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VOL. 37 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 14, 2013

Are we really that Amped?

Mayor seems sure we’re getting on board; VU professor explains why we shouldn’t

By Vincent Troia

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For every person charged up over the arrival of The Amp, there seems to be another blowing a fuse over Nashville’s latest alternate transportation plan.

And despite Mayor Karl Dean’s steady public words of optimism about a 2016 launch, the skeptical continue to zap him with questions about funding, route location, ridership estimates and timing for the bus rapid transit project.

Over the last few weeks, whether speaking at the grand opening of Music City Center, the MTA’s Phase Two Summary Presentation for The Amp or in his State of Metro address, Dean remains undaunted.

“We need to keep investing in the things that make this a great place to live and work,” he said. “We need The Amp, and more mass transit like it.”

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of The Amp, a $174 million full-service bus rapid transit (BRT) system, one reason the war of words has intensified might be because the grandiose, long-range plans for mass transit now has a specific target – the MTA-approved, Dean-endorsed 7.1-mile, 12-stop route which runs from East Nashville’s Five Points district to the St. Thomas Hospital on the west side.

Concepts for regional alternative transportation over the last 10 years or more have included commuter rail (train), light rail or streetcars (electric), hybrid buses (alternative fuel/gas) and BRT (combination alternative fuels and electric).

Among the organizations and transit collaborators conducting studies, drawing up plans, and soliciting financial support were the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), Metro Transit Authority (MTA), Regional Transit Authority/Music City Star, the Transit Alliance, Nashville Civic Design Center (and its Plan of Nashville), the Federal Transit Administration, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) and, of course, the Mayor’s Office.

Route location possibilities ranged from Nashville to Gallatin; to Murfreesboro; to Cool Springs; to Lebanon (Music City Star’s line); across Charlotte Avenue; up Gallatin Pike; down Nolensville Pike, and the decided-upon first line – East-West Corridor – where The Amp would run.

Therefore, it wasn’t easy for folks to get their arms around any one concept, or target, to scrutinize or embrace. Until now.

So as some critics, concerned citizens, community leaders, council members and congressmen zero in on this dedicated target, it may be time to take a step back and examine where The Amp began, where it is now, and where it’s heading.

The Amp’s roots

Nashvillians have been slow to embrace the concept of leaving their cars for buses, bikes or rail, but transportation officials and long-range planners have been studying it for years.

During the visioning process of The Plan of Nashville (2002-04), 10 principles emerged “to guide public policy, development practice, urban planning, and design.” Among them were some that resonate strongly in 2013:

  • Re-establish the streets as the principle public space of community and connectivity
  • Develop a convenient and efficient transportation infrastructure
  • Provide for a comprehensive, interconnected greenway and park system
  • Develop an economically viable downtown district as the heart of the region
  • Infuse visual order into the city by strengthening sightlines to and from civic landmarks and natural features

Slowly, these concepts have emerged in small ways: bike lanes, greenways, extended or additional bus routes, a centralized downtown transit hub and the Music City Star.

Evidence that a few of the principles took root can be seen with the creation of The Gulch (and downtown high-rise residences), SoBro development, and the Metro Greenway project.

However, other than construction of Music City Central, the transportation infrastructure principle has lagged.

The seeds of The Amp project were planted with the creation of the 2009 MTA Strategic Transit Master Plan, says Bonna Johnson, press secretary for Mayor Dean.

That plan led to the original Broadway/West End Corridor study by the MPO and the challenge to find the best way or ways to create a more direct connection between downtown and what many generally refer to as the city’s West End or midtown.

MPO’s team was to examine all feasible options, such as modern streetcars, light rail and bus rapid transit.

“For 20 years, our city has been having a conversation about the need for better mass transit – transit that’s as convenient and fast as taking a car,” Dean remarked during his State of Metro address.

“We all realize that as we continue to grow, there’s only so much road-widening we can do.

“We won’t be able to pave our way out of increased traffic congestion forever. But that day is coming sooner than you know.”

