Downtown depot a hit for planners, bus riders

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

Three years into its operation, the Music City Central bus depot might be that rarest of urban-development projects: one that has met its objectives.

Downtown planners and other mass-transit supporters say that the ambitious 2.5-acre project, which consumed the block between 4th and 5th avenues, with Charlotte Pike bordering its north side, did two things:

l Provided a hub for the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s growing lines of service.

l Eliminated the open-air eyesore on Deadrick Street that had been the main downtown port of call for buses.

“It’s like night and day,” says Dave Keiser, board member of Transit Now Nashville, an organization that works to raise awareness of regional mass transit options for people in the Greater Nashville area.

“The station is climate controlled, there are monitors saying when the buses will arrive, there are food vendors … it takes the anxiety out of using public transportation,” he adds. “They also have some meeting space in there, and so along with the vendors they’ve made it a mixed-use facility, something else that we like.”

The group hopes that, with continued success, the hub can act as catalyst for future public-transit growth, Keiser says.

“Riders and advocates both really like it, so we think that it is a good hub,” he explains. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start. With it in the center, we hope to see more cross-town connectors as well as lines out to the surrounding counties. We have to have the regional aspect as well as the solid central core system, and we think it’s built to provide that aspect.”

At its October 2008 opening, MTA officials said they hoped to see at least 20,000 riders per day come through the 24-bay building. It’s seen that and more, thanks to a steady uptick in ridership, says Paul Ballard, MTA’s chief executive officer.

“We get around 21,000 passengers daily, or about two-thirds of all MTA riders,” Ballard says. “The building has very heavy usage, which has been beneficial to our retail businesses inside. They also get customers from the surrounding area who aren’t riding the bus, so we’ve been able to create a new institution in the heart of downtown.”

Ballard had wanted the nearby Deaderick Street terminus gone since coming to Nashville 10 years ago. With the new Music City Center convention facility slated to take the other downtown land port offline, it was time to think big.

“Deadrick was pretty much a mess,” he recalls. “We created traffic congestion every 20 minutes, the sidewalk space and shelters weren’t adequate … it was a horrible situation. That’s when we began setting aside funds to build a new facility, and laying out our vision.”

Given the $53.6 million preliminary budget, that vision needed to be clearly articulated in order to get buy-in from the surrounding Central Business Improvement District.

“We had to explain how we were putting a five-acre facility into downtown,” Ballard recalls. “We showed that we had looked at other options, and other locations. We showed that we had looked at this site and figured out how to take our plans vertical so that we got twice as much usage within the footprint. We did that, and so we really didn’t get any pushback from anybody.”

MTA was well-served by laying out its plans in such fashion to allay any fears, says Gary Gaston, design director at the Nashville Civic Design Center.

“From a usability standpoint, we knew it would have a huge impact on our city,” Gaston says. “It’s clean, it’s modern and it provides shelter. We were pleased that it was designed to contain some businesses and meeting space, and were able to do all that on a pretty tight site. It’s a real vertical integration of space.”

That said, one more element would have made the building complete, he adds.

“We do wish there had been some residential housing on the top floor. That was originally called for, but they had to scale back. If that could still be done, and those units could be affordable housing, that would bring a great residential component to an area that’s mainly a business district now.”

That kind of enhancement isn’t in the cards now, Ballard says, but he doesn’t rule out anything for the future. At present, however, the focus remains on adding to, and modifying, existing bus lines rather than new construction.

“We are always analyzing our scheduling, and at present we could put a lot more buses through there,” he says. “We could schedule a bus every five minutes for each bay and be fine, and we are a long way off from that. We also have the capacity to handle every size bus that’s built, from standard ones up through the 60-foot extended, articulated coaches as well as the over-the-road coaches like Greyhound. Any expansion we do in the near future would be along those lines, rather than modifying the building itself.”

To that end, the MTA is looking to boost ridership in specific programs such as its EasyRide program. That launched with Vanderbilt University as its first major business partner in 2004, and since has included other major downtown-area employers such as state and Metro governments and Belmont and Lipscomb universities.

The program, which charges a company a flat rate for its employees’ bus passes, is now logging between 40,000 and 45,000 riders per month. That’s contributing to a ridership of 8.4 million passengers last year, and a predicted 9 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

And while some of that is due to fuel prices remaining stubbornly high, it’s also because MTA claims a 50 percent return rate from people who try public transit as a last resort, Ballard says.

“Snow melts and gas prices come down, but a lot of those people stay with us,” he says. “They try things like the park-and-ride service from the outlying areas, and they find they like it. But they also like the Music City Central — it has made public transportation a lot more attractive to many people.”