What’s better for commuters? More I-24 lanes or monorail?

Friday, April 17, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 16
By Sam Stockard

Could a monorail be in Middle Tennessee’s future? State Sens. Bill Ketron and Jim Tracy are backing a proposal for Murfreesboro to Nashville route that would follow the route of I-24.

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With growing population comes increasingly congested commuter traffic, and the Rutherford County corridor between Nashville and Murfreesboro along I-24 is considered the most congested in Middle Tennessee.

Tennessee has pressing needs for mass transit, and Gov. Bill Haslam would like to ease commuters’ pain – eventually.

He is committed to raising the gas tax during his administration, in part to pay for mass transit, but light-rail passenger trains in and out of Nashville have a dim chance for now.

“We decided not to do it this year,” Haslam says of the gas tax. “At some point in time in the near future, next year … it’ll happen while we’re in office.”

The state Department of Transportation also has an $8 billion backlog of construction projects, in addition to mass transit needs, the governor concedes.

Tennessee’s top leaders bandied about the possibility of raising the 21.4-cent-per-gallon tax this legislative session, including a 1.4-cent petroleum fee, which raises about $660 million annually.

Haslam bet the audience members at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Nashville they were getting 20 to 25 percent better mileage on their vehicles than they were 15 years ago, putting a crimp in Tennessee’s gas-tax revenues. With the federal government cutting road-construction funds, maintenance and construction projects take an even bigger hit, officials say.

Coming up with a more specific spending plan, though, will be part of the push for a gas-tax increase, he says.

So, where does that leave commuters for now? Sitting in traffic.

Nashville/Davidson County commuters average 47 hours traveling at congested speeds and rank 11th in the nation with a one-way commute of one hour and 23 minutes, according to a 2012 Urban Mobility Report. Congestion costs the average commuter $1,034, 11th worst nationally.

“Double the population, and in another 10 years, you’ll be able to get to Chattanooga quicker,” says state Sen. Bill Ketron.

Rutherford County’s population exceeded 262,600 in 2010, fifth largest in the state, and the U.S. Census Bureau estimated it at more than 281,000 in 2013.

Rutherford is projected to have about 450,000 residents in 10 to 15 years and more than 672,000 people by 2050, according to a University of Tennessee study.

Trains move down the line

CSX recently put the brakes on a proposal to share its railroad line and right of way for development of passenger trains to Nashville from the Murfreesboro area, Ketron says.

The Murfreesboro Republican, who is chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, says CSX officials told him and other state officials the railroad company “can’t handle” sharing the railroad line with a mass transit passenger train.

It doesn’t have enough right of way, either, for construction of a secondary light rail, Ketron adds.

“They have too much commodities coming through here, and this is kind of the crossroads for all of the heartbeat for CSX, all points west, all points north, coming up from Jacksonville (Fla.),” Ketron says.

With that option gone, the region is left with expanding I-24, which would cost $1.4 billion to add two lanes, exits and ramps, according to the state transportation department, or spending $1.3 billion for an interstate monorail, Ketron says.

“So I’m selling them on monorail,” Ketron says.

Ketron and Sen. Jim Tracy, who represents part of Rutherford County and chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, both say a public-private partnership will be needed in which a company will build and operate a monorail line between Murfreesboro and other mid-state cities to Nashville.

A European company already has talked about taking the initiative for a monorail project, Ketron says. As part of such a deal, it wants ridership fees, part of the gate and advertising on the side of trains, he adds, while the state would provide the right of way.

“I think it’s definitely something we need to push forward,” says Tracy, a Bedford County Republican. “I think Sen. Ketron and I will sort of lead the charge to get these good folks in here.”

Yet, Tommy Bragg, former mayor of Murfreesboro and chairman of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, says the nonprofit agency is pushing rapid transit buses and dedicated lanes as a realistic alternative to cut congestion.

“I honestly think light rail is a long way into the future for the Nashville region,” Bragg says. “We have so many more transit options available today if we had dedicated funding.”

For instance, setting up a lane for the Relax & Ride buses already circulating through Rutherford County from the Metropolitan Transit Authority would an efficient method for improving the commute, Bragg says.

Northwest corridor

The Regional Transportation Authority is initiating a transit study between Clarksville and Nashville to determine better methods for moving people.

“It’s basically to examine all sorts of alternatives we have to serve that market,” says Steve Bland, with the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The study will look at five links between Clarksville and Nashville: 1-24, state Route 12/Ashland City Highway, the Nashville & Western freight corridor and rail right of way, CSX Rail east of I-24 and state Route 112/U.S. 41-A parallel to I-24.

Open house public meetings are underway to gather input from those who use the northwest corridor regularly.

“This is a key corridor for the region and has been identified as part of the Nashville Area MPO’s Regional Transit Vision,” says Felix Castrodad, director of planning for the Regional Transportation Authority.

“Public input is essential to help validate the study process.”