Ralph Schulz got stuck in traffic. It was on a Thursday, around 1 p.m., and he says it took him 23 minutes to drive along Broadway for two blocks, between Third and Fifth avenues.
There were no accidents or special events. But there were delivery trucks, a pedal tavern, a John Deere tractor pulling a cart and other cars.
Schulz is president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and one of the city’s biggest supporters of a proposed broad-based transit plan for Nashville called Let’s Move Nashville. The goal is to improve traffic flow as the city and region grow, as well as help draw new businesses to town, help current businesses retain employees and give people options for getting around, he and other supporters say.
Opponents and undecideds agree traffic is a problem but ask why Nashville needs this particular, costly plan.
“Why does transit supersede human needs?” Nashville resident Terri Short asked at a meeting on transit at Alex Green Elementary School in Whites Creek. She cited affordable workforce housing, public schools and Metro General Hospital also in need of funding.
There’s more at stake in the transit plan than vehicles.
The plan encourages where future population growth will occur in Nashville, can influence where current residents live and would affect how we pay taxes for decades to come. Backers and opponents toss numbers and arguments back and forth.
The capital cost for transit is $5.354 billion in today’s dollars. The program is estimated to require $8.591 billion in revenue through 2032, while the system is being built. Annual operating and maintenance costs are estimated at a present value of $99.5 million. To provide a steady source of funding for transit, several tax surcharges would be levied, most notably a phased-in increase in the local option sales tax.
Nashville voters are going to the polls to decide on the plan, with early voting continuing until April 26 and Election Day on May 1.
What the plan would do?
The plan creates an inside-Davidson County transit system that includes:
More buses running more frequently over more hours of service.
On 10 frequent-service routes, buses are to run between 5:15 a.m. and 1:15 a.m. starting in fall 2018. By fall 2019, peak-time service would be at least every 15 minutes on these routes. Non-peak service would be every 20-30 minutes. These are the 10 frequent-service routes:
— West End
— Music City Circuit – Riverfront Station and the Gulch through Downtown to TSU/North Nashville
In comparison, seven bus routes currently offer peak service every 15 minutes or less. Most routes provide service from 5:15 a.m. to before 11:15 p.m. Current non-peak service on these routes is every 15-60 minutes.
Crosstown bus routes to be added in 2019 along Trinity Lane, Edgehill Avenue, Bell Road and from the airport to Opry Mills.
Buses and commuters come and go from the Music City Central bus terminal at 5th and Charlotte Ave. This would be the starting point for two tunnels that would go beneath 5th Avenue to Music City Center to accommodate rail and buses.
— Michelle Morrow | The Ledger
Rapid bus service beginning in 2023 on Dickerson Road, Hillsboro Road, West End Avenue and the Bordeaux Route. Frequency every 10-15 minutes during peak hours and every 20 minutes during non-peak hours. Operating hours: 5:15 a.m.-1:15 a.m.; transit signal priority, queue jump and/or bus bypass lanes where appropriate; dedicated bus lanes where feasible
Light rail, starting in 2026, along Gallatin Road from Music City Central station downtown to the intersection of Gallatin and Briley Parkway. Tracks would take up two lanes down the middle of the road, and the hope is to have two lanes for cars in either direction. Additional light rail to be added after 2026 on Nolensville Road from downtown to near Harding Place; on Charlotte from downtown to White Bridge Road; on Murfreesboro Road from SoBro to Donelson Pike, with an extension along Donelson Pike to the airport; and on the Northwest Corridor, which runs north from Charlotte near 20th Avenue North to Ed Temple Boulevard, along an existing freight route. Freight would move at night; transit would move during the day.
Downtown tunnel, which would be completed in 2027, running beneath 5th Avenue from Charlotte, near Gay Street and the Music City Central station, with a below-ground stop at Broadway and ending at the proposed SoBro transit center south of downtown.