MTA’s board chose the West End corridor a year ago after an Alternatives Analysis study (Phase 1 of several), calling it the “region’s Main Street.” MTA figures show the corridor is “home to 170,000 employees, 25,000 residents and 11 million visitors.” The “Main Street” campaign has gained momentum, whether or not most Nashvillians identify with it.

“It’s obvious,” says Jim McAteer, MTA’s director of planning and grants. “It’s the front door. It’s the Main Street. It’s everything Nashville.”

Following the preliminary engineering/environmental analysis that begin April 2012, and included several community forums, it was determined that BRT was the best choice, and the corridor should extend beyond Broadway, over the Cumberland River and into East Nashville.

Figures in the analysis summary put the cost of BRT at as much as $151 million, while light rail, with its necessary track construction, was tagged at $284 million. With funding uncertain, the BRT option was the obvious choice.

Where The Amp is now

MTA has been working from a three-phase timeline:

  • Alternative Analysis, (January 2011-December 2011)
  • Preliminary Engineering/Environmental Analysis, (April 2012-April 2013)
  • Design and Build, (Spring 2013-mid-2015)

On paper, everything is “on schedule.”

“The next phase (final design and engineering) will determine a more exact price tag for The AMP,” Johnson says. “Once Metro knows how much its local share will be, it will be able to finalize a specific method for financing it. No such funding decisions need to be made for a year or more.”

The Mayor’s Office puts the cost of The AMP at about $174 million, a price that would be shared between federal, state and local governments. As much as $75 million – 43 percent of the project’s price tag – would come from the federal government’s Small Starts program, which is a competitive program administered by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

“Mayor Dean’s office and MTA have been communicating with the FTA to apply for this vital funding and are optimistic as a result of those discussions,” Johnson adds.

Additionally, Metro has been working with the Tennessee Department of Transportation and with the Metropolitan Planning Organization, and expects these agencies to contribute a significant portion of the total AMP budget.

Preliminary analysis from the Phase Two Summary Report issued in April suggests $59 million (34 percent) would come from Metro, $34 million (20 percent) from the state (TDOT) and the remaining $5 million (3 percent) from MPO.

MPO is funded by federal grant programs authorized by the U.S. Congress and by contributions from TDOT and local government members.

U.S. Rep Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) surprised many last month when he expressed doubts about the availability of crucial federal funding for the project, citing federal budget problems and sequestration for the halting of many projects.

“I’m a longtime supporter of Mayor Dean and public transit, and I am glad that the Mayor’s staff is working very hard on easing traffic congestion in Nashville,” Cooper said in a statement. “I do have concerns over whether the federal government will have the money to fund it, but that’s not Nashville’s fault.”

When Dean presented his $300 million capital spending plan a few weeks ago he set aside $7.5 million for The Amp to cover the next stage of engineering.

However, the mayor said the money would not be spent until The Amp is accepted into the FTA’s Small Starts program.

On Tuesday, Metro Council approved the spending plan without alterations.

Where’s The Amp Headed?

With the grandiose convention center tucked away, The Amp is a key component of Mayor Dean’s second term. And like the Music City Center, he is aware that money, public support and a green light from Metro Council won’t be easily won.

So Dean is playing both offense and defense.

A recently completed animated online video (thetransitalliance.org/amp/) takes virtual riders along all 12 stops, explaining ticketing kiosks, access to station platforms, giving estimated travel times and illustrating the many on-board “conveniences” of riding The Amp, from its free Wi-Fi and vertical bicycle racks to its real-time information screens and smooth, quiet ride.

Midtown will continue to develop, Dean says, and commute times from St. Thomas to Bridgestone Arena will increase dramatically before The Amp’s 2016 startup.

“In five years, when this new bus rapid transit system is up and running, (and) while cars are taking half an hour to travel across town, The Amp will keep your commute to about 17 minutes,” Dean says.

“Midtown is the highest employment area in Davidson County. If you factor in just the developments we know about today – office buildings, hotels and new residential units that are being built or planned – new growth in the Midtown area over the next five years is going to double the time it takes to travel from West Nashville to downtown.”

