Transit: ‘Will it Work’ in Nashville? - WSMV News 4

Transit: ‘Will it Work’ in Nashville?

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Voters will decide on May 1 on a transit plan proposed for Nashville. (WSMV) Voters will decide on May 1 on a transit plan proposed for Nashville. (WSMV)

On May 1, Nashvillians go to the polls to decide the future of a $9 billion transit plan. It’s a bold plan Nashville leaders said looks 50 years into the future.

It’s based on what works in Seattle - a system of that expands bus transit while adding light rail, electric buses, and a downtown tunnel.

Nashville's Chamber of Commerce paid to bring Seattle transit leaders to Nashville to explain the plan to its members.

"People can't see it yet but it will be transformational once it's here," said Jonathan Hopkins, the executive director of Commute Seattle.

“You can take our light rail and get someplace in four minutes that used to take 15 or 25 minutes, depending on traffic,” Hopkins said.

Related websites: Transit for Nashville | No Tax 4 Tracks

Nashville’s system would include five lines of light rail.

Erin Hafkenschiel is the director of Mayor David Briley’s Office of Transportation and Sustainability.

She pointed to Seattle's successes:  a huge increase in riders and less traffic downtown.

"Over the last five or six years they have added about 60,000 jobs to downtown, and have seen single occupancy vehicle trips go down by 4,500," Hafkenschiel told News4.

But the Seattle story is not all roses.

Last fall, Washington state lawmakers investigated complaints that people were misled about the real cost of the transit plan.

A Republican-led Senate committee concluded that Sound Transit misled lawmakers before they voted in 2015 to give the agency permission to put a package of tax increases and light-rail expansion on the ballot, according to a story in the Seattle Times in October 2017. Car owners had sticker shock when they found the cost of renewing their car tags had doubled.

“Sound Transit played fast and loose with the truth,” said Sen. Mike Padden, the Republican committee chairman.

Democrats criticized the investigation as strictly partisan.

Related documents: Nashville Transit Improvement Program | Nashville Transit Plan summary | Washington State Senate letter alleging voters mislead | Seattle Sound Transit response

Some critics of the Nashville plan said what works in bigger cities like Seattle may not work here.

"Look at where rail works: New York, Boston and Chicago. It's because those cities grew vertically, and Nashville and surrounding counties have spread out,” said Jeff Eller, a paid consultant for the political action committee No Tax 4 Tracks, which opposes the transit plan.

Light rail is a technology of the past, Eller said.  He said Nashville is more similar to Austin, where a rail system struggled with low ridership.

Forbes Magazine published an opinion piece contributed by Scott Beyer on July 29, 2016. Beyer called Austin's commuter rail "a monument to government waste."

Beyer had visited Austin and described its commuter rail system as resembling one of China’s ghost cities.

“After parking in the empty lot, I got out and walked around, to find a clean, well-landscaped facility that had not one human in sight. The info center was locked, the train platforms were empty, and no trains arrived,” Beyer wrote. He had visited on a Saturday and found the system closed until 4 p.m.

Austin’s rail system, he wrote, accounted for 2.6 percent of Austin’s transit ridership, while using 8.5 percent of the annual operating expenses for transit.

“The per-trip subsidy works out to $24.62,” Beyer wrote, quoting data provided by Capitol Metro, Austin’s transit provider.

The latest figures provided by the Austin transit system show train ridership in January 2018 was down 10 percent from January 2017.

Travel on buses, however, has increased.

“They improved the bus system. Ridership on buses has gone up,” said Eller, the representative for No Tax 4 Tracks.

No Tax 4 Tracks advocates improving Nashville’s bus system instead of adopting a system of light rail.

There are unanswered questions about Nashville’s transit plan.

The city’s planners said it didn’t make sense to do detailed engineering work at the taxpayer’s expense before knowing if the May 1 referendum would pass.

News4 asked in particular about the Charlotte Avenue corridor, which would have a light rail system running down the middle of the street. Passengers would enter and exit the train at a series of crosswalks.

The plan does not detail where those loading platforms would be or how many there would be.

There could be as few as seven or as many as 10; they could be half a mile apart, or they could be a mile apart.

"Well, we don't have the station locations specified yet. That's part of the stakeholder process after the referendum," said Hafkenschiel.

It’s also unclear whether Charlotte or the other corridors with light rail would still have two lanes of vehicular traffic in both directions.

That depends, said Jim Czarnecky, who is vice president of the engineering company HDR / ICA, and is the project manager for Nashville’s traffic plan.

"We would try to maintain as many travel lanes as we could in the corridors where that's feasible," Czarnecky said.

“So for example, if there are two westbound lanes and two eastbound lanes, we would attempt to preserve that capacity. And we would introduce light rail into the center. So if there is a center turn lane, we would use that for the guideway. And in some cases we would have to push out the curb or the sidewalk to make room for that,” Czarnecky said.

The first light rail line to open would be on Gallatin Road.

“There was a lot of support in East Nashville,” Hafkenschiel said, followed by the tunnel.

Nashville’s plan calls for a tunnel that would route bus and train traffic underneath the city.

The tunnel is estimated to cost $936 million to construct and $3.3 million per year to operate.

“It would run under Fifth Avenue. It would start north of Music City Central, around Gay Street. And the tunnels would go underground. Then they would come back out of the ground at Lafayette on the south side,” Czarnecky said.

There would be an underground station at Music City Central with pedestrian access to the surface. The transit hub would operate like Music City Central does now, Czarnecky said.

The tunnels would be used by buses and light rail, but not cars. 

No Tax 4 Tracks questions the estimated cost and the feasibility of the tunnel project.

"At the end of the day, we think it will cost more than they say, take longer than they say, and we think that's one of the big sticking points of this plan," Eller said.

The plan tentatively calls for building two tunnels, each of them about 20 feet across. The tubes would be created by giant boring machines.

"We feel comfortable that it's absolutely feasible to do and critical for creating the capacity through downtown," said Hafkenschiel.

During excavation of the tubes, trucks full of dirt would move through downtown, Eller said.

In a report by Nashville Next, the city's own research questioned the feasibility of the tunnel, given Middle Tennessee's geology and geography.

“The geology and geography of the Middle Tennessee region make the construction of subway-type mass transit systems difficult. The hard bedrock and preserved, forested hills of the region make underground transit cost-prohibitive,” the Nashville Next plan concluded.

Another issue is the acquisition of property downtown to stage the boring machines.

Each end of the tunnel will require a pit at least an acre in size.

“We will look for opportunities, for people who want to sell their land for a profit, to the extent we can purchase for fair market value. In some cases we might have to use eminent domain,” Czarnecky said.

“You would do everything practical to avoid it,” he said.

“I don’t know where you find an acre of land downtown. And I don’t know how you do that. And I don’t think they do either,” said Eller. “I think land acquisition is one of the things they don’t want to talk about. There will be a lot of unhappy people.”

Hafkenschiel said she hopes voters will pass the transit plan on May 1. Moving more people faster will require a high-quality transit network, she said.

“We have done an analysis. On average across the corridors, the light rail trains will be 30 minutes faster than a bus in mixed traffic and 15 minutes faster than driving,” she said.

“So even if you are coming in from outlying areas, saving 15 minutes should be enough to park and ride and get on the train.  Then you don’t have to deal with the burden of parking downtown.”

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