Starting in 2020, better coordination between public transit service and private ride services like Uber, to get transit riders to their ultimate destination once they step off a bus or train
Improvements to roadways and intersections countywide, beginning this year, including new crosswalks, realigned intersections, traffic signal updates and equipment upgrades, neighborhood traffic calming, school zone traffic control
Greater amenities in the transit system, including WiFi in buses and a system of neighborhood transit centers where riders could buy tickets and park before taking transit
Expansion of Access Ride program, starting this year, for those who cannot drive and cannot take transit
Expanded service frequency and hours, plus positive train control safety improvement for Music City Star train service from Wilson County to downtown Nashville; completion scheduled for 2031
What about congestion?
“As we add people to the population and add jobs, people have other options for travel instead of being beholden to cars,” says James Czarnecky, associate vice president with the engineering firm HDR, which is working with Metro on the transit plan.
“We are putting people on buses and trains, which carry more people in less space per person than cars,” he adds. The plan would improve the corridor itself to accommodate all modes of transportation. During the design process, which would begin after the referendum is passed, the level of improvement on each corridor would be determined.
There’s an urban planning element to the transit plan that supporters say would reduce congestion.
“If you plan in a way to grow around transit and build where people can walk, you’re taking cars off the road and you can continue to grow without adding new congestion to the road. We’re trying to grow in a slightly different way,” explains Erin Hafkenschiel, director of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Sustainability.
Every car taken off the road reduces someone else’s commute, says the Chamber’s Schulz, adding it’s just common sense that every person you take off the road is going to improve the commute for everyone who is farther out.
A Travel Time Savings Memorandum prepared for Metro and found on the Let’s Move Nashville website notes that if light rail service were available on the proposed corridors today, light rail trips would be 20 minutes faster than a similar bus route in mixed traffic and six minutes faster than driving.
In 2040, light rail would be 31 minutes faster than the bus and 15 minutes faster than driving, the memorandum states. It also estimates an annual travel time savings benefit of $43 million in 2033.
Opponents of the transit plan see it as more of a development blueprint than a transportation plan.
No Tax 4 Tracks reports the plan builds population density along proposed routes to support the transit system to be built along those particular routes. Developers would benefit from the increased population density along transportation routes because land values would rise, opponents say.
The vote-no organization Better Transit 4 Nashville also predicts increasing gentrification along light rail routes would drive out longtime, lower-income residents who would no longer be able to afford to live there.
State legislation passed in 2017 encourages developers to build housing along transit lines. Transit supporters say that the combination of increased housing development along transit lines, plus the addition of many different transit options, would help curb congestion. A planned transit-oriented development is being considered for Donelson, and it can be implemented regardless of whether the transit plan is approved on May 1.
Retired Vanderbilt transportation professor and transit opponent Malcolm Getz says the plan won’t reduce congestion. Cities add transit based on the belief – not supported by evidence, he adds – that people will take a fixed number of trips, and that if some people leave their cars home and take transit, those cars won’t reach the road and congestion will decrease.
Evidence shows people take car trips based on how easy it is to get somewhere by car, he adds. If it’s easier for them to drive, they’ll drive.
Opponents also say the plan doesn’t address congestion along interstate highways leading into Davidson County from surrounding counties.
Supporters of the plan say the IMPROVE Act, a proposal Gov. Bill Haslam introduced in an effort to help fund the state’s $10 billion backlog in road projects, requires Nashville to build transit improvements within the county, not outside it, and it makes the most sense to place improvements where there’s the greatest population density.
Nashville’s transit improvements would encourage other counties to develop their own transit plans, backers say, and the Nashville system can be built out to the county lines in the future.
Other benefits from plan
Supporters of the plan point to the jobs that would be created to build, operate and maintain the transit system.
The plan would support some 54,026 jobs from 2018-2032, as measured in job-years. A job year is one person employed for one year, whether full-time or part-time.
The Economic Impact Memorandum that gives this estimate doesn’t indicate how many jobs are full- or part-time. When the 52,026 jobs are divided by 14 years, the result is 3,859 jobs per year, which supporters of transit have cited.
The plan also would allow more people to save money because they would choose not to have a car. Cost savings when people use transit instead of personal vehicles are estimated to be about $7,800 per person annually, an Accessibility Benefits Memorandum on the Let’s Move Nashville website argues.
