» Is Nashville advancing a rail system that it cannot handle?
From time to time, it’s worth taking a step back.
The Nashville region’s bus network is not exactly popular, with a total annual ridership of just less than nine million; that’s about 30,000 weekday trips in a metropolitan area of 1.6 million people. The 32-mile Music City Star commuter rail line, which has operated between downtown Nashville and Lebanon since 2006, handles about 800 daily trips — compared to the 1,500 originally expected for the corridor.
Public transportation in Middle Tennessee, in other words, is not big business.
No surprise, perhaps, considering that the City of Nashville has a density of 1,230 people per square mile. By comparison, Portland, Oregon has a concentration population roughly four times as intense. New York City, at the extreme, is 22 times as dense.
Yet Nashville Mayor Karl Dean maintains that his region is ripe for a massive investment in public transit. One light rail line isn’t enough for him, it seems: he wants a $6.5 billion network to compete with the growing economic heavyweights of Denver, Charlotte, and Austin, each of which have large transit plans of their own.
Mr. Dean recently led the development of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, a coalition of the area’s business groups designed to encourage the passage of a tax measure to fund investments in public transportation. Last year, the state’s General Assembly passed legislation allowing city councils to institute local funding sources to pay for transit. The local MPO will develop a long-term regional transit master plan by May; the Mayor expects light rail corridors extending in all directions from downtown to be a focus of the project. He hopes to push ahead on the project as quickly as possible.
His enthusiasm for public transportation, however, is tempered by unfortunate conditions on the ground. The similarly sized Charlotte region has a central city that’s twice as dense, a stronger economy, and a larger downtown — yet even it has been able to get only one light rail line in the ground more than ten years after first collecting sales tax returns for transit. That 10-mile project, which has been pretty successful, cost about $500 million to build, but the next extension may not be complete until 2019. How would Nashville ever be able to afford a $6.5 billion system within a reasonable time period?
Even more important is the question of who would use a rapid transit system in this Tennessee city. The limited success of the Music City Star line, which only cost $40 million to build and which runs mostly on single tracks at peak hours only, can be chalked up to poor planning and limited ambitions. But even a well-designed, frequently serviced light rail line in Nashville would under-perform massively.
The 12-mile route between downtown Nashville and the northeast suburbs is the region’s most popular bus corridor and recently received upgrades, including limited station stops and new stop shelters. But that line handles a total of less than 90,000 passengers a month — about 3,500 per weekday. Even if replacing that service with light rail tripled ridership (an unheard-of increase in passenger count), the transit authority would carry less than 1,000 passengers per mile on the corridor, putting it in league with San Jose’s VTA light rail, not exactly considered a huge success.
A 30-mile line from downtown Nashville to Gallatin, extending the same route, is currently being planned and is apparently the region’s top priority. It would carry far fewer people per route mile.
In areas with adequate density and considerable existing transit ridership, tramways are indeed acceptable solutions to mobility problems. But in places like Nashville, their expense wouldn’t be justified: they will not produce the high ridership necessary to fill trains running on corridors that attract few to buses. Before high-capacity transit is going to work, sprawled regions like the Music City must first address underlying conditions of urban form resulting from decades of government promotion of highways and single-family homes.
Image above: Nashville Music City Star, from Flickr user SeeMidTN.com (aka Brent) (cc)