incremental, steady approach.

“Nothing’s going to happen if they don’t start taking some steps, be those baby or giant,” he says. “If any kind of rapid transit is going to happen here, then the stakeholders have to keep the process moving.”

In the end, the Transit Alliance’s Cole says, Middle Tennessee is composed of 10 growing counties that need mass transit. How they get there is hard to predict, but he does firmly believe that they will get there.

“We don’t know exactly what the corridors will look like, the patterns of circulation and the modes,” he said. “Light rail is a major investment. If we don’t have the volume for that now, then we’ll have a combination of what rail we have, along with more bus lines and BRT. That will work, because it at least keeps us moving in the right direction.”