Additional benefits would include less pollution, and improved health from people walking more often and improved transportation safety.
Costs for the plan
Between 2018 and 2032, the transit program’s capital cost is estimated at $5.354 billion in today’s dollars. The description of the transit program on the referendum mentions this amount, as well as another amount broken down below.
The $5.354 billion includes:
— Light rail: $4.362 billion in uninflated 2017 dollars (about 79 percent of the total)
— Bus enhancements: $992 million in uninflated 2017 dollars (about 21 percent)
Light rail includes:
— Five light rail lines
— $30 million in improvements to the Music City Star train from Wilson County to Nashville
— $936 million for the downtown tunnel
— $164 million for operations and maintenance facilities.
Bus enhancements include:
— $233 million for rapid bus corridor improvements, and
— $758 million for expanding the existing system.
Bus enhancements include $233 million for rapid bus corridor improvements and $288 million for expanding the existing system, with the rest to fund other non-rail improvements.
In addition to the capital costs, the transit referendum also refers to the money that would be coming to Metro and then paid out to build the transit system during the years from 2018-2032. During construction, $8.951 billion would come to Metro through local-option tax surcharges, transit fares, money borrowed through long-term bond issues, contributions from the airport and convention center, federal grants that are to be applied for and investment income.
That same amount would be used for rail improvements, bus enhancements, interest, principal repayment and financing costs, operations and maintenance and reserves.
The bonds issued to pay for the system are for terms of 30 and 35 years. The city would borrow the money gradually, starting in 2018 with a $78 million bond issue and ending in 2030 with a $217 million bond issue.
Bond repayment would extend at least through 2060 for 30-year bonds issued in 2030. The bonds are essentially interest-only from the issuance date until the project is completed, at which time both interest and principal are repaid.
The full dollar amount to be paid between 2032 and 2068 (the last year Nashville can levy the local-option tax surcharge) hasn’t been calculated, Metro Councilman at Large John Cooper says.
Forty percent of the money during construction, 2018-2032, would come from debt, both private and federally administered, the Let’s Move Nashville transit document states.
Revenues from the four local-option tax surcharges authorized through the state IMPROVE Act – increased local option sales tax plus higher hotel, rental car and business taxes – would provide 38 percent of the money.
Other sources of funding between 2018 and 2032 would include federal grants (18 percent), contributions from BNA Airport, the convention center and investment income (3 percent), and fares paid by passengers (2 percent).
The IMPROVE Act requires disclosure of at least 10 years of projections on sources of funding for transit projects it authorizes. Metro is furnishing 15 years of projections.
IMPROVE Act taxes come from four places:
— Raising the local-option sales tax by half a cent between August 2018 and January 2023, when another half-cent increase takes place
— Increasing the local business tax by 20 percent
— Increased hotel taxes
— Increased rental-car taxes
Davidson County residents would be most affected by the increase in the local-option sales tax, which rises to 9.75 percent (6.75 percent on food) starting this Aug. 1 to 10.25 percent (7.25 percent on food) starting on Jan. 1, 2023.
Proponents of the plan cite Nashville Chamber of Commerce estimates that state 47 percent of the sales taxes would be paid by people who don’t live here. They also say the first half-cent increase in sales tax would cost Nashville residents 17 cents per day, doubling in 2023.
When would we see results?
Nashville would begin to see the benefits of the plan this October, MTA spokesperson Amanda Clelland says, when bus service hours increase to 21 hours a day, and bus frequency begins to increase along key routes. Many of the projects that would provide additional options, such as light rail, would go into planning and design in Year 1 and would begin service in Years 5-10.
While that might seem distant, she explains, the region will continue to grow, and the bus system will continue to adapt with the Rapid Bus Network and neighborhood transit centers coming on line while the fixed infrastructure projects are in the works.
Hafkenschiel notes the plan would begin correcting misaligned intersections such as at Crestmoor and Hillsboro roads in Green Hills from the beginning. Metro has identified the most dangerous misaligned intersections and has created a dedicated funding source through Let’s Move Nashville to deal with them.
Are we locked into this plan?