MPO’s Phase Two summary report showed commute-hour travel is 16:30 now, but will increase to 32:25 in 2016 without The Amp (27:51 with it) and to 37:10 (without The Amp) or 31:22 (with Amp) by 2022. The Amp’s travel time would be 16:57 in 2016 AND 2022, MPO’s estimate shows.

The Mayor’s Office says engineers have figured out how to keep the same number of “through” lanes for cars, while setting aside dedicated bus lanes along most of the route.

The corridor would be reorganized, adding two dedicated travel lanes along 80 percent of the route for The AMP and emergency vehicles.

On-street parking would be converted to travel lanes, and some minor widening would be done to maintain traffic flow.

“Once the project is completed, 60 percent of the corridor will have the same number of through lanes for motorists that currently exist today,” Johnson says.

The remaining 40 percent – the 2.8-mile stretch from I-440 to I-40/Broadway) will – would have reduced lanes during peak hours (7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m.).

Congestion in that stretch has prompted John Carnes, a West End building owner, to suggest Charlotte Avenue would serve as a better route option.

There are more daily bus riders along that corridor (second only to Gallatin Pike, according to MTA ridership number), and a BRT line there could spur economic growth.

He pitched the idea to Metro Councilman Jason Holleman, who, while supporting BRT, says Carnes makes a good case for a Charlotte route.

Carnes, who owns the West End property that houses Cumberland Transit and several other shops, has helped organize a group that, while supportive of public transit in general, would like to see more discussion about The Amp’s potential effects on West End.

MTA’s McAteer says alternative routes such as Charlotte were considered during the course of the initial study, but the time for that discussion has passed.

“It’s not at a point where it could go down an entirely different road,” he said in a recent interview. “If you’re hearing that Charlotte could be an option, we’re past that.”

At a project update last month, Dean defended the route against a Charlotte Avenue option by noting midtown’s density and its importance for federal funding.

The MTA Board of Directors, in its approval of the route, noted no other corridor in Nashville has the same level of growth, jobs, residents, tourist attractions and other destinations, and that density is critical, both for securing the federal funding that is vital for the project and for ensuring the success of The AMP once the project is complete.

“The Amp would be a first step in a larger, regional transit system,” Dean says. “Once it is proven successful on our densest corridor, we can take this type of service to other places it will be needed.”

The MPO study also alludes to the notion that a true alternative transit line could boost the city’s image.

As people use the line to visit tourist sites, attend Predators and Titans games and take in a concert or some fine dining, those images inevitably would be caught on camera.

Much like the ABC show, Nashville, has splashed a vibrant, glossy image of the city and its skyline, bridges and greenery, The Amp can convey the notion that Nashville is a forward-thinking municipality, one not content on showcasing its traditions.

Still, while The AMP is being heralded as the backbone of the area’s regional mass transit efforts, nothing can move ahead without cash.

Dean has said the city will need the $75 million in federal funds to build the line, but the application won’t be submitted until fall at the earliest, and there will need to be a local funding source that has not been identified.

“It’s difficult to talk specific dates because there are so many variables in this project,” Johnson says.

The Mayor’s Office remains confident, Johnson adds, that all funding will be in before the construction phase. Construction is tentatively set to begin sometime in 2015, with Amp operation starting in 2016.

“This will simultaneously be a transformative moment for Nashville in terms of transportation infrastructure and yet be a drop in the bucket compared to our peers, Austin and Charlotte,” says Thomas O’Connell, current member and former Chair of the MTA Board.

The Mayor’s office echoed that remark in a statement last week.

“About two weeks ago, the Federal Transit Administration announced projects that received funding for Fiscal year 2013, and they included places like Grand Rapids, Michigan; Sacramento, Calif.; and St. Paul, Minnesota, which received $93 million.

“These cities are not our direct competitors, which are cities like Austin or Charlotte, who we get compared to all the time and who are already ahead of us when it comes to mass transit.

“As Mayor Dean said at State of Metro, “If St. Paul can do it, we can – and should – too.”

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