» Despite the sound intentions from the mayor, opposition may kill Nashville’s BRT project.
One of the primary arguments made for investing in bus rapid transit (BRT) is that such systems can be implemented not only more cheaply, but also with more ease, than rail lines.
A look at the situation in Nashville suggests that there are limitations to that “ease.”
Much like in cities across the country, residents of Nashville have strenuously debated the merits of investing in a 7.1-mile, $174 million BRT line called the Amp. The project would link the city’s east and west sides, running from the Five Points in East Nashville through downtown to St. Thomas Hospital, past the city’s West End. With dedicated lanes along 80% of its route, frequent service, pre-paid boarding, level platforms, transit signal priority, and an improved streetscape to boot, the line could potentially serve about 5,000 rides a day, double the existing demand. In this year’s federal budget, the Department of Transportation recommended allocating it $75 million over the next few years.
From a pure public transportation perspective, the line makes perfect sense: It serves the city’s central east-west spine. Within a half-mile of its stations are 33% of the county’s jobs (132,000 of about 400,000) and 5% of its population (32,000 people), and it is currently undergoing something of a building boom. It would link several hospitals, Vanderbilt University, the downtown core, the transit center, and several tourist attractions. And it would offer transit service speeds similar to those available for private automobiles today.
Yet this week, Mayor Karl Dean — who has been the project’s primary proponent since 2008 — pulled back, reacting to vocal opponents and a state legislature that threatened to block the line entirely. He agreed to eliminate dedicated lanes for buses along about half of the project’s route.
For years, opponents have been mounting a campaign against the Amp, arguing that the project would massively increase congestion by taking away lanes of traffic, require wasteful government spending, and destroy retail and restaurants — thereby reducing sales tax revenue. The Stop Amp coalition, it seems, is funded by a local auto dealer, Lee Beaman. Lawn signs have sprouted everywhere.
You might think the project was recommending turning streets into a bus-only zone, depriving motorists of the freedom to use this all-important corridor. But the investment in the new BRT line will actually guarantee the same number of through lanes on 60% of the corridor, and the route will have two lanes of automobile traffic in both directions throughout. These are not skinny streets; they already have at least five lanes of traffic running on them. But the BRT would require taking space from cars. There would be some negative consequences for those who currently drive.
Moreover, the opponents note, there is “already bus service along the proposed Amp route… and the buses are not running at capacity!”
Indeed, it is undoubtedly true that Nashville’s recent experience with transit has been far from inspiring. In Davidson County (whose government is shared with the city), 13.3% of families live below the poverty line and 7.6% of households have no vehicle available at all; another 40.3% have just one vehicle available. Yet just 2.1% of the city’s residents take transit to work, representing about 34,000 daily riders. The city’s commuter rail system, the Music City Star, carries just about 900 people per day on average.
But opponents have failed to note the connection between the city’s poor transit service and the demand that would undoubtedly result were better bus services made available. The bus that current serves the city’s West End is scheduled to make the 5 mile trip from downtown to the St. Thomas Hospital in 27 minutes at rush hour — about 10 miles per hour. No wonder few people ride it.
Nonetheless, partially thanks to the support of the Koch Brothers, the state legislature, including both Republican and Democratic members, decided over the past few weeks to make its voice known through legislation. The State Senate passed a bill 27 to 4 that would prohibit center-running transit altogether (most of the Amp would run in the center of the street) and require approval from the State Department of Transportation for dedicated bus lanes. The State House’s equivalent bill would apparently allow for center-running transit, but still require state approval for what is, in the end, a local matter.
Local support for the project, including from the chamber of commerce, has been significant, but not strong enough to push back a hostile state legislature or the local motorists. Thus the rationale behind the mayor’s decision to rid the line of its dedicated lanes in the most controversial areas of the line, in the wealthier West End segment and in front of Mr. Beaman’s car dealership.
One wonders how long the plans for the other dedicated lanes along the corridor will last. Without the dedicated lanes, most of the BRT’s travel time savings, the feature that will make the buses actually attractive to riders, will be lost.
As Daniel Kay Hertz has noted, the popular conversation about appropriate transit investments, in Nashville as much as anywhere, is typically moderated by people who rarely if ever rely on transit. Of course there is opposition to reducing lanes for motorists when virtually everyone who owns a business or runs for office relies entirely on their personal vehicles to get around. How in the world can they be convinced to believe that a BRT project has value?
This phenomenon, which is more than anything else a structural adherence to a pro-automobile transportation policy*, is certainly even more true in a place like Nashville — where decades of sprawl and auto-dependence have wiped out the city’s transit system** — than it is in a major transit market like New York or San Francisco, where similar opposition still pops up all too frequently.
Yet there remains a large, and often potentially underrepresented, share of the population — the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the young, the people who simply don’t want to drive — who would benefit from improved transit, even in a transit-hostile place like Nashville. Who represents their interests?
* One might also refer to it as a structural adherence to the needs and preferences of the wealthy.
** As recently as 1970, 7.3% of Davidson County’s workers used transit to commute.