The referendum itself asks voters to vote yes or no on the entire plan, including funding. Backers of the plan say it has been discussed and vetted over several years, starting with the Nashville Next planning study, then with the Nashville NMotion regional transit plan, and finally with the Let’s Move Nashville plan unveiled late last year.
Changing the plan, if it is approved in the referendum, would have to comply with the IMPROVE Act, which gave Metro the option of holding the transit referendum in the first place.
The IMPROVE Act stipulates if any project that’s part of the transit plan becomes “unfeasible, impossible, or not financially viable,” the revenue can be directed to other transit projects upon the approval of Metro Council and the voters, Metro Law Director Jon Cooper says.
“Whether a project is unfeasible, impossible or not financially viable would need to be determined on a case-by-case basis,” he continues.
“Given its scope and scale, some changes to the Transit Improvement Program will likely be necessary. But most foreseeable changes, including those affecting system routes, equipment and infrastructure, would not cause the program or any component project to be unfeasible, impossible or financially unviable, and thus would not require further approval of the Council or a referendum.”
If a portion of anticipated federal funding for transit isn’t available, Cooper adds, “the scope of the plan would need to be adjusted accordingly.”
The IMPROVE Act wouldn’t require the adjustment or change to be approved by Council or by referendum unless the funding shortfall caused the transit program or a component project to be unfeasible, impossible or financially unviable, he wrote.
What if the plan fails?
Backers say Metro could lose out on economic development possibilities and there would be no money for transit improvements if the referendum fails. Employers already doing business in Nashville would find it harder to retain employees, they add.
Opponents say that voting it down gives Nashville a chance to start over and create a better plan.
“Businesses want immediate access to the workforce (through transit system) but they also want a pipeline of qualified workers (through the educational system). The two requirements go hand in hand,” Schulz says.
Economic development takes the line of least resistance, he adds, with companies moving where it’s most convenient to locate, including where transportation and access to a good workforce is easiest.
“Every job that goes somewhere else is an option someone here doesn’t have,” he says.
What do opponents want?
Some want to see Nashville focus on the improving the bus system and dropping light rail. Councilwoman Erica Gilmore, a candidate for mayor, suggests building only one light-rail route, along Murfreesboro Road to the airport, as a pilot project.
Others, such as Jeff Eller, spokesman for No Tax 4 Tracks, say voting no would allow the city to go back to Square 1 and “bring more common-sense solutions to the table.”
Concern with transit isn’t just with companies considering moving here. Companies already here are increasingly concerned because their employees don’t want to work in hard-to-reach places. A long commute increases the likelihood employees might want to change jobs to reduce the commute, they add.
“Talk to some of the persons in the hospitality industry,” Schulz says. “They have a hard time getting house staffs because transportation is so difficult.”
If Nashville doesn’t approve a funding mechanism, there’s no money to spend on transportation at all, Schulz says.
People use the corridors that would get light rail and rapid bus under the transit plan, he explains.
“You can’t change the corridors. If we don’t pass the transit plan, then none of this happens,” he says. “There’s just no money to do it unless you have the funding mechanism.”
The IMPROVE Act allows a one-year wait between transit referendum votes. Backers of the transit plan say it has taken other cities six to 10 years to get back on the ballot.
“MTA and RTA services would remain at, basically, the same levels you see today, as we would lack the revenue sources to do any type of significant expansion,” Clelland adds.
“However, not getting bigger is no excuse for not getting better,” she continues. “Among the improvements people would see in the coming one to two years are our new account-based fare collection system that would allow our customers to use their smart phones to pay their fares, a significant renovation of our Music City Central facility, traffic signal and pedestrian improvements in the Murfreesboro Road corridor now under construction, and the replacement of about a third of our current bus and AccessRide van fleet with new vehicles.”
State-funded improvements to roads and bridges would continue under the IMPROVE Act, which raised fuel and other taxes to pay for infrastructure fixes.
At the top of the list for Nashville is widening and improving I-440, on which 100,000 vehicles travel each day, Tennessee Department of Transportation statistics show.
The road was built to accommodate 64,000. The state issued a request for proposal on the design-build contract, an expedited type of construction, in January, with the contract to be awarded this summer.