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

Avoiding another AMP derailment

Mayor Dean had big swing, miss on transit. Mayor Barry can’t go down that same track

By Hollie Deese

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Before there was nMotion, and before Let’s Move Nashville, there was the AMP, a bus rapid transit system proposed by then-Mayor Karl Dean that would connect East Nashville to Saint Thomas West Hospital via Main Street, Broadway and West End Avenue.

Sounds like a simple plan, but reactions were contentious from the start.

In fall 2012, residents along the proposed route – many of whom were in favor of expanded mass transit – began expressing concerns about adding bus congestion to a vital, already-overwhelmed city artery.

There were concerns about how bus rapid transit works in general, how squeezing a dedicated lane onto already-crowded city streets would make traffic better, and how fewer stops would make the line more convenient for riders.

The elimination of some left-turn lanes onto neighborhood streets was a concern. Other were anxious that more traffic would be pushed onto neighborhood streets paralleling West End and that neighborhood street parking would be taken over by those parking and walking to AMP stations on West End.

Business owners were wary of losing valuable street parking to allow for the dedicated bus lane.

Was West End even the right place for BRT? Wouldn’t Charlotte Avenue have been a better option, many argued.

There also was a growing feeling that community input wasn’t being taken seriously. The plan was set, AMP representatives seemed to be saying at community meetings, but thanks for coming out.

Vocal groups – pro and con – popped up to back their positions. Stop AMP, led by car dealership mogul Lee Beaman, limo company owner Rick Williams and attorney Dianne Ferrell Neal, put forward its own bus plan for Harding Road and West End Avenue, as well as from the Charlotte Pike Walmart to Music City Central.

In June 2013, the $175 million proposal looked like a sure thing when Metro Council approved Mayor Dean’s $300 million capital spending plan that included $7.5 million for design and engineering work on AMP.

But AMP soon began losing whatever momentum it had, and in 2015 it officially died when it failed to get a $35 million commitment from the state legislature.

Critical failure

The AMP process was a PR disaster that ended in legislative failure.

Meeting after contentious meeting were well documented in local news media, as well as Karl Dean’s unwillingness to budge on the Amp’s location or design despite countless public meetings.

Steve Bland, chief executive officer of the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Regional Transportation Authority, a position he took in the summer of 2014, has studied what went wrong and says there was not enough movement in the plans to accommodate public concerns.

“There was a sense of a lack of sufficient public engagement in the process, that there hadn’t been a lot of the advance work,” he says.

So when AMP died, it was important to everyone involved, including the MTA and RTA Board, to do a reset on transit, address the issues and implement a strategic planning process that was comprehensive in its outreach and looked at broader regional solutions.

The key, Bland says, to avoiding another PR disaster is complete transparency and an overabundance of opportunities for the public to make their own opinions known.

A recent goal to reach 10,000 public engagements, whether it be in public meetings, social media or online surveys, resulted in 20,000.

The intersection of White Bridge Pike and Charlotte Pike near I-40, which would serve as the western terminus for a light rail line, part of Mayor Megan Barry’s ambitious $5.4 billion, 14-year mass transit plan.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“The thing we were striving for in that process, was to get the broadest array of viewpoints possible, make it regional,” Bland says.

“That’s where we, if you want to call it a lesson learned, or one of the lessons learned from the AMP project, I would say that’s this piece.”

Bland says he wants to dispel any notion that there will be no opportunities to adjust the transit plan if it is approved in May.

What is being presented is a framework and plan for a comprehensive overall system – mass transit, sidewalks, plans for addressing transportation-networking companies, and neighborhood transit centers – and when the funding source is approved. Details will be determined.

“There’s still a huge amount – through the complete construction and deployment of the plan – for there to be extensive neighborhood collaboration, public input on those elements in the plan,” he says. “What does this thing specifically look like at the higher level, but also down at street level in the neighborhoods. It’s not as though this thing goes on autopilot.

“The recurring lesson from the AMP is, you can’t do too much public engagement, and you can’t do it too early. That would carry through, frankly, into service, and project deployment even after a May referendum,” Bland says.

AMP as a starting point

When the AMP was moving forward, one of the funding sources to build it was $75 million in federal money from the Federal Transit Administration Small Starts Fund. Small Start is a competitive funding source for smaller transit projects, typically bus rapid transit like AMP.

“Those projects are heavily competitive,” Bland says. “Probably not more than seven or eight of them selected nationally a year, and the AMP was one of the projects selected.”

Because the funding was project-specific and the project was canceled, that money went back to the federal government. At the time of AMP’s death in 2015, Metro had committed to completing $7.5 million in design and other preliminary AMP work, $2.5 million was spent and the remaining money committed from the Metro budget toward AMP construction was used to support the nMotion transit plan.

nMotion was developed after more than a year of public engagement and technical analysis that explored multiple transit options for West End and Charlotte Avenue as well as Hillsboro, Nolensville, Murfreesboro and Dickerson pikes.

The AMP plan was not big enough to address what was starting to become clear about Nashville’s needs. The East-West connector was just one small piece of an increasingly-messy puzzle.

Even for folks who liked the project, they questioned how it fit as part of a bigger system. Would it keep expanding, or was it just about connecting east to west?

So, after the AMP’s end, the MTA board, and the Regional Transportation Authority board wanted to do a reset, do a strategic, planning process that was comprehensive in its outreach, and look at broader regional solutions. Not just how to do a specific project, but how do all the pieces fit together?

“That was where the nMotion process came from, a joint strategic plan done by the MTA and the RTA,” Bland points out. “The thing we were striving for in that process was to get the broadest array of viewpoints possible, and make it regional.

“The nMotion documents cover the 10-county area of Middle Tennessee, with Davidson County being a focal point of that. One of the goals we set out was to achieve at least 10,000 public engagement, whether it be in public meetings, or social media, or online surveys. We just barely hit the 20,000 mark.”

The nMotion plan was unanimously adopted by the MTA and RTA boards, and it was a precursor to Mayor Megan Barry’s Let’s Move Nashville plan, revealed this fall. That $5.4 billion proposal is a comprehensive transit investment plan for the Nashville region that includes improvements to existing bus service improvements, the addition of rapid bus service, light rail and a downtown tunnel.

But bus service is still key, and still one of the immediate transit needs that can be worked on while light rail will take decades.

“When we look at this plan, there are immediate needs that get addressed right out of the box, which is a much more robust bus system, because a bus system is actually a backbone of a transit plan,” Barry explains.

“Then the medium and longer-term include light rail, the tunnel.”

Bland says when the Improve Act legislation was passed it made the way for a referendum for a transit funding mechanism on a county by county basis. Let’s Move Nashville is the Davidson county piece of that plan.

It largely follows the nMotion plan, as well as the NashvilleNext city comprehensive growth plan through 2040.

“That was the intent in doing the broad regional plan, was it took into account the growth projections that we’d be getting from the state, regional planning bodies to say, this isn’t just a system to address what’s happening today,” Bland says.“It’s a system, frankly, that we can grow into, and that can grow with the region.”

And it’s a plan that serves more than just a limited part of town, which better meets the needs of an overall growing city.

“The AMP was just one line,” Barry adds. “This is based on the nMotion plan, and all of the conversations that have been had across the community for the last several years, of what Nashvillians want to see from a transit perspective, all over our county.

“The AMP was just a little piece. This is 28 miles of light rail, and as we look at the projections of more than a million people who are going to be in this area by 2040. This is a significant plan that addresses that.

“Under this plan, the whole idea is to have three-quarters of Nashville residents to live within a half a mile of transit.”

AMP’s impact on new plan

In many ways, The AMP wasn’t a failure, at least in terms of the inclusion of rapid bus service along West End Avenue in the new transit plan coming up for vote in May.

“Under the Let’s Move Nashville plan, there are no dedicated bus lanes, although we expect queue jumps and transit signal priority at some intersections, if possible, to help facilitate bus movement,” says Amanda Clelland, public information officer for Nashville MTA and RTA.

“And boarding will be traditional, curbside boarding. We heard the community’s feedback in not wanting dedicated bus lanes and median boarding along that corridor during the AMP process and that helped to inform how this proposal turned out.”

And because AMP was one of the first big plans put forth in recent years to even address mass transit, it really got people talking. And they haven’t stopped.

“I think for a variety of reasons, certainly the rapid growth, measurable increases in traffic congestion, and some of our gentrification issues and affordable housing issues, rather than transit cooling off, when the AMP project ended, it actually heated up,” Bland notes.

“For leadership, there was actually more pressure, more emphasis on doing something.”

Not doing anything about Nashville’s transit issues just wasn’t an acceptable course of action anymore – at least if you believe the projected number of people moving to Middle Tennessee will actually come.

“If you think they’re coming, how are we going to accommodate them in a way that preserves quality of life, reasonable commutes?” Bland asks